The news story came across as incomplete as building half a house. While it detailed the key negative findings of the Auditor-General’s report, nothing was said about officers being made accountable for the errors and penalised accordingly. This will strike many Singaporeans as “business as usual”, or in Singapore political parlance, yet another example of “let’s move on”.
In a letter to the editor of the Straits Times (Forum, 18 October 2011), Ephraim Low asked in somewhat more forgiving language, referring to previous years’ findings of the Auditor-General: “What have agencies that were flagged in previous reports done to ensure that effective controls are in place today? Where are these corrective measures documented? Are they publicly available?”
In contrast, the same 18 October edition of the Straits Times had a report that two senior officers of Walmart China had quit in the wake of a scandal. It is not clear though, what responsibility they had over the false labelling of ordinary pork as “organic”, which triggered raids by city health authorities. Was it merely lack of supervision or were the senior executives part of the scam? Two employees were arrested, presumably not the same two who resigned, while Chongqing authorities closed ten Walmart stores temporarily and fined the retail chain US$420,000. See Wall Street Journal report. The fine is equivalent to ten times the value of pork sold.
In terms of the value involved in the cases our local Auditor-General has found, they are larger than Walmart’s.
This year, he rapped the Police Coast Guard for its handling of a project to install floating sea barriers at various coastal locations. The project was managed by an external contractor.
The Auditor-General’s Office (AGO) found the pricing of most items was inappropriately determined, by using the costs of other items as proxies. When it obtained the actual prices of two of the items used, it found the Police Coast Guard had been overcharged by about $885,000 – 20 per cent of the amount paid.
It also found that payment was made before the goods were delivered – in breach of financial regulations, and a significant portion of materials paid for did not meet the specifications of the project. The project manager also appeared to have submitted falsified documents to the AGO during its audit.
— Straits Times, 18 October 2011, Auditor-General raps govt agencies, by Tessa Wong
Another incident flagged by the report involved a tender where basic rules of fairness were not adhered to:
One example was the acceptance by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) of a tender which did not meet its specifications. The LTA had issued a tender for a camera system. There was only one bidder and it won the $2.16 million contract. But that firm’s offer did not meet a number of requirements, including that the road camera system be bi-directional and monitor approaching and receding traffic.
The AGO said the LTA should have disqualified the tender, as all tenderers were supposed to have submitted fully compliant offers. As it appeared prepared to lower its requirements, it should have called for a fresh tender to allow more bidders and more competitive pricing.
So, if mis-selling pork to the value of US$42,000 requires that heads should roll, what about losses to the tune of S$885,000 and S$2.16 million?
Just in case action had been taken but not reported in the Straits Times, I checked the website of the Prime Minister’s Office (www.pmo.gov.sg). I regret to report that there has been no public statement on the matter.
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As reported in earlier postings here and based on survey findings, one of the chief concerns of voters in the recent general election which saw the People’s Action Party’s vote share fall to barely 60 percent, was that of governance or accountability. It should be obvious that on this score, the government needs to change its attitude if it is ever to regain public support. Sustaining public suspicion of impunity of civil servants and political officers is not the way to go about it.
The government may say that the responsible officers have been dealt with privately, but that won’t be good enough because to do so sends a different signal: that even when things have gone wrong, the dignity (by now proven undeserved) of senior men and women must be preserved at all cost. They cannot be shamed in public. This itself feeds the notion that the ruling class is a class unto itself; untouchable by ordinary citizens. They may be held to account by their peers, but they shall not be disgraced in the eyes of the hoi polloi.
It further fuels the widespread disgust over high salaries for the political class and their senior civil servants. If they are protected from falling on their swords unlike senior executives in the corporate world, then why should governmental pay be benchmarked to the private sector?
This policy of shielding senior government officers must change. Until it does, all the talk about a more consultative style is just lip service.