The separation of public power and private benefit is essential for transparent, effective and honest governance. The Chairman of NEA cannot ask his staff to go and clean his kitchen, or the premises of his sister’s hawker stall, when it gets dirty. The Commissioner of Police cannot ask his officers to set up a road block at the end of his street because he finds the traffic too noisy. The Minister of Community, Culture and Youth cannot just instruct a local museum to display his daughter’s art work. So can the Prime Minister ask a civil servant to write letters on his behalf, and in his support, on the very personal topic of his defamation case against Roy Ngerng? This question matters, and it is the reason Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party is quite right to seek a full accounting of public funds spent on a case the PM has clearly stated he is bringing in his personal capacity.
Tag Archives: Accountability
Temasek doesn’t really make 16%
Your CPF money isn’t really safe.
And Lee Hsien Loong is a coward.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day arguments that crop up on Facebook, social media, and even in real life, that we lose track of the big picture. Despite the very obvious question marks surrounding the way CPF funds are managed, though the government, through Temasek, through GIC and ultimately by the Lee family, I realise that I’ve written almost nothing on the topic. Given Lee Hsien Loong’s sustained and ethically dubious attack on fellow blogger Roy Ngerng, now seems like a good time to visit these topics.
Temasek’s offer to buy out Olam in a S$2.53 billion deal comes as the commodity trader continues to pile on debt. While Olam’s politically well-connected management and shareholders may appreciate the sovereign wealth fund’s backing, this is a deal which ticks all the wrong boxes for Singapore.
Olam’s management have been fending off critics of their financials and accounting for years. While Carson Block’s very public decision to short the stock in 2012 was widely reported, less well-known is the fact that top Asian equity house CLSA incurred the commodity trader’s wrath the year before over a research note that raised some of the same concerns. And while the public response from Olam has always been defiant, privately management have admitted defeat – tearing up a flagship six-year plan to generate US$1 billion in profits by 2016 and slashing the debt fuelled growth that Block saw as unsustainable.
This is part two of my year in review, you can read part one on justice here. 2013 has seen significant changes in Singapore, some real and some illusionary. Ironically the changes which were hardest to believe were often the ones most hyped up by the government and their supporters, whereas the most significant and regressive changes were downplayed as if they were of no significance whatsoever. Perhaps most interesting however were the number of cases where the government said one thing, and then did almost exactly the opposite. Let’s take a look at a few.
The biggest u-turn this year, in fact the most significant explicit policy change overall was probably the government’s decision to renege on “light touch” regulation of the internet with the introduction in May of burdensome licensing requirements for loosely defined “news websites”. Despite a large public relations effort to downplay the impact of the new regulations, government claims that changes were required to synchronise rules for online media with those for mainstream media did little to dispel fears that this was a thinly veiled attempt to chill freedom of speech. The Economist described the change as “draconian“, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called government justifications “utterly absurd“. Many expect Singapore to fall further down RSF’s annual press rankings next year, the city-state already languishes at 149, one place below Russia.
One of the hotter policy topics this year has been the structure of Singapore’s public transport operators. With two state linked companies enjoying a cozy duopoly, the government’s plans to inject some competition into the market by tendering certain routes to private operators were warmly received. Hopes for market principles to take hold in centrally planned Singapore were however dashed when the government did a u-turn and awarded the first such tender to the state linked parent company of an existing operator. Neglecting to award the tender to a true new entrant was a missed opportunity to introduce new ideas into a transport sector which while high profitable, has a growing reputation for poor service standards.
From maintaining an existing monopoly to creating a new one, this time in telecoms. The IDA did a u-turn in allowing state controlled Singtel to buy out previously independent fiber broadband network builder OpenNet through its wholly owned business trust NetLink, giving Singtel a monopoly over the next generation broadband network in the process. At the same time Singtel won a four-year extension on its mandatory divestment of NetLink, a move that is predicted to entrench their incumbent monopoly power, and which drew stinging criticism from industry players.
The most recent and probably most superficially annoying u-turn of the year came just last week on the “do not call” registry. After years of planning the government pulled the plug on key features of the scheme just days before it was due to go live in an all too predictable sop to business interests. Consumers can unfortunately expect to continue receiving unsolicited messages after the registry goes live in January.
Any government u-turns missing? Speak up in the comments if you can think of any others.
The Court of Appeal has just handed down judgement in Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s IMF loan case. The case is crucially important and it raises two key points. Can the government lend away the wealth of the nation without Presidential approval? And can an individual citizen challenge the behaviour of the government in court, if it is alleged that there has been a breach of the constitution? The ruling of the court is against Kenneth on both counts. The government apparently can lend away the reserves without Presidential approval – effectively making the role of the President as the holder of a “second key” worthless. And furthermore, an individual citizen does not have the right to challenge the government in court, even if the case is of such gravity as this one where a breach of the constitution has been alleged. In stating as they do, that “the nature of the issue is entirely political” – the judges have completely misconstrued the reality of the case and the nature of the constitution. The decision is a difficult one to agree with. Upholding the law is not political.
Does Tan Chuan-Jin betray a sense of entitlement in framing the fact that someone may choose not to vote for him as a threat?
In Merriam-Webster, a threat is defined as “an expression of intention to inflict evil, injury or damage”. Other definitions exist, but they are usually quite negative and tend to imply harm. I’ve never heard of someone threatening to do me a favour.
So why does the (acting) Minister for Manpower make it all so dramatic? Does he see the default position as being that everyone should vote for him, and any suggestion that one may not, is an implication of impending “injury or damage”? I’m afraid Mr Tan’s years in the Army may have conditioned him to expect everyone around (or beneath?) him to do as he wishes. This may be a valid approach when encouraging young conscripts to run up a hill, but it is the antithesis of representative democracy. As an MP Mr Tan should have realised by now that the tables have turned. His job – more or less – is to represent the wishes of his residents in parliament, and he should further realise that a vote has to be earned, it is not an entitlement.
As readers may know, I have e-mailed the minister myself once or twice recently. Of course, I received no reply, but I did not take this personally, I just assumed he is either lazy or rude. While the polite thing to do might be to at least send out a stock response or a simple acknowledgement – probably delegated to a secretary or assistant – this apparently is a level of engagement still beyond the ruling party.
There are many valid reasons why one would choose not vote for the PAP. I for one will not be doing so, in no small part due to the mess that is our labour market under the negligent oversight of Mr Tan’s MOM. But this is my right, and in saying so, I am exercising my own free will, not issuing a threat. Rather than fretting over the fact that someone may choose not vote for him, Mr Tan should knuckle-down, do the best job he can, and hope that it is enough to win the trust of his residents in 2016.
Barely a week after Lee Hsien Loong spoke of integrity and the importance of admitting ones mistakes, the Auditor General released his annual report and gave the PM the perfect opportunity to practice what he preached. The report for 2012/13 cites more than two dozen incidents relating to contracts worth almost S$300M where the PMO’s National Research Foundation appear to be in violation of The Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act. While the PM himself is not directly implicated, the failure of a department under his oversight to abide by its legal and contractual obligations clearly raises significant questions. Will the PM or his office stand up for their integrity and admit to these mistakes – as the PM has urged his political opponents to do over much smaller matters – or will a hypocritical silence be maintained?
To quote the Auditor General’s report directly, under the heading “Prime Minister’s Office”:
62. The Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act (Cap. 30B, 2006 Revised Edition) stipulated the time frame for making payment and requirements for payment response to a payment claim. The Act was passed to address cash flow problems faced by the construction industry by upholding the rights of parties to seek progress payments for work done and goods supplied.
63. For the contract for building works construction and another contract for foundation works (total contract value of $295.72 million), AGO found 32 instances of late payment to contractors (totalling $254.04 million). In six instances (totalling $26.09 million), the delays ranged from 33 to 174 days.
64. For the three consultancy services contracts (total contract value of $27.25 million), AGO observed that NRF did not provide payment responses to the consultants’ payment claims (totalling $24.56 million).
Report of the Auditor-General for the Financial Year 2012/13
Some observers may find it shocking that the Auditor General claims to have observed unlawful behaviour on the part of the government, but in fact this year’s revelation follows even more serious breaches detected by the AG last year. As was first reported by Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the Ministry of Finance last year broke the law – in fact the constitution – in issuing a “promissory note” to the World Bank without presidential approval. In the same year, the Ministry for National Development was also found to have breached the constitution by engaging in unlawful accounting methods on a land reclamation project.
In any normal democratic country, unlawful or unconstitutional behaviour on the part of the government would be a significant scandal, in Singapore however these mistakes go completely unreported by a mainstream media that apparently deems the cleanliness of a hawker centre to be much more significant. A mainstream media also that uncritically toes the government line on what constitutes “integrity“, but will surely not call the PM out if he maintains a hypocritical silence in failing to admit to the many unlawful mistakes that have been committed by entities responsible to him.
The key question arising from the AG’s findings is whether the current government are fit for purpose in terms of upholding the public interest. Can a government that despite being extremely well paid, repeatedly breaches the law, the constitution and their own contractual obligations be entrusted with the wealth and wellbeing of the nation? The PM should take his own advice. Speak the truth. Things have clearly gone wrong, and even though it is inconvenient the PM should admit to the unlawful mistakes made by the current government. A failure to do so will only leave the PM open to accusations of hypocrisy since these are exactly the steps the PM urged his political opponents to take over actually much more trivial mistakes made in the cleaning of a hawker centre.
The PM should respond. His integrity is at stake.
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The author of this article contacted the Prime Minister’s Office who were offered the chance to comment on the concerns raised by the Auditor General’s report. No response was received.