Two letters in the Straits Times forum page on Friday call for the People’s Association (PA) to be more accountable in how it uses public funds, and also for its role in “its service to all Singaporeans and to all elected MPs.”
The calls come after the Auditor General’s Office (AGO) found numerous procurement and accounting lapses in the financial dealings of the association, which is headed by chairman Lee Hsien Loong.
The PA is the umbrella organisation which oversees some 1,800 GROs.
The AGO has also uncovered a case of a party-related transaction in the Admiralty branch of the Citizens’ Consultative Committee (CCC) involving the chairman of the grassroots organisation (GRO).
The chairman, Mr Tonic Oh, was found to have approved two contracts worth S$32,000, between the CCC and a company in which he was also a senior executive; and for approving reimbursement cheques to himself totalling more than S$114,000.
“Apart from cases of conflict of interest in the management of related party transactions, the AGO also found significant errors and omissions in the disbursement of ComCare funds by some Citizens Consultative Committees (CCCs),” human rights organisation, Maruah, said in its letter to the newspaper on Friday.
Besides calling for ComCare funds to be disbursed directly by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), because it said CCC “members are not trained in social work”, Maruah also raised concerns about “the close ties between grassroots organisations and the Government.”
“The PA works exclusively with advisers appointed by the Government instead of all elected MPs, even though it receives over $500 million of government funds for its work,” Maruah said. “Members of grassroots organisations are also expected to be loyal to government appointees instead of all elected representatives.”
It added that the “very structure of the PA needs to be re-examined to ensure that it serves the needs of all Singaporeans.”
“We call for an investigation to look into the role of the PA in its service to all Singaporeans and to all elected MPs, as well as an examination of its training of staff and volunteers to ensure accountability in the disbursement of funds and services,” Maruah said.
Mr Clement Chung, whose letter to the Straits Times was also published on Friday, referred to the same AGO report and said it was “surprising to see the extent of such lapses across different ministries and offices.”
“As highlighted in the Auditor-General’s report, since ‘audits are conducted on a test check basis, they do not reveal all irregularities and weaknesses’,” Mr Chung wrote. “This means that the public has no idea of the extent of such lapses in the utilisation of public funds.”
He said that it was “a concern that both the external and the internal auditors of these ministries and offices did not detect the lapses and rectify them.”
“The ministries and offices with such lapses should provide a more concrete response as to how these will be prevented in future, instead of just a few lines on improving or strengthening their controls,” he said.
In 2013, when the AGO report for that year was published, there were also concerns raised by members of the public over the number of financial and procurement irregularities of public bodies.
For example, the National Research Foundation (NRF), chaired by deputy prime minister Teo Chee Hean, was given a scathing indictment by the AGO for lax practices.
“NRF had breached Government procurement principles of transparency and open and fair competition,” the AGO report said. It found the NRF provided “weak grounds for waiving competition” during the tender process for the contract to construct its new building. The Ago found that “there was also no assurance that value for money was achieved.”
The NRF was found to have overpaid honorariums to the tune of S$467,000 to three losing submissions of proposal plans.
The AGO report prompted letters to the press as well.
“Almost all of the irregularities cited in the news report appeared to suggest potential contravention of the Prevention of Corruption Act,” Mr Cheng Shoong Tat wrote to the newspapers. “As the Auditor-General is not equipped for criminal investigations, should he not avail himself of the expertise of the CPIB?”
In its reply to Mr Cheng’s letter, the AGO said then, “Where circumstances warrant it, the AGO would refer cases to the relevant authorities, including the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, for further investigation.”
The matter was also raised in Parliament by several MPs, including the Workers’ Party’s Non-constituency MP (NCMP), Gerald Giam, who posed the question of the CPIB being brought in to further investigate these lapses to Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
The DPM said then that “in the last two years, 60 officers and supervisors have been counselled, reprimanded or issued warning letters, depending on the severity of the lapse.”
“Where warranted, officers were penalised in their performance bonuses or increments,” Mr Tharman added.
“There have been cases in previous years where AGO has basis to suspect corrupt or fraudulent intent. It refers all such cases to the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) or the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) for further investigation.
“In fact in some of the cases in the last five years – not this year’s report but previous years’ – there was reason to suspect that there might be some fraudulent or corrupt intent. In those instances, AGO refers the cases to either the Commercial Affairs Department or CPIB. That, in fact, is being done.”
In the case of the chairman of the Admiralty CCC, however, the PA had apparently done its own “internal panel investigation”, concluded its probe in less than two weeks, and had concluded that there was no financial fraud involved.
Minister of National Development, Khaw Boon Wan, said that he was “glad” that there was “no evidence of dishonesty” involved in Mr Oh’s case.
However, questions were raised about the opaque manner in which the so-called “internal panel investigation” was conducted, where no reports were made public, or how exactly the investigation was done and who were in fact the investigators.
The PA later also announced that it was setting up a three-person “review” committee to improve “its financial and procurement rules.”
The three-person committee is made up of its own grassroots leaders.