Sunday, November 21, 2010

The SLA "Heist"

How deep does the rabbit burrow go? Singapore Land Authority technology and infrastructure department staff Koh Seah Wee and Lim Chai Meng faced 302 and 309 charges respectively for their fraud worth about $12 million. Their fraud was simple - pretended to buy non-existent services from a few companies, faking invoices and pocketing the cash.

As more light shined into the burrow, five more people from three different companies were implicated in the SLA fraud. The authorities are digging and it would be unsurprising if more dirt is uncovered. Already, the finger-pointing is that Koh Seah Wee dishonesty' started years ago when he was in the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore in 2004. True to a proper witch hunting fashion, various officers in the chain of approval of the bogus purchases are now probably being grilled if their are accomplices to the biggest "heist" of the civil service in history as far as we know.

Financial Irregularities in all Shapes and Sizes

The civil service is a huge bureaucracy and potentially has tons of paperwork to hide fraud or unintentional use of public funds, in the name of documentation. In 2007, The Online Citizen had a shrewd observation of management lapses in public funds amounting to $6.2 million. No allegation of fraud was made then but with the paranoia surrounding public monies and the SLA case, this leak of money although explained does not inspire confidence in retrospect. Particularly when leaks in public funds is still a persistent problem in reality as there are so many ways to hide financial irregularities.

How to Detect Fraud Hidden in Paperwork? More Paperwork?

The government has focused so much on preventing corruption in the civil service and this campaign is largely perceived to be successful according to international rankings. However, embezzlement and fraud are also equally worrying ways that public officers can abuse the system and make a mockery of the honesty of the government.

Hearing how the civil service functions, how the problem of financial irregularities are to be prevented would likely be the implementation of more verification and approvals i.e. more paperwork up and down the chain when like buying new printer cartridges. Hence, with tons of even more paperwork, there would be more blind signing of documents that give a veneer of proper accountability and checks in the use of public funds. The problem does not go away, it grows away instead. In the annual European Union audit, accounts of mismanagement of funds becomes a yearly expectation, as it is tacitly understood that it is almost impossible to account for every Euro spent given the size of that bureaucratic monster.

Checks are useless if the checks are merely for show. Perhaps a more controversial solution is actually to tolerate a whistle-blowing culture. While personal vendettas and office politics would cloud the picture, it is not paperwork that would expose fraud, it is people's professionalism and reporting on their peers if the management looks the other way for whatever reason. At the end of the burrow, it is all about the good of the public.