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Saturday, 2 October 2010

Civil Service processes come under review - What about wrong priority and mindset?

This multi-million fraudent case at The Singapore Land Authority (SLA) brought up a few pertinent points.

The two former officers charged in Court belong to a young talented pool of  public service officers of the  post-70 generation who had been well moulded by our much acclaimed education system and worked for a well-paid civil service which has its pay structure closely-pegged to, if not better than; the private sector.

The fraud not only involved a huge amount of public funds but was also well planned by a small "task-force", with sound knowledge and understanding of the IT system and audit processes as a back-drop, but went unnoticed for a 2-year period, despite the tight auditing processes very typical of our Leviathan state.

Internal audits are carried out annually in the SLA by its internal audit department. External audits of financial statements of statutory borads are also done by independent commercial auditors annually. Most of the statutory boards (including SLA) are also audited by the Auditor-General's Office (AGO). The SLA was last audited by the AGO in 2007/08 financial year.

The alleged offences occurred between January 2008 and March 2010 as reported. Although the Finance Ministry stressed that "no system can provide a hundred-percent safeguard against fraud", the acts were committed over a 2-year period but went un-detected with 3 layers of checks for 2 years.

I recall the recent "wrongful dismissal" case involving Ms Lai Swee Lin, Linda  - a former Senior Officer Grade III at the Land Office (also under SLA and the Ministry of Law). It took them from 1996 ~ 2010, nearly 14 years to fight the case out in Court over the employment issue with the Land Office. The background was purported over her complaints in an email to her superior, part of which is re-produced hereunder; as reported by the local mainstream media :-

"I bring this (issue of backlogs and delays in the Land Office) up in good faith, for the good of the Land Office in the long run. Also in the spirit of PS 21, [and] not to find fault with others. As a responsible Singaporean, I cannot just keep quiet [and] be unconcerned, when I know that delays and backlog are not being resolved for years. In my opinion, Directors should ensure that their Divisions run efficiently, thank you."

Critics had asked, "Was she penalised for what she said? If a government officer (and a scholar) can lose her job for speaking up, will that send a message that Singaporeans should "just keep quiet and be unconcerned"?.

The mainstream media had reported :- 
"Ms Linda Lai, 45, the former head legal officer of the Land Office, started the current chain of events when she cried foul, saying she lost her job after she exposed her superiors' incompetence. The Land Office had extended her probation unfairly, then terminated her service soon after she sent an e-mail to her supervisor about the backlog in land-title cases.

The PSC and the Land Office belonging to the Ministry of Law had gone at length to fight out the  said employment case with its ex-employee in Court since 2004 till August 2010. Although the Court case was 6 years old, the actual tussle took nearly 14 years.

Just imagine the amount of public resources committed and wasted in fighting the employment saga, with the  Government finally conceding that there had been a breach of employment contract; versus the SLA taking 2 years to discover a $11.8-million internal fraud with 3 layers of built-in audit checks.

The above illustrates an internal issue. There must be many other issues involving public complaints to our public Authorities which had escaped limelight, with our public Authorities just maintaining its position by simply keeping quiet and indifferent in order to avoid problems and blame. Very often, it is simply wrong decision- making and the refusal to see the obvious despite good feedback.

It is ironical that the Government has to call for a productivity drive under its current economic plan. Something is still ridiculously wrong with the "priority and mindset" of our public servants within this Leviathan state.

Reference #1 :-
TODAY Sep 30, 2010
by Leong Wee Keat

SINGAPORE - The Finance Ministry, which holds the purse strings for the Civil Service, is reviewing procurement and financial processes "to address possible areas of weakness and, where necessary, strengthen control measures against fraud".

The review comes in the wake of the alleged $11.8-million fraud at the Singapore Land Authority. Lessons learned from the case will be shared across all Government agencies, a Finance Ministry spokeswoman said yesterday in reply to MediaCorp's queries.

Two former officers at SLA had purportedly rendered false invoices over a two-year period for fictitious IT maintenance services and goods not delivered.

Koh Seah Wee, 40, has been charged in a District Court with 249 counts of cheating and other offences. Christopher Lim Chai Meng, 37, and several individuals running businesses that allegedly provided the false invoices, are assisting the police with investigations.

While the SLA has since put in place safeguards, a spokesperson yesterday told MediaCorp it is now also reviewing audit controls.

Court documents had shown that 30 of the IT contracts were awarded to a company with a seemingly misspelled name: MSB Techonogly And Services. Founder Ho Yen Teck spelled "technology" correctly in his six other businesses, which also had contracts with SLA.

Audits are carried out annually in the SLA by its internal audit department. The spokeswoman reiterated that Koh and Lim allegedly colluded together with the business entities "to circumvent the checks and balances in the system".

"Moreover, they supported the fraudulent payments with 'valid' invoices and approvals by authorised personnel in accordance with established procedures," she said yesterday.

The SLA was last audited by the Auditor-General's Office - on the management of state properties - in the 2007/08 financial year. The alleged offences occurred between January 2008 and March this year.

"Most statutory boards (including SLA) are audited by AGO on a rotation basis given AGO's limited resources. Such audits, carried out at least once in every five to seven years, are typically audits of selected areas," said an AGO spokeswoman. Audits of financial statements of statutory boards are done by commercial auditors annually.

While not wanting to prejudice the case, Member of Parliament Liang Eng Hwa, who sits on the Public Accounts Committee, welcomed the Finance Ministry's plan to share its findings across the Civil Service. He also felt a balance should be maintained between efficiency and having more checks.

The Finance Ministry stressed that "no system can provide a hundred-percent safeguard against fraud". "Supervising officers will need to exercise vigilance and ensure that audit processes are in compliance with Government rules," said the spokeswoman.

Reference #2 :-

Reference #3 :-

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