Chan says no conflict of interest for appointing Heng Chee How’s wife as new Auditor General, really?

Speaking in Parliament yesterday (28 Feb), Minister-in-Charge of the Civil Service Chan Chun Sing said there was no conflict of interest if the spouse of a minister were to be appointed as the Auditor General.

The Minister was responding to an earlier Parliamentary question filed by Worker’s Party MP Sylvia Lim. Ms Lim had asked Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to “confirm that the current (Auditor General) appointee is the spouse of a Senior Minister of State” without bringing up any names.

The current Auditor General Goh Soon Poh – who took over as the new Auditor General earlier this month – is the wife of Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How.

Ms Lim argued that Parliament and the public are “all familiar with the annual audit reports of the AGO. They often contain embarrassing finding and may uncover misconduct. The AGO reports are a key measure by the government towards accountability and a prudent use of public funds”.

She then asked, “Did the Prime Minister consider how appointing the spouse of a Senior Minister of State will affect the public perception of the independence of the AGO?”

Minister Chan, replying on behalf of PM, said that “the key considerations when identifying candidates include their ability to do the job well, their qualifications and experience, track record, integrity and sense of public service”.

He added that Mdm Goh has 30 years of public sector experience and has been the deputy secretary of two of the largest ministries – Education and Home Affairs – and would be “familiar with governance matters related to finance, procurement and human resources”.

Mr Chan also said that the Auditor-General is appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister and the chairman of the Public Service Commission. The President will then consult the Council of Presidential Advisers, “which provides an additional level of scrutiny and advice”, he added.

Lapses in MINDEF and potential conflict of interest

In the past, the Auditor-General Office (AGO) did find lapses in MINDEF from time to time. For example, in the latest AGO’s report for 2017/18, AGO found various lapses in MINDEF’s operations.

In the audit of MINDEF’s electronic procurement system, AGO found that the required periodic reviews on user access rights were not carried out. In some cases, the delay in removing the unneeded access rights was as long as nearly 11 years.

In addition, AGO found 197 instances with procurement value totaling $2.8 million, where 33 authorised users with rights to perform procurement activities might have shared their privilege accounts with unauthorised persons. In 19 of these instances, the user accounts had indeed been used by unauthorised persons to perform procurement activities.

Then, there were cases of over-payments to contractor. For example, $200,000 (27%) out of $700,000 were overpaid to a grass-cutting company engaged by MINDEF.

Hence, the important question is, would Auditor General Goh Soon Poh, wife of Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How, tell her husband at home about any future lapses in MINDEF uncovered by her office, while her people are still investigating the lapses in Heng’s ministry?

And what would Heng do in this case? Report her to the Attorney General to prosecute her for breaching the Official Secrecy Act or pretend he didn’t hear about it?

Perhaps Minister Chan should ponder these questions before saying that there would be no conflict of interest if the spouse of a minister were to be appointed as the Auditor General.