Friday, July 26, 2013

Corruption, Embezzlement and Cleaning Up the Civil Service

Yet another case of wrongdoing for personal gain in the civil service. CPIB chief Eric Tan did the right thing by humbly apologising for the actions of his officer but that is not enough for a public tired of cases of fallen civil servants abusing their authority.

CPIB has been busy. Ng Boon Gay was acquited although his name was dragged in the mud before cleared of co being corruption. Former SCDF chief Peter Lim was sentenced to 6 month jail for his sex for contracts scandal. NUS lecturer Tey Tsun Hang went to prison for 5 months for his sex for grades scandal. Earlier this year, an assistant director in MDA was cooperating with CPIB as he was accused of asking for bribes from those who applied for grants from MDA.

Now, an assistant director in the CPIB is charged with criminal breach of trust as he pocketed $1.7 million, with about $240,000 of it gambled away at MBS. The amount is huge by most standards, albeit the highest amount of money embezzled by tainted civil servants was $12 million by 2 SLA staff who were sentenced in 2010 to 22 and 15 years.

Whistle-Blowing and the Press

The fallen were all exposed because of whistle-blowers within their own circles as nobody watches the watchers, and the watchers have to watch each other. In the absence of another institution to watch over them, they naturally had to resort to whistle-blowing. At least some in the public service can be depended on their moral courage to name fellow colleagues who stole from taxpayers for their own selfish ends. Although cynically, their colleagues did not expose those charged with corruption or fraud entirely because for the good of the public, but perhaps for personal ambition or grievances.

The media did not cover it up, although it could have because of its comfortable relationship with the government. That is a positive sign. The public have to know that civil servants are not above the law, especially those who chase after people who dabbled in corrupt actions, fraud and other financial wrongdoings. Edwin Yeo's case is handled by the CAD and there would be some in CAD who think this is karma as CPIB was the one that took down CAD head Glenn Knight for corruption in 1991.

High Pay to Prevent Corruption?

The rationale for paying competitive or high salaries to politicians and others in the public sector to minimise corruption, arose after cases like former minister Teh Cheang Wan who was investigated in 1986 for taking bribes of $800,000 from property developers and former minister of state Wee Toon Boon's downfall in 1975 for taking bribes also of about $800,000.  However this rationale has to be reviewed. It sounds right but yet these cases showed that those in public service can still be swayed from the path of integrity and honesty, high pay or not.

The public service's reputation is at the crossroads, and our faith in politicians and civil servants is wavering. If by 2016 there are insufficient measures to reassure us that the present government is doing something about the integrity of the public sector, notwithstanding that the loss of trust in those in power are the result of the actions of a few black sheep, people would vote accordingly to show their confidence, or lack  of.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Balakrishnan and Pritam: High Noon Showdown Anticlimax

As it turned out, it was not the expected high stakes gun battle and WP chief Low Thia Khiang dismissed it all as a misunderstanding. Whatever it was, there is still no smoke without fire and the hawkers were upset, this time not with the PAP but with WP.

The PAP saw their chance over WP's callous handling of the hawkers and seized it to corner WP. Sylvia Lim or Low Thia Khiang who have distinguished themselves as honourable and worthy opposition since GE 2006 were not WP's weak link, but the other WP member involved in the AHPETC saga - Pritam Singh, Vice Chair of AHPETC.

Shutting Up Rather than Speaking Up

Minister Balakrishnan had thrown the gauntlet on the floor last month that the new WP MP, Pritam Singh, lied that AHPETC did not ask the hawkers to pay more for the scaffolding during a cleaning of hawker centres blocks 511 and 538. Pritam Singh denied the serious charge of dishonesty then, although he failed to rebut the minister in parliament during the latest seating. The question of being sued by the PAP was not a Damocles Sword over Pritam 's head as MPs could speak candidly and bluntly in parliament because of their parliamentary privilege and immunity.

Hence, MP Pritam had a chance for a robust populist debate with Minister Balakrishnan but he surprisingly chose not to do so. Since Pritam is an articulate speaker, his decision to remain silent shouted volumes. The political retreat meant that Pritam wanted to cut his losses, perhaps strongly advised by the shrewd experienced WP general Low Thia Khiang that it was better to shut up then speak up and confirm dishonesty.

Pritam Strike Two

This is not the first time that Pritam showed signs of being less than honest. Previously, he plagiarised his 2012 parliamentary speech on ombudsman almost lock, stock and barrel from a blogger. The former ISEAS researcher and King's College MA graduate who should have known better made neither attribution nor reference that he used somebody's ideas and words until he was confronted by DPM Teo Chee Hean in parliament. MP Pritam tried to recover by then but it was too little too late and any decent university graduate would have been drilled that plagiarism was theft, a theft of ideas and intellect.

If a PAP MP had stolen ideas for his or her parliamentary speech, or had fudged about asking hawkers to pay up for cleaning the hawker centres, the public would be have chastised his or her dishonesty. The public should also exact similar standards of honesty on all MPs, PAP or WP. There is still some time till GE 2016 and all eyes are on Pritam if he would disappoint WP supporters the third time.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Commentary, A Late Night Phone Call and A Fracas

Eric Ellis is a left thinking journalist, no insult intended to the Mid-East news icon, a Robert Fisk-wannabe in his agenda-driven journalism. Like Fisk, he never intended to be objective, just to achieve his objective of changing readers' views to his. Eric is an Australian and has criticised the European monarchies as spongers and deadweights in European democracies rather than understanding them as cultural-historical anchors. In his compliments to Der Speigel, he liked the German publication's scrutiny of the rich and powerful, taking the successful down a peg or too at every opportunity. He rejoiced when Murdoch's media empire took a hit over the UK phone hacking scandal as Murdoch's right-leaning media was too industrialist and capitalist to his liking and stood tall at the opposite end of his political view.

An Australian Outsider View

Eric has a typical outsider white man's burden over Singapore's development path - from criticising Singapore's zero-tolerance capital punishment policy for drug mules like Australian citizen Nguyen Tuong Van, to Singapore's ties with fellow ASEAN neighbour Myanmar, to his xenophobia of Singapore Inc buying up of overseas assets including Australia's. His latest rant was on Law Minister Shanmugam, with a slightly racist quip coming from the Australian, "K. Shanmugam, as he’s less tongue-twistingly known".


This set off a series of events. Shanmugam saw that Eric crossed the line. The Australian had made defamatory comments about Shanmugam and his involvement in companies in Indonesia that caused the recent haze problem.  Eric's article was circulated by the usual suspects in the Internet who jump at any news real or false to sling mud at the government. Shanmugam then called Remy Choo Zheng Xi about the matter as the TOC blogger-Peter Low lawyer-WP activist was a key broker in the Internet community.

Kirsten Han blogged about the late night call after hearing it from Remy and packaged the call story as a minister bullying a blogger because such stories sell. Kirsten's agenda was unsurprising as she is among those locals who are against the death penalty, support an earlier Western-led disengagement of Myanmar and continued isolation of an ASEAN neighbour, someone who bought Eric's political views in bulk. Unfortunately for Kirsten this time, as Shanmugam and Remy have come out in the open to put into context the phone call, Kirsten's version of the event was inaccurate if not even fabricated to spread fear among her readers that the government was going to crack down hard on Remy and others.

The Last Laugh

Eric must be grinning right now - in one stroke, he made Shanmugam, Remy and Kirsten all look bad.

Friday, June 28, 2013

All the President's Hecklers

So Andrew Loh hurled some vulgarities at the President and has since apologised after public pressure, "The words I used were harsh and insulting, and the sentiments I expressed about the President unfair and untrue."

What made the former WP member, former TOC editor, and current Yahoo writer lapse into an uncouth lout is a big mystery. Maybe problems in his personal life, a bad brush with a neighbour or something equally mundane that happens to all of us. However, as a public figure and activist-journalist, while he added colour to his character, he wasted away his public image by being a foul-mouth monkey and reverted to his crass peasantmonky days in Sammyboy.

Common though for people to be angry and even swear and curse, to swear and curse in public knowing that his rant would spread in the Internet is poor judgement, class and control. Andrew Loh should have been wiser than Rueben Wang, the SAJC student who thought it was cool to swear at DPM Teo Chee Hean. Or more savvy than YPAP member Cheo Ming Shen.  

Maybe that is what Andrew really wanted with Free My Internet in which he was a key party of, to freely verbally and vulgarly abuse anyone.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Cleaning Up Hawker Centres WP Style

When WP took over a GRC in 2011, there was optimism that they can do a better job with economies of scale. People were already tired of PAP-run town councils that had frills in landscaping and decoration in the estates that ultimately drove up operational and thus conservancy costs. By all accounts from the latest news, WP is no better if not worse in keeping costs down.

A Misstep in Who Foots the Bill

In the latest battle of who can run town councils after better, fairer and cheaper after AIM and FMSS, WP is again under the spotlight as it passed the cost of cleaning the roof and ceiling of hawker centres to the hawkers instead of absorbing them as was in the past practice under the PAP.

NEA, who acted after the WP GRC stallholders complained, said that it was the responsibility of Aljunied-Hougang-Punngol East town council to pick the tab as hawker centres were common area, and not pass the buck to the stallholders.

So soon after the FMSS-AIM saga,WP is again not doing too well in this tit-for-tat on who can run the show better. WP's popular folk image is that it is very grassroot-oriented and not distant from the ground, unlike the PAP who has forgotten its roots, as the coffeeshop talk goes.

From Spotless Hawker Centres to Spotless WP

However, by asking the humble and ubiquitous stallholders to pay for the cleaning of some of the common areas is a departure from the blue-collar worker empathy of the WP. WP is already trying to recover and stated that cleaning of the ceiling and support beams of the hawker centres was not due and there was miscommunication about hawkers footing the bill. Too little too late. This shoulder-shrugging and focus on semantics is typical of the PAP and goes to show the WP might not be  as spotless as they made themselves out to be.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Town Council Finger Pointing

Town council management, what is really at stake? The debate has not seriously ventured into what town councils should be by the PAP or WP but lingered on who is more improper. If that is the debate, WP has lost more ground than PAP. WP's press statement on Thursday had a table for "discerning members of the public" on the distinction between AIM and FMSS. WP also issued a challenge that a report can be made to CPIB if there was WP wrongdoing in its management of the WP town council. Thus, at stake are WP's corporate governance and WP's reputation, and WP is not scoring in its report book.

WP's Corporate Governance in Question

By boldly comparing itself with PAP's AIM, and "WP has no interest; directors and shareholders are not WP members" in FMSS, WP attempted to canter away on its blue horse waving victoriously into the sunset. What instead happened is that WP implied they gave fat town council business contracts to its supporters either as reward or incentive for giving support to WP. This is tantamount to a tit for tat transaction, which is part of legitimate networking in the business world, however, legal but borderline unethical in town council corporate governance. Particularly damaging for WP's supposedly impeccable integrity if FMSS' subcontractors are also WP supporters or WP members, and there is a pattern of self-serving business lobby and WP patronage.

Hence, there is the danger of town councils being arms and legs of any political party, be it PAP or WP. It is not in the public interests in the long term as what the MND review stressed. WP and its FMSS are solid proof that it is no better than the PAP and its AIM. Turning the tables back on WP, what scorched earth policy has WP built into its FMSS now in the event Aljunied returned to PAP rule? Aljunied GRC residents should be interested to know as they would be the ones affected the most and 2016 is not that long away.

Discerning Members of the Public and WP's Diminished Reputation

WP challenged members of the public and the PAP to make a police report if there is any WP wrongdoing. PAP then challenged that WP should sue if there was any defamation that WP was wronged. In the end, stalemate although WP has more to lose than the PAP in this ongoing debate. WP's reputation of a clean upcoming party with First World Parliament aspirations, its promise to voters that got it Aljunied and Punggol, is seriously being tainted in the eyes of the "discerning members of the public" who are neither sitting with the PAP or WP.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

People in Town Council Glass Houses: AIM at FMSS

Minister Khaw Boon Wan in parliament hit back at WP, and he did it by bringing up FM Solutions and Services (FMSS). His point was to drive home the idea that town councils are inherently political and WP is no different because FMSS is no more transparent than AIM, and no more apolitical than AIM.

FMSS is WP's Political Embarrassment

FMSS was incorporated in May 2011 by Hougang Town Council staff How Weng Fan and her husband, Danny Loh. How Weng Fan and Danny Loh's history with the WP went back for some time. Both were WP supporters who vouched on nomination day for the WP Ang Mo Kio GRC "suicide team" candidates of Abdul Salim Bin Harun, Gopal Krishnan, Glenda Han, Lee Wai Leng, Melvin Tan and Yaw Shin Leong. Danny Loh and his wife might even be WP members, but it does not matter whether they are or not as they are not apolitical anyway.

Unlike AIM it was not a $2 company, but had a paid up capital of $500,000. The problem with FMSS was that it got the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council contract without tender, and thus might not be the best in the market for the residents of Aljunied-Hougang. AIM was an inconvenient embarrassment when it was found out by WP. But now FMSS is WP's irritating embarrassment when it was dug out by PAP.

An Apolitical Town Council is Possible

Objectively, with AIM and FMSS, two wrongs don't make a right. Town councils are political as AIM and FMSS showed but can they be apolitical, or to what degree they can be apolitical?

The conventional thinking is that town councils are political instruments that cut both ways. If they are good, they win votes. If they are bad and it is so easy to displease voters, they lose votes. That double-edged sword is an inevitable part of politics, unless HDB takes over and resumes its pre-1989 role. Why not, if not HDB then something else existing or new, to make town councils apolitical as best as they can because that is what people want? That idea is not alien as in a democracy, the civil service still runs even if one party comes into power and the other vacates. Why not a town council?