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NUS student questions student union’s transparency in financial accounts

Disturbed by the lack of transparency in the financial report published by the National University of Singapore Student Union (NUSSU) in its 34th Annual General Meeting (AGM) Report, 2nd year NUS student, Teo Yu Sheng posted his findings of the financial report along with observations of his email communications with the Student Union on a blog post, "NUS Student Union's Finances - A twisted form of transparency".

Teo noted that 2013's operating income of the Student Union was classified under “Other Income,” with no notes explaining the source(s) of income, along with 89% of 2013's operating expenditure was classified under “Other Operating Expenditure,” with no notes explaining what the money is spent on.

Teo then emailed the Student Union, asking if further breakdowns can be provided, so as to improve the transparency in NUSSU’s financial summaries. He also probed further by asking if financial details relating to Rag and Flag Days, the annual projects by the Student Union, were available and if not, why. 

Mr Shermon Ong, the vice-president of NUSSU replied Teo through a series of emails, explaining that NUSSU has little control over the presentation of its financial figures. He added that NUSSU has the unaudited Statement of Accounts for Rag Day but is hesitant to release them into the public domain as the accounts are yet to be audited.

Teo's issue with this is that NUSSU does not disclose the amount it spends organising Rag Day and Flag Day, yet claims to be “very transparent” about the finance records. Teo felt that the student union might have conflated being transparent to the school administration with being transparent to the student body.

"The lack of control that NUSSU has over the presentation of its finances does not diminish the fact that its finances aren't transparent," wrote Teo. "Neither does it grant the Union the right to declare that its finances are transparent (even though the finances might be as transparent as they can be). The lack of control merely absolves NUSSU of most of the fault."

Teo summarised his findings:

  1. NUSSU does not disclose the cost of organising Rag Day and Flag Day in its financial summaries (found in its AGM Reports);
  2. But Mr Shermon Ong, vice-president of NUSSU claims that NUSSU is “very transparent as to the amount [of money] it takes to organise Rag and Flag Day.”
  3. 87% of NUSSU’s 2013 annual Operating Income (S$1.54 million) is left unexplained (NUSSU 34th AGM Report); and
  4. 89% of NUSSU’s 2013 annual Operating Expenditure (S$1.29 million) is left unexplained (NUSSU 34th AGM Report);
  5. But NUSSU insists that its finances are transparent.

The image below shows the account by NUSSU as published in its AGM report. No other accounts are published within the report about NUSSU's income and expenditure.

NUSSU InE

Using the information shown in the above spreadsheet, Teo presented the income and expenditure in a graphical chart to illustrate his point of unexplained income and expenditure of the Student Union.

NUSSU financial summary

Teo pointed out that the issue he has with the Student Union is with the transparency of its finances and not the accuracy of it. He questioned why NUSSU claimed to be transparent when its financial summaries have 87% of its expenses left unexplained.

After the blog post by Teo went viral on social media, NUSSU issued a statement to respond to the "accusations of non-transparency" by Teo on his blog, calling them "less-than-good-faith acts".

"It is unfortunate that Mr Teo Yu Sheng (“Mr Teo”) has chosen to make public his allegations and aspersions about the transparency of Union finances despite our email correspondence still being in progress. Mr Teo asked if it was okay to release our answers into the public domain. We trusted him on that and were in the  midst of drafting a reply to Mr Teo when we discovered, to our surprise, Mr Teo’s post on Medium.com.

Normally, we would not dignify such less-than-good-faith acts with a response. However, since Mr Teo’s post touches on a subject-matter that goes straight to the core of good governance and accountability, we will therefore publish a full-fledged response to his allegations and aspersions to assure the student body that the NUSSU Exco is transparent in our finances. Problematic definition of transparency Mr Teo’s allegations and aspersions rest on a simple premise – as 87% of the Union finances are classified under “Other incomes” and “Other expenditures”, the Union is not transparent in its finances.

Mr Teo’s definition of transparency is problematic. He measures transparency according to the state of  affairs only. If you do not meet a single threshold, you are not transparent, notwithstanding any other matters, circumstances or context that may explain that state of affairs.

Our definition of transparency is more nuanced. Transparency primarily entails a state of mind. Whether someone is transparent or not is really a matter of that person’s subjective intentions. A certain state of  affairs may suggest that person’s intention to be transparent or not, but it is not conclusive. His/her  intention to be transparent is the determinative factor."

NUSSU's full response can be found online.