Today newspaper’s story about the prosecution of the officer behind NParks’ Brompton folding bikes purchase merely hinted at the origins to the case. It said that there had been “questions over whether the agency got value for its purchases.” By comparison, the news story carried more words about National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan ordering an audit last year, and how the ministry “said it had uncovered some discrepancies suggesting the possibility of bias in the procurement”.
Reading it, I became concerned that the real history of the case was being erased in preference to a new version that gave more credit to Khaw’s alertness and intervention and to the ministry’s internal rigour, than was deserved.
Memories can be short. Just the other day, I overheard two university students chatting. One mentioned T T Durai. The other asked, “Who’s that?” The first then said something about him being the central figure in the National Kidney Foundation corruption case. The second was still none the wiser. “What case is that?” she asked.
With that incident in mind, I feel it is important to create a concise record — “concise” is relative, of course, and it’s 2,900 words here — of what happened in the Brompton bikes case before it is quietly erased. The case is a salutary example of the positive effect of digital media and crowd intelligence. It is important to have this record at hand when the ruling party next boasts about their wonderful record of good governance or when it next demonises social media and its freedoms.
The National Parks Board (NParks) wanted bicycles for its officers so that they could patrol our city parks. They wanted foldable bikes so that its officers could transport them on our metro system. A tender was called on Wednesday 25 January 2012, which happened to be the third day after Chinese New Year (Monday, 23 January) and when many businesses remained shut. It closed just six days later (actually, only 3 working days), on Monday 30 January 2012. These details, however, didn’t emerge until a little later in the controversy.
The decision to purchase the bikes came to public attention with a news report in the Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao on 22 June 2012, which reported that NParks had purchased 26 UK-made Brompton bikes at $2,200 each from a company called BikeHop. This report was highlighted on Hardwarezone (see thumbnail image at right) and a lively discussion quickly followed. Much of that discussion focussed on why NParks needed such high-end bikes, and why foldable bikes made in Taiwan, said to be cheaper, were not purchased instead.
It is possible that similar discussion took place on other forums — the Zaobao report alludes to this. Within Hardwarezone itself, there is a brief mention (in a subsequent post) of a parallel discussion on the Channel NewsAsia forum, but I have not been able to find it.
Within 14 hours of the first post on Hardwarezone, another member of the forum raised the question of the bidding process. “I would really like to see the competitive bidding process, if there is one,” wrote snap99. Interesting, isn’t it? The purchase decision had been slowly winding its way within NParks over five months, and nobody seemed to have raised a similar question.
More discussion on the process ensued, with participant kiatkiat asking what happened to the ‘three quotations’ rule? This suggests that at some point, it was disclosed that there had been only one quotation.
Late evening, 26 June 2012, a message from DigiNEXX, the official distributor of Bromptons was re-posted onto Hardwarezone. It had originally been posted on the lovescyclingsg Facebook fan page. I believe DigiNEXX has since renamed itself Mighty Velo.
This message pointed out that sellers of folding bikes would not normally anticipate a government purchase — how often after all, does the government buy such equipment? They can’t be expected to spend time looking at the government tender portal GeBiz on a regular basis. It stands to reason therefore, that if a government agency wanted to purchase something unusual like this, the agency should have sent a message out to various distributors in advance alerting them to an upcoming tender.
Sounds like common sense and good practice to me. Yet, it hadn’t been done.
The message also flagged the issue of NParks buying from a party (BikeHop) that is not the official distributor of Bromptons in Singapore. Immediately one wonders about after-sales servicing and support — again, a question that didn’t appear to have been raised within NParks itself.
In the early hours of 27 June, Hardwarezone member SIM37_ posted a series of images, since deleted. I can’t now know what those images were, but perhaps they were the relevant screenshots from the GeBiz procurement portal. If anyone has these images now, could you share them with me?
This is exactly why I am concerned. Sources can be so easily erased. It is important to archive the real story before it’s too late.
Within a week, public suspected due diligence not exercised
By 30 June, the interested public was reaching a conclusion. “Due diligence apparently was not exercised,” wrote Kiwi8. He also references a story on The New Paper (dated 29 June) which, today, is not easily available to the public. It’ll take a determined researcher to dig it up. (Is it even possible? The last time I looked, The New Paper’s online version carried only abridged versions of its print stories.) There is however a New Paper story archived on AsiaOne, bylined Benson Ang and dated 1 July 2012. I don’t know if this is the same article being referred to, although the date is different.
Minister compelled to address the issue
Khaw Boon Wan was finally roused to address the issue on 4 July 2012. In a blogpost, he wrote:
Second: how was the particular brand, Brompton, chosen? NParks clarified that it had no particular brand in mind. It was open to considering all brands. Hence, the quotation on the Government website adopted general specifications to ensure that as many dealers as possible could come in.
Unfortunately, at the close of the quotation, only one vendor responded with two options, offering Brompton and another brand (at a higher price). NParks made some research, tested the equipment and after noting that the Brompton bid price was lower than the listed retail price of the same model, proceeded with the procurement.
Cyclists who are familiar with foldable bikes assured me that a Brompton bike, while costing more upfront, is durable and requires less maintenance, especially if heavy usage is anticipated. Its unique folding mechanism also makes it easy to carry and store. This is a useful feature for the female staff.
I have accepted NParks’ explanation.
It looks like NParks has bought the right equipment. However, it also looks like NParks might have gotten a better deal if there was greater participation in this quotation. I have asked MND staff to discuss this case with our agencies, to see if there are lessons which we can draw from this case. In all purchases we should always satisfy the criteria of “value for money” when public funds are involved.
You’d notice that his reaction was to defend NParks and its purchase of the bikes. He did concede however that “greater participation” among vendors would have been better — but then again, could he have argued with a straight face the opposite? That one bidder is good enough? Khaw said he would ask his ministry staff to “discuss this case” with the agencies involved and to draw “lessons” from it. Very mild words.
NParks defends itself, saying it had “adhered to procedures”
Up to this point, Straits Times had not breathed a word about the controversy. Only after Khaw’s blogpost was published did the Straits Times report on the matter (5 July 2012, Khaw okay with NParks’ purchase of $2,200 bikes, by Jennani Durai).
This is very typical of this newspaper — it waits to be sure that the government is prepared to live with airing an issue before the newspaper will cover it, and even then, leads the story with the government’s point of view (as you can see from the headline used), not the criticism, which is mentioned almost as an afterthought.
Following this story, Straits Times carried two letters to the editor, on 7 July 2012, to which the CEO of NParks Poon Hong Yuen replied, as published in the newspaper on 14 July 2012.
We thank the writers for last Saturday’s feedback (‘Seeking clarity over $2,200-bike purchase’ by Mr Tan Buck Yam; and ‘Shocked by $2,200 price tag’ by Mr Thong Kok Kheong and ‘Target price should have been less than $1,000’ by Mr Wong Kah Khoon, both on Forum Online).
As a public agency, we are aware of our duty to ensure value for money when public funds are involved. We acknowledge that we could have handled this purchase better.
Upon closing of the quotation, we received two offers from one vendor, both of which met our specifications. We chose the cheaper model of bicycle offered as the price quoted was lower than the retail price, and within our estimated budget.
In hindsight, we could have set a longer quotation period, and considered recalling the quotation when only one vendor made a bid.
All three writers asked why foldable bicycles were needed.
Productivity enhancement was a major consideration as our officers’ workload has increased significantly. For example, we have increased tree inspection frequency by at least 30 per cent due to adverse weather patterns, and opened up another 50km of park connectors in the past two years.
We had to find ways to boost productivity as an alternative to hiring more people.
Our staff used to take public transport and walk to various locations to inspect roadside trees and park connectors.
As an alternative, we introduced non-foldable bicycles, but we needed a van to ferry these around.
With foldable bicycles, staff can use public transport to reach various locations, and cycle within their work sites, halving inspection times and delivering $600 of savings per month per officer.
We believe it is important to equip our staff with the right tools to perform their work well. As our staff cycle 30km to 40km daily, sometimes over rough terrain, we require good foldable bicycles that are compact, lightweight and durable.
To ensure that the appropriate equipment is procured, we also tested foldable bikes of different sizes and makes on public transport.
Prevailing government procurement guidelines require agencies to put up purchases up to $70,000 through an open invitation-to-quote process via GeBIZ, which is open to all vendors. This process is more transparent than notifying a few vendors to quote, as suggested by Mr Tan.
We adhered to the procedures by putting up specifications on GeBIZ over a six-day period, including four working days. We did not indicate any brands in our quotation.
We will work with the Ministry of National Development to draw lessons from this purchase.
Poon Hong Yuen
Chief Executive Officer
National Parks Board (NParks)
He too stoutly defended the procurement process and outcome.
At about the same time, there was an article in The Online Citizen on the subject. Unfortunately, it is now irretrievable. I get an “Error 404” when I try. This is how frustrating it is — it’s only a little more than a year, and historical information is already lost. [Update, 4 October 2013: a reader left a comment to say that the article is still accessible. Indeed, it is now. I think The Online Citizen restored it after I posted this.]
Ripping away the cover
The same day that the Straits Times published Poon Hong Yuen’s press reply, an intrepid sleuth ripped away the cover of the case. Singaporean1st published on Hardwarezone his lengthy investigative report, which for the first time pointed out that two employees of NParks were among a circle of friends around BikeHop owner Lawrence Lim. In case this detailed post is later taken down, I am archiving a screen capture of it here (click thumbnail at right).
I believe it was the first time anyone linked the case to NParks Assistant Director Bernard Lim. It even provided a photo of him:
With this superb investigative report in the public domain, what is there left for the ministry to do?
Government owns up
Eleven days later, the ministry owned up. As can be seen from a news story archived on AsiaOne, dated 25 July 2012:
Brompton bikes purchase reported to CPIB
The purchase of 26 foldable Brompton bikes by the National Parks Board (NParks) has been reported to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).
The Straits Times reported that the Ministry of National Development (MND) confirmed to the paper that it reported the matter to the CPIB.
The officer in charge of the deal, assistant director of the Park Connector Network Mr Bernard Lim, has been suspended until further notice.
The ministry also said Mr Khaw Boon Wan had told a ministry internal audit team to work with NParks to review the purchase of the bicycles.
The amount spent of the purchase raised some eyebrows, with many Singaporeans questioning if the Brompton bikes, costing $2,200 each, were too expensive.
NParks had bought the foldable British-brand bikes for its officers to use on patrols.
Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan had earlier defended the purchase of the bicycles but called for an audit to be carried out last month to review the purchase to ascertain NParks’ justification and to see if its procurement process could be improved.
The audit found that “the reasons for purchasing the foldable bikes to enhance work productivity of NParks field staff were valid”, but “it had also uncovered some discrepancies which, although inconclusive by themselves, suggested the possibility of bias in the procurement.”
There’s a subtle bit of revisionist history here. Look carefully, and you’ll notice the first use of the word “audit”. In the penultimate paragraph, the Straits Times wrote that Khaw “had earlier . . . called for an audit to be carried out”. But if you looked back at Khaw’s blogpost, he didn’t say anything quite like that. He blogged that he had “asked MND staff to discuss this case with our agencies, to see if there are lessons which we can draw . . .” That doesn’t sound like the same thing.
CEO Poon of NParks, in his letter to Straits Times, 14 July 2012, likewise made no mention of any audit in progress.
On Bernard Lim being suspended, Channel NewsAsia reported thus :
A slightly different text version of the Channel NewsAsia report (dated 25 July 2012) was posted on the SPUG forum. Although a hyperlink was provided in the SPUG post, it no longer leads to the CNA report. So the best I can do is to archive a screen capture of the SPUG post (at left).
So there you have it. Bernard Lim Yong Soon, 42, is now facing trial.
The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau could not find evidence of corruption, news reports say. So what he’s charged with is that of providing false information to public officials. Presumably, he allegedly lied when he was asked about his relationship with Lawrence Lim of BikeHop.
Lawrence Lim too may be charged, if he has not been already. Today newspaper’s story (28 September 2013) says that Bernard “also faces another charge of abetting Bikehop Singapore Director Lawrence Lim Chun How to lie about their friendship to the [ministry’s] internal auditors”. If Bernard is charged with abetment, one would expect Lawrence to be charged with lying.
Empowering the public is essential for good governance
It is important not to forget that this case was blown open only because net-savvy Singaporeans went digging — a fact that the government and its loyal mainstream media will want to bury as soon as possible. They will want to take credit for uncovering wrongdoing when it is not theirs to take.
Consider this: Bernard Lim, as an assistant director, isn’t very high up in NParks’ heirarchy. Assistant directors are Tier 4c officers, as can be seen from NParks’ organisation chart. Despite there being several layers of superiors who could have asked pointed questions (and, for that matter, colleagues and junior staff who could have blown the whistle), NParks themselves did not sense anything wrong with the deal in the five months they worked on it. Nor did the Ministry of National Development, which had oversight of this agency. The complacency is obvious.
Yet within hours of the purchase being announced on Zaobao, the public noticed it smelled fishy. Within days, they spotted how strange the tender was. Within weeks, one persistent guy figured out the suspects. That’s crowd intelligence for you.
However, for every case like this one that is uncovered, how many go undetected? One can’t help but wonder.
Our government keeps boasting about good governance. What this case shows is that good governance is always a work in progress. But certain conditions make it easier to achieve because these conditions empower a wider set of scrutineers, keeping malfeasance in check: transparency, freedom of access to information and freedom of speech. Each time our government attacks any of these — and you will recall Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-jin’s sneering reference to “keyboard warriors”, late June 2013 — what they are doing is to undermine good governance, not to promote it.
So the next time they demonise the free-wheeling new media, just shout back, “Brompton bikes”.