Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong

Lawrence Wong and the sound of silence

Mr Lawrence Wong is the minister in charge of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).

According to the Singapore Government Directory website, there are several statutory boards under the purview of the MCCY, namely the Hindu Endowments Board, the Majlis Ugama Islam, Singapura, Sport Singapore, the National Arts Council, the National Heritage Board, and the People’s Association (PA).

S'pore Govt Directory website
S’pore Govt Directory website

The People’s Association (PA) was recently in the news after the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO) released its annual audit report on 15 July.

The PA is the umbrella organisation which oversees some 1,800 grassroots organisations (GROs), including Citizens Consultative Committees (CCC), Community Clubs (CC), Neighbourhood Committees (NC) and Residents’ Committees (RCs).

In its report, the AGO flagged numerous accounting irregularities in the PA. In fact, the AGO report was rather damning – even though it had only conducted “test checks” on the 115 GROs out of the 1,800, which is a mere 6.4 per cent of the total number of GROs under the PA.

And yet, the AGO had already found a whopping 30 per cent of them with financial or accounting irregularities involving tens of millions of dollars.

TOC
TOC

Give that the PA’s 2015 expenditure was raised from $500 million to $1 billion, calls were made for a full audit to be conducted on the PA before such huge amount of funds are disbursed to it. (See here: “Forum letter calls for investigation into role of People’s Association“)

It is also worth noting that this is the first time that the AGO has audited the PA all these years, and that in the last decade or so, the PA’s own auditors have given it “adverse opinion” ratings in their reports.

It is thus inevitable that comparisons would be made between the AGO report on the PA (and other government departments and statutory boards) and the AGO’s audit of the opposition Workers’ Party town council, the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC).

The accusations which were hurled at the AHPETC by government ministers, particularly Mr Wong, would be the same ones which could be directed at the PA – “the failure to manage related party transactions and conflicts of interest”, as WP’s Sylvia Lim said in her court affidavit on Monday.

Referring to the AGO report on government ministries and stat boards, Ms Lim said:

“Given the government/MND’s zeal in taking AHPETC to task, I trust that the government and the MND will follow up, in a similar manner, with all of the various government departments and statutory boards that have been cited for lapses in the AGO’s Report; and act with similar vigour, by withholding grants and commencing legal proceedings.”

Indeed, the government should be treating all such matters in the same manner.

Wong's article in the Straits Times, Dec 2014
Wong’s article in the Straits Times, Dec 2014

But the government, and in particular Mr Wong, have been completely silent on the AGO audit of its ministries and departments, including the PA.

In an article published in the Straits Times in December last year, it was Mr Wong himself who decried the WP’s alleged “sound of silence” over questions about its town council.

It is thus strange and indeed ironic that it is now Mr Wong who is silent about the AGO report on the financial and accounting irregularities on the PA, the stat board which his ministry oversees.

Incidentally, the chairman of the PA’s Board of Management is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Mr Wong is also a member of the Board.

In his December article, Mr Wong said, referring to his ministry’s oversight powers on charities,

Lawrence Wong, MCCY Minister
Lawrence Wong, MCCY Minister

“From time to time, some charities get into trouble because of the mismanagement of funds and poor governance.

“The dishonest ones would choose to stay silent, hoping that it would go unnoticed.

“But, eventually, questions grow too loud, and the issues burst into the open, as they rightly should.”

Indeed.

The issues with regard to the PA have now “burst into the open, as they rightly should”.

So, where is the similar vigour with which the government has gone after AHPETC for its alleged lapses? Why is the government so silent about the PA’s widespread accounting irregularities which involve more public funds than AHPETC’s?

If 30 per cent of your test sample is already found to be faulty, wouldn’t you want to conduct a full audit?

And isn’t not doing so a complete dereliction of duty and responsibility, especially given the hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds involved?

Shouldn’t the MCCY, just as the MND did with regard to AHPETC, request the Ministry of Finance to order the AGO to conduct a full and thorough audit of the PA, and all the grassroots organisations?

But nothing of the sort has happened.

All is silent, despite all the grand words in Mr Wong’s December article, waxing lyrical about transparency and what not.

Mr Wong’s article, and with a little tweak, could in fact be one which is talking about the PA itself.

Here is how his article would read, with some words or phrases changed to refer to the PA instead:

Some members of PA Board of Management.
Some members of PA Board of Management.

Lawrence Wong and his sound of silence

One of the responsibilities of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth is to regulate charities.

When it come to charities, sometimes wanting to do good is not enough.

When you are responsible for public monies, whether donations or fees, good intentions are not enough to prevent bad outcomes.

From time to time, some charities get into trouble because of the mismanagement of funds and poor governance. The dishonest ones would choose to stay silent, hoping that it would go unnoticed. But, eventually, questions grow too loud, and the issues burst into the open, as they rightly should.

In recent weeks, the centre of attention has not been a charity, but a statutory board, specifically, the People’s Association (PA).

In the last 10 years, the PA has been consistently flagged “adverse opinion” for its grassroots organisations’ non-submission of financial accounts.

In fact, recently PA has faced repeated questions – from its own auditor, the public and now the Auditor General’s Office (AGO).

The situation worsened sharply this year. The AGO reported a whopping 30 per cent of the 115 GROs it audited having financial irregularities. This comes on the back of at least 10 years of poor rating given to the PA by its own auditors.

The AGO’s findings came suddenly, without warning.

After that, silence.

Something is seriously wrong.

The public is naturally concerned. They continue to query PA several times.

But so far, all we have got from PA are prevarications, non-answers, and sweeping assurances that things will be all right.

It reminds me of an erratic TV set that works initially. After a while, the image starts to flicker, and then with an almighty bang, the screen goes black. Eventually, a message appears on the screen: Please don’t adjust your controls. Your TV is working fine; the picture will return shortly.

But nothing more happens.

Recently, the PA explained that the AGO findings were due to grassroots leaders not understanding the PA’s financial rules.

But PA has had its own auditors audit its account for more than a decade with “adverse opinion” ratings. Why didn’t the PA look into the issue then?

Anyway, why is the PA not making public its investigation, after supposedly establishing the facts, and informing the public?

Perhaps, there is a good explanation for all this.

But maybe, just maybe, there are bigger problems lurking behind the tangled web?

The PA’s expenditure estimate this year was increased from $500 million to $1 billion. Given the AGO findings, I am not the only one queasy about goings-on in the PA.

In fact, the issue is not just the financial irregularities, but the governance and supervision of the GROs, and what the PA Board of Management is doing (or not) to resolve the matter.

Nobody knows – which is precisely the problem.

Every year, the PA receives hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money through the Government.

Residents and Singaporeans deserve to know that their money is being properly managed and spent by the GROs, and that everyone who is supposed to be accountable is, indeed, accountable.

But unless PA starts being transparent and accountable and answers questions, Singaporeans may never know the truth.

When pressed recently, PA said that it was setting up a Grassroots Finance Review Committee to prevent a recurrence of procurement lapses flagged in the AGO report.

There is a disturbingly familiar pattern in how the Government responds whenever questions are raised about its conduct.

It has happened again and again – poor workmanship in BTO and DBSS flats, public transport breakdowns, wages and jobs, etc.

First, its leaders say it is not a big deal. Then, when they can no longer pretend it is not a big deal, they blame someone else – the flat buyers, commuters, lazy or choosy PMETs. Then, when their excuses are exposed one by one, they say “we are looking into the matter”, or that things will be explained – in “due time”. And then, more silence.

Perhaps, the PA hopes that by lying low and keeping its head down, the matter will go away. The public may forget, or even better, not notice.

But it will not, and the public will not. Instead, the PAP Government’s credibility and integrity are slowly but surely draining away.

After many residents and commentators in the media raised questions, I was expecting the Minister in charge of the PA, Lawrence Wong, to issue a prompt and full reply, and end his long and damaging silence.

Sadly, nothing of the sort has happened.

Instead, there is silence – one that is growing more deafening by the day.