The response of the People's Association (PA) to a cautionary report by the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) reflects the need for Singapore's public institutions to meet the highest standards of probity and accountability. The AGO had noted procurement lapses, tender irregularities and conflicts of interest at grassroots organisations - failings that should be swiftly addressed.
As a public institution itself, the AGO should be commended for having highlighted once again the importance of accountability in the management and use of public funds and resources. That one arm of the state can probe and reveal the weaknesses of a statutory board with relentless impartiality bodes well for Singapore's reputation for cleanliness in public office.
The scale of the PA's oversight responsibilities should not be underestimated, given its extensive network of 1,800 grassroots organisations. With hindsight, inherent risks within this set-up should have been studied earlier. Reassuringly, the association has now set up a grassroots finance review committee to review financial rules to enhance compliance and propose measures to facilitate effective monitoring by staff. Whatever the committee recommends, the measures should enable 37,000 grassroots leaders and volunteers to continue to serve Singapore without getting tied up in red tape, while adhering to good governance and sound financial practices.
Herein lies the crucial balance to be struck. Grassroots volunteers should not be dissuaded from participating in a national activity whose objective is to foster social cohesion. No one would want to see a relapse to the climate 50 years ago, when communal groups pulled in different ethnic directions. The PA's grassroots work opens up new vistas constantly from below. In the process, it calls upon a wide network of volunteers and leaders drawn from different walks of life. Given their diverse backgrounds, not all of them would be familiar with procurement norms that would be second nature to accountants or to trained government officials. Some of these volunteers could be guilty of procedural lapses, but what is significant is that no corruption has been unearthed.
However, even irregularities born of ignorance or laxity are damaging to the PA's reputation, and must be fixed urgently. This is the job that awaits the committee, which is expected to complete its review and make its recommendations in three months. Committee chairman Timothy de Souza encapsulated the purpose of its investigations succinctly when he declared that the "moral tone has to be so correct that the PA, as the main public face in touch with the citizens, is beyond reproach". The PA must not only act, but also be seen to act, in a rigorous manner in probing any systemic weaknesses and shortcomings of volunteers and officials alike.