'Revamp law' to give Auditor-General more reach

Research paper also calls for checks against excess, extravagance and inefficiency

While Singapore's Auditor-General has kept a low profile for decades, the special audit findings involving Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council last year have thrust the office into the limelight.

A research paper on his role as watchman, watchdog and warden notes his duties are relatively different from his counterparts worldwide and suggests updating laws to extend his reach to privatised government-linked companies.

"The Singapore Auditor-General has been an important constitutional office since 1991, but remains a severely under-examined institution in local scholarship," said National University of Singapore law and accountancy graduate Preston Wong in the paper published in the current Singapore Academy of Law Journal.

The author argued the AuditorGeneral, currently Mr Willie Tan, assisted by a deputy and team of assistants, plays a largely independent and effective role in constitutional government through promoting public finance accountability.

He is "starkly different from his foreign counterparts" and "is highly unique in terms of his legal position and roles". He is a watchman over the nation's reserves and tackles compliance with complex financial procedures.

"Notably he is independent of all three branches of Government and acts as a check on all three," he said, calling it "an intricately balanced position unseen anywhere else".

The author suggested that while the Auditor-General is an effective cap on financial power, there is still room for improvement by international standards.

Among other things, he called for the Audit Act to be reviewed to capture the developments of the past 50 years.

The author noted that at an election rally last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commended the Auditor-General's Office as a key institution keeping the Government "straight" and accountable.

The author suggested that while the Auditor-General is an effective cap on financial power, there is still room for improvement by international standards. Among other things, he called for the Audit Act to be reviewed to capture the developments of the past 50 years.

He pointed out that the privatisation of many public bodies and statutory authorities has spawned government-owned and government-linked companies.

"The Act should therefore be revamped to provide the Auditor-General with a mandate to audit these entities (even though not prescribed under any law), alongside removing the unnecessary requirements for an entity's request and approval from the minister."

Mr Wong said New Zealand and Australian legal arrangements subject state-owned enterprises to audit and allows broad-based discretion.

He suggested that, alternatively, the Auditor-General should have the discretion to step in if the public interest required it, unlike the present position where the discretion lies with the minister. He added that the nature of audits under the Act is also "outdated" as it dwells "mainly on traditional financial and administrative regularity".

"The Act should incorporate performance audits against excess, extravagance and inefficiency amounting to waste as part of the scope of audit in this new age of accountability beyond regularity."

He noted that such performance audits are enshrined in the laws of several countries abroad for the Auditor-General to examine the 3Es - effectiveness, efficiency and economy - of public entities. "Canada has a fourth E (environment). It also evaluates effects on sustainable development."

Given that the 2015 General Election further entrenched the People's Action Party as the party to govern Singapore, the Auditor-General's mission to "enhance public accountability" will be ever more crucial, Mr Wong said. "One PAP minister had even gone to the extent of characterising the Auditor-General's Office as the 'real check' in Government, juxtaposing it against the opposition which had claimed to be 'a robust check and balance.' "

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2016, with the headline ''Revamp law' to give Auditor-General more reach'. Print Edition | Subscribe