Parliament: Wrong to compare lapses at public agencies to problems flagged by AHTC auditors, says Chan Chun Sing

A view of the People’s Association Headquarters on April 14, 2018.
A view of the People’s Association Headquarters on April 14, 2018.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - It is wrong to compare the problems surfaced by auditors at the Workers' Party's town council to the lapses discovered by the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) at the People's Association (PA) and other public agencies, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing told Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 20).

Mr Chan, who is deputy chairman of the PA, said the Government's financial accounts were found to be in order with public funds properly accounted for, unlike the accounts of Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC). Three MPs overseeing AHTC are currently facing a civil suit over $33.7 million in alleged improper payments.

The minister was responding to Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) who had asked about various lapses made by the PA in the AGO's report for financial year 2017/18.

"The issues surrounding AHTC are very different front the lapses found by AGO in government agencies," Mr Chan said.

He cited three differences.

One, AHTC's accounts have been found by its auditors to be unreliable since FY 2011/12.

"Your auditors repeatedly gave the town council a disclaimer of opinion as they were 'not able to obtain sufficient, appropriate audit evidence to provide a basis for an audit opinion'," he told Mr Png. He noted that when the AGO audited the town council in 2015, it concluded there was "no assurance that AHPETC's accounts are accurate and reliable or that public funds are properly spent, accounted for and managed".

In contrast, Mr Chan said the AGO has consistently given the Government an unmodified audit opinion on its financial statements. This means they are reliable, but does not mean there are no mistakes, he added.

 
 
 
 

Two, a KPMG report on AHTC's accounts had said the "control failures" were pervasive and cross-cutting across key areas including governance and financial control, over the course of five years.

"The Government does not face similar issues," he said. It "has rules and procedures in place to ensure proper systems of checks and balances", he added. Its lapses, he said, took place in a "much larger public service with more than 140,000 officers handling hundreds and thousands of transactions every year".

"The difference is this: Our rules are in place. When compliance is not in order, we take officers to task and we can improve and tighten up the system," he said.

Three, government agencies responded to lapses uncovered by the AGO by taking firm action against the individuals responsible.

Some did so even before the AGO came in, when problems were surfaced during internal audits. And where criminal offence is suspected, agencies promptly escalate the case, he said.

Mr Chan cited how following the AGO's report of possible wrongdoings in procurement in the National Library Board in 2014, the board referred the case to the police and a former officer has been charged for corruption. There are other such cases, he added.

"We don't hide them. We don't sweep them under the carpet. We face them squarely and we take the actions necessary," he said, adding these range from counselling to dismissals.

Mr Chan also reiterated that the lawsuit against the WP MPs was not brought by the Government but at the behest of an independent panel.

He stressed that the Government has proper rules in place to ensure checks and balances, including at agencies like the PA which has a large base of volunteers.

"The fact that we run a large system with many volunteers does not excuse us from making mistakes. But when we make mistakes, we find out, we tighten the process, we improve. We do not shirk our responsibilities or try to diminish the mistake by comparing with other people who have made other mistakes," he said.

He added that where mistakes are made, "we don't run away from them".

"The public can have every confidence that this government takes its responsibility seriously, transparently."