SINGAPORE - The case of volunteer police officers receiving larger allowances than they should have was not one of public officers making decisions and deliberately bypassing the minister, said Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.
Instead, it was "fair to describe what happened as a procedural error", Mr Shanmugam told Parliament on Monday (Aug 15) in response to questions from Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) and Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC).
The officers have been spoken to about their mistake, he added, referring to the lapse flagged by the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) in its latest annual report.
The allowance rate for part-time officers under the Volunteer Special Constabulary had been raised to $3.60 an hour in 2008, 80 cents above the rate stipulated by law.
The deputy commissioner of police and permanent secretary for home affairs approved the hike despite not being authorised to do so. Instead, approval should have been sought from the minister for home affairs.
Since the decision was made without personal approval from the minister, the AGO had classified the money as overpayments, said Mr Shanmugam, who became Home Affairs Minister in September 2015.
"I have set out what happened. The officers involved made a mistake. The matter has been handled with advice from AGC. And the officers have been advised to be more careful," he said of the process.
He added that he agreed with the rationale for the payments, and authorised the hike retrospectively after being advised by the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) that he could do so.
He added that the payment rate is being reviewed to be raised further, and praised volunteer police officers for their hard work and dedication, saying: "They do not serve because of the $3.60 an hour. They come forward to serve Singapore."
But Mr Low, in a follow-up question to the minister, said that the issue was not how much the volunteers should be paid but how the ministry responded to the AGO report.
"I thank the minister for his long reply, but the issue is not the payment, how much we should pay the volunteer corps, I think we all appreciate their work. The issue is on the AGO's report," he said.
Mr Low asked whether it was unlawful for the officers to approve the hike despite not being authorised to do so, and noted that the minister had subsequently decided to make it lawful by amending the regulation approving the overpayment in retrospect.
Said Mr Low: "Is this correct way for the Government to make an unlawful payment become a lawful payment, overpayment to become correct payment, and is this the way to respond to AGO's report for lapses?"
Replying, Mr Shanmugam said: "I thank Mr Low for his considerable interest in the matter and I'm glad he takes such a serious view of process errors."
The minister reiterated that he had acted according to advice from the AGC, and stressed that what had happened was "a pure process error". This should be contrasted with errors in substance, which may or may not have legal consequences, he added.
Mr Shanmugam illustrated his point by describing a hypothetical scenario of a group of people taking over an organisation with a lot of money.
"The new group appoints its friends. It sets up a structure which helps to vacuum money out of the organisation. And its own accountants say in writing, despite repeated requests, (that) the organisation did not provide us with all the critical documents relating to the transactions with the friends," he said.
"And assume they repeat it every year, and yet the organisation doesn't do anything. That is an error both in process and in substance, and that is unlawful. And that must have consequences. So let's keep things in perspective," he added.