Auditor-General Lim Soo Ping, just submitted his audit report for financial year 2008/09 to the President and Parliament on 1 July, and later released it on the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO) website.
The full report can be viewed here. I read through all 62 pages of it, and had a few observations.
The purpose of this report, like all audit reports, is to point out audit points in the various ministries and statutory boards. It is not every day that Singaporeans read of such a high ranking official pointing out so many faults in so many government agencies. But that is the Auditor-General’s job. I trust he has done a thorough job and highlighted all the key audit points without fear or favour, and without obfuscating any critical ones for fear of political backlash.
Most of the audit points highlighted were due to civil servants taking short cuts to expedite procurement processes, rather than because of blatant dishonesty or corruption. I suppose the latter would have been dealt with by CPIB and the Courts, and not the A-G in his report. But given the amount of bureaucracy that civil servants have to go through to get even a simple job done, I can see why some of them attempt to take short cuts. This is not to excuse their lack of adherance to the rules, but I think some of such lapses must be seen in this context. It is not fair for the media or casual observers to blast all civil servants and call for heads to roll.
In some cases, we observers (but of course not the A-G) should also consider the cost of not taking short cuts and delaying an important project. For example, one stat board was rapped for, among other things, changing the scope of a tender and not calling for a fresh tender. To publish an open tender often requires months of preparation and internal approvals. If the agency were to call for a fresh tender instead of just publishing a corrigendum, the project could be delayed for months.
Again, I’m not excusing sloppiness or dishonesty by our public servants. But as a former civil servant, I can attest to the bureaucratic headache that many of them go through. It is something that most of us in the private sector seldom face.
One chairman, many offices
There was one audit point, though, which caught my eye.
SPRING Singapore renovated its chairman’s office in Bukit Merah in early 2007 before the appointment of its new chairman, Philip Yeo, on 1 April 2007. But Mr Yeo continued to work at his old office in A*Star at Biopolis, where he had been the chairman. As a result, not only has his new office in Bukit Merah been left unoccupied since April 2007, but SPRING had to pay rental for 17 months for the Biopolis office, presumably to A*Star.
In June 2008, Mr Yeo moved out of his Biopolis office, and SPRING renovated and leased an entire floor of a building at Fusionopolis (a building near Biopolis) for his office, and extra “satellite” offices for the CEO and Deputy CEO, and others.
The total cost of the rental of the Biopolis office, and the renovation and rental of the new floor at Fusionopolis until June 2010, cost SPRING almost $2 million. But the bleed doesn’t end there. The entire SPRING is moving to Fusionopolis in 2010, and the construction of another office for the Chairman is currently underway.
It is no secret that Mr Yeo was the one who pushed hard for SPRING to be relocated to Fusionopolis, to “help bring Growing Enterprises to A*STAR’s incubator facilities”. He perhaps felt that working near A*Star was more conducive for him and his executive team. But in doing so, he may have cost taxpayers over $2.8 million (assuming that the new office in Fusionopolis will also cost over $800,000). That money could have been used to fund dozens of grants to SMEs and entrepreneurs.
This whole episode sounds very similar to another story I read in the book, From Third World to First. In his memoirs, Mr Lee Kuan Yew related what happened when Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as Prime Minister in 1990. He wrote: “Chok Tong did not want to move into my old office in Istana Annexe, which I had occupied for 20 years since I moved from City Hall, but chose to create a new office on the floor above mine.”
Retired senior civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow gave a frank interview in 2003 where he said: “There is also a particular brand of Singapore elite arrogance creeping in. Some civil servants behave like they have a mandate from the emperor. We think we are little Lee Kuan Yews.“
Little Lee Kuan Yew indeed.