In any real democracy, there would likely be demands for an independent commission of enquiry. Wrong-doing within the ranks of an anti-corruption agency is serious stuff. Any government that truly aims to live up to the highest standards of accountability will agree to one.
Instead, we have a longish statement from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that contains no information as to how it occurred. All it gives is a brief narrative of what it has done since the day a tip-off was received. Yes, it does say that “The Prime Minister appointed an independent review panel to look at how this case happened, and to strengthen the financial procedures and audit system in CPIB to prevent a recurrence,” and that “The recommendations of the panel are being implemented.” However, the findings of the panel are not published.
In any case, calling it “independent” in what is effectively a non-disclosure press statement is a far cry from satisfying the public that it was independent. Our government plays with words.
Actually, only the first 4 paragraphs, comprising 137 words, or 25 percent of the total length of 542 words in the press statement, constituted the narrative. The remaining 75 percent was devoted to asserting ad nauseum that all is still well, the government is honest and that “cases involving public officers have remained low and quite stable over the last five years”.
In other words: All remains in great shape. Citizens don’t need to know anything more. You have enough reason to trust us (the PAP government) without reservation.
A truly independent commission of enquiry would hold its hearings in public. Evidence would be taken from relevant persons at those hearings. Like a coroner’s inquest — see my previous article — it would find fact impartially and in the full glare of public scrutiny. It’s that open process that creates trust, not self-serving assurances slathered over opaque statements.
The day Edwin Yeo was charged in court, the media provided a glimpse of the facts:
An assistant director of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) has been charged with 21 offences, including misappropriation and forgery.
39-year-old Edwin Yeo Seow Hiong is accused of eight counts of misappropriation totalling more than S$1.7 million.
Of that sum, almost S$1.1 million was meant for goods and services for his Field Research and Technical Support department. S$470,300 was meant for the department’s operational expenses, and S$151,900 for unspecified purposes.
On top of that, Yeo is accused of misappropriating S$46,700 worth of vehicles — two Honda Civic cars and two Honda motorcycles.
Yeo also faces one count of forgery.
— Channel NewsAsia, 24 July 2013, CPIB assistant director charged with misappropriating S$1.7m. Link.
Of the sum embezzled, only $67,000 has been recovered.
What I find staggering is that the alleged offences took place over four years 2008 to 2012, and even includes “misappropriating” two cars and a motorcycle. The Straits Times reported that it was a whistle-blower who alerted the CPIB to the case, not that it was discovered in the course of an annual audit. This seriously undermines confidence in audits of government agencies. How can large fixed assets like cars go missing without anyone noticing?
It’s not as if the CPIB is a large sprawling department. It operates out of a four- or five-storey building — I have been inside — the size of a small hotel or polyclinic (pic at right).
There are additional questions , e.g.
- Were there others within and without the CPIB who abetted the embezzlement?
- What cases had been assigned to Edwin Yeo to work on, which may now be tainted?
- How many of those cases had previously gone to trial, with persons convicted, and should we not review those convictions?
Perhaps more details will emerge at Yeo’s trial. Then again, perhaps not. He may choose to plead guilty and the case concluded within an hour, leaving the public none the wiser what really happened.
At the same time, the defendant has to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Maybe Edwin Yeo didn’t do it; maybe someone else did. In fact, all we can sort-of-confidently say at this point is that over $1.7 million has gone missing. And that is precisely what’s so frustrating about the opacity thrown over the case: more important than knowing the details of what Edwin Yeo did or his lifestyle, which no doubt the media will fixate on, the public interest chiefly lies in how the monies went missing and why controls and audits were so lax that they were not detected. In other words, how deep are the flaws?
The PMO statement concluded with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean saying: “I have asked the Head of the Civil Service to share the study’s findings with his officers and to also make the key findings public. I understand that he will be doing so by the end of the week.”
It is Saturday today, and I have still seen no news of those “key findings” in the media or on the PMO website. Or was a frustratingly superficial story in Today newspaper it? (If the story is no longer available on Today’s website, click the thumbnail.)
Is this what passes for accountability in this place?
I see that the Straits Times 27 July, on page A8, has a story about a “new study” that was “commissioned by the Prime Minister’s Office”. It says that “the study was initially ‘classified’ but the PMO made it public yesterday due to ‘public interest’.”
Going by what is contained in the Straits Times story, the study is underwhelming — and that’s putting it kindly. It is certainly not what I was led to expect. Instead of being an investigative report into what went wrong, it isn’t even related to the Edwin Yeo case. It is a secondary school level analysis trying to discern some pattern about public officers who in the past have been the subject of graft or similar cases. See this table published with the article:
Unsurprisingly, the story includes a quote from Peter Ong, the head of the civil service: “our system as a whole remains sound”. With that reaffirmation of the faith, is $1.7 million officially no more an issue?