How the Government has handled incidents involving the People’s Association (PA), the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) and the Action Information Management (AIM) company is a matter of concern.
The running thread under all these incidents is the opacity with which controversies around them have been managed by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) Government.
Opacity surrounding the People’s Association
Let’s start with the PA, the umbrella grassroots organisation (GRO) which oversees some 1,800 smaller and individual GROs. These include the Citizens’ Consultative Committee (CCC), which is the apex GRO in the grassroots.
The chairman of the PA is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who also happens to be the secretary general of the PAP.
On 15 July, the Auditor General’s Office (AGO) released its report to the public.
In it, the PA was highlighted for numerous accounting irregularities, including how a CCC chairman in Admiralty had approved CCC contracts worth $32,000 to companies in which he was a senior executive, and how he had signed reimbursements cheques to himself totalling more than S$114,000.
It is interesting to note that the AGO had submitted its report to the President on 1 July, but the report was released to the public only two weeks later on 15 July.
Even the media, which are controlled by the Government, seem to have been informed of it before the public.
On the same day that the report was published online, giving the public access to it, the media reported the irregularities in the PA found by the AGO, but the media also reported how the PA had already conducted an “internal Panel investigation” and found, in the words of National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, “no evidence of dishonesty” on the part of the then unnamed CCC chairman.
Mr Khaw is the Member of Parliament (MP) for Sembawang GRC, which includes the ward of Admiralty.
Another PAP MP of the area, Vikram Nair, also attested to the integrity of the CCC chairman, later revealed to be Mr Tonic Oh.
Mr Nair too said he was glad that there was no “dishonesty” on the part of Mr Oh.
Whether there is dishonesty or not is besides the point. And in any case, if there was nothing wrong in what Mr Oh had done, why did he need to tender his resignation as CCC chairman, as in fact he did later?
Nevertheless, there are more serious questions which seem to have been left unanswered in the haste to right the wrong, as it were.
Indeed, the PA’s so-called “internal investigation” seems to have been done in haste, leaving many many questions in its wake, such as:
- Who exactly were the members of this “investigation panel”?
- How long did it take them to do their “investigation”?
- What did they inspect, who did they talk to, what documents did they peruse?
- How far back did they go in their “investigation” of Mr Oh’s case?
- Who was the panel’s investigation findings submitted to?
- Why is this report not made public?
And as Ms Jeannetter-Chong Aruldoss wrote in an article on The Online Citizen (TOC):
- In light of the large amounts of claims made to the former CCC Chairman, will there be a full audit of all payments made by the CCC to the said CCC Chairman?
- What was the exact nature of the “claims” made? Why was there a need to incur such large “claims” in relation to voluntary work on behalf of the CCC?
- What was the total amount of “claims” made by the CCC to the CCC Chairman, and what were these “claims” for?
None of these questions seem to have been answered, or at least the answers to which are not made public.
The PA itself is chaired by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who has, through the years, demanded and boasted of a government which is transparent.
Indeed, just a few weeks ago, commenting on the return of former NTUC chief, Phey Yew Kok, who is being accused of embezzling funds during his tenure in the NTUC some years ago, PM Lee said:
So, why not have an external, independent auditor or even the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), do a full and thorough investigation into the case of Mr Oh?
Why have an “internal investigation” by the PA and leave more doubts and questions which may bring the organisation, which serves the public, into disrepute?
And as for the PA itself, it receives hundreds of millions of dollars of public money each year to fund its programmes.
For 2015, this was doubled from S$500m to S$1 billion.
If the first-ever audit of the PA by the AGO has uncovered numerous financial accounting discrepancies, wouldn’t the obvious thing to do be to freeze such fundings, call a thorough audit, before one disburses such huge sums to the GROs?
“A much more significant point of concern is this: the AGO audits are conducted on a test check basis, they do not reveal all irregularities and weaknesses,” said Ms Chong-Aruldoss. “In other words, the full extent of the lapses in PA finances and processes highlighted by the AGO Report remains to be ascertained.”
Should precious public funds continue to be given to the PA under such circumstances?
Opacity surrounding the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC)
On 13 July, the Prime Minister – in response to two questions filed in Parliament – disclosed that the EBRC had already been convened “two months ago”.
The revelation took many by surprise as in the last two instances before elections were called, Mr Lee had in fact disclosed the formation of the EBRC the moment he convened it.
This time, however, he didn’t, and kept the nation in the dark for two whole months.
Further, the names of the EBRC members were not disclosed, except for the chairman, who is the Secretary to the PM and the Cabinet, Tan Kee Yong.
Who are the other members?
When TOC wrote to the Elections Department to enquire about these, it was told to refer to the PM’s answer in Parliament.
The PMO’s reply was:
“Please refer to the Prime MInister’s replies to the Parliamentary questions on the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee on 13 July.”
Why the secrecy? Why not give a simple, clear answer to a straightforward question? Do not the public have a right to know these things?
It is puzzling indeed.
TOC has since written to the Prime Minister’s Office to ask for the answers, and we will publish it if or when we have them.
Again, the opacity with which the Government has handled this is disconcerting and should concern Singaporeans.
Opacity surrounding Action Information Management (AIM)
When it was revealed in 2013 that the PAP owns a company, by the name of Action Information Management (AIM), many were surprised.
Could a political party own a company?
But AIM was quite a peculiar kind of company.
It had a paid-up capital of S$2. It didn’t have its own mailing address (its address was the same as the PAP’s headquarters’ in Bedok), it has no office, no website, no staff (except for 3 directors who are also ex-PAP MPs), no hardware, and it is unclear if it even has softwares.
It didn’t seemed to have engaged in any businesses since its inception, and it also didn’t seem to have any experience in managing town councils or the running of any IT systems.
Nonetheless, AIM was deemed by the 14 PAP town councils to be worthy of being awarded a contract to purchase the computer system developed and used by all the 14 PAP town councils.
After selling the system to AIM, the PAP town councils in turn leased it back from the company.
The system was developed at a cost of almost S$25 million, funded by monthly S&CC collections from residents.
It was sold to AIM for a mere S$140,000.
When howls of protest were raised, the PM ordered a review of the sale.
MND was to be the party to look into it.
And it was MND which later found that there was nothing improper about the sale.
The problem here is, of course, the parties involved in AIM and the review.
To put it simply:
- AIM is a PAP company.
- It is founded and helmed by 3 ex-PAP MPs.
- The computer system was developed by 14 PAP town councils.
- The computer system was sold to a PAP company.
- The review was ordered by PM Lee, who is also the secretary general of the PAP.
- The review was carried out by the MND, which is headed by the chairman of the PAP which, in turn, in fact owns AIM.
- The Minister of MND, being also the PAP chairman, then declared the sale proper.
While the sale may indeed have been proper, still it leaves questions about the propriety of having all PAP members involved in all aspects of the company and the review.
In fact, a poll by the Government’s own newspaper, The Straits Times, on the MND review findings, at the time found that:
“While many were not surprised by the findings, most of the 50 polled felt that having the MND do the review affected public perception of the report’s finding, even if it was wholly objective.”
And so, many questions remain about AIM, the sale and the PAP’s involvement and setting up of a privately owned company.
Keeping it all in the family?
So, the question Singaporeans should be asking is: why are such matters of public interest all kept in the family, so to speak?
PA conducts its own investigations and finds “no evidence of dishonesty” in its own satellite GRO?
EBRC is convened but the facts of when and who makes up the committee cannot be revealed?
Review of AIM was conducted by the MND which results the MND minister would have a vested interest in?
I think there should be more transparency in these instances, and the Government should avail itself and its related organisations of independent and public scrutiny in these cases.
Otherwise, a creeping distrust will slowly emerge, and become like a cancer whereby the public’s faith in the impartiality of government actions increasingly becomes corroded and eventually lead to a chasm between the government and its people – if it has not already.
To prevent such a thing from happening (or worsening), the Government should, as a first step, freeze all funds to the PA, call for a thorough and complete audit of all GROs by the AGO and independent third-party auditors, and publish all findings upon completion of the audit.
And then it should also call for an independent audit of the sale of the computer system to AIM.
If, as ministers have often claimed in recent times, that public funds must be protected from misuse, then there is simply no reason for the Government not to call for a complete audit of the PA and AIM.