SINGAPORE – The statutory board in charge of skills upgrading, SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), will have new powers to investigate and enforce against the abuse of its grants and false advertisements about its programmes, following a number of high-profile cases involving millions of dollars stolen through bogus claims.
SSG, which is in charge of skills upgrading in Singapore and funded through public money, will soon be able to investigate and fine those who try to defraud it, as well as anyone who creates false or misleading advertisements about SSG-funded courses.
Those convicted of abusing SSG’s funding can soon be slapped with fines of up to $10,000, three years’ jail, and a penalty equal to the amount wrongly obtained.
Those convicted of publishing false advertisements can face up to $5,000 in fines and six months’ jail. Those found to have put out false advertisements can also be directed to change or remove them, failing which they are liable to be fined or jailed.
These changes are meant to shore up SSG’s currently limited ability to deal with abuse of its schemes, said Minister of State for Education and Manpower Gan Siow Huang in Parliament on Monday.
“Today, SSG can recover wrongly obtained funds through contractual and civil actions. But recovering funds through civil action can be costly and time-consuming,” she said during the debate on amendments to the SSG Act.
“More importantly, it does not effectively deter potential abusers from trying to wrongly obtain funds for purposes other than what they are intended for.”
During the debate, which continues on Tuesday, Ms Gan said SSG’s existing enforcement powers were limited and meant mainly to verify information submitted to it for funding, as well as to ensure the money had been properly used by the funding recipient.
These powers were not sufficient for the investigation of offences, she said. For false advertisements and abuse of the funding system, SSG could take action only according to the terms of its contracts with various parties, such as terminating funding or removing a company’s status as an approved training provider.
For egregious cases, SSG had relied on the Penal Code to prosecute cheaters, said Ms Gan.
SSG has dealt with high-profile cases where its model of giving grants to companies for training courses for their employees was abused. In 2017, a criminal syndicate cheated the agency of $39.9 million in grant money by submitting claims on behalf of several dormant businesses.
Ms Gan added that SSG has encountered misrepresentation of courses through false advertising. For instance, courses were misleadingly advertised to be funded by SSG, accredited under the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications credentials, or to lead to a government-issued diploma, when they were not.
“This misleads individuals into signing up for unsuitable courses. If left unaddressed, such misrepresentations could undermine public confidence in the SkillsFuture movement.”
The intention of these changes is not to penalise administrative lapses or genuine mistakes by training providers, she said.
Instead, they are meant to empower SSG to better deter abuse and misrepresentation of its schemes and take action against those who do so. This will give individuals and employers greater confidence to participate in training, said Ms Gan.
“We will also better protect genuine learners from being misled into taking courses that are of little or no value,” she said. “This will also benefit the majority of training providers who are bona fide in their commitment to workforce training and skills development.”
In response to her speech, several MPs rose to ask about the proposed amendments. Mr Patrick Tay (Pioneer) said there is a pressing need for greater powers to be bestowed on SSG to investigate and prosecute to weed out abuses by black sheep among training providers, but asked how long SSG will take on average to complete investigations with these enhanced powers.
Workers’ Party MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC) said the moves are sensible, but asked whether the proposed regulatory enhancements are sufficient to ensure that SSG is able to ensure that the skills imparted to Singaporean workers are the best available for future-proofing.
Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) asked whether the proposed penalties are commensurate with the size of the offence, considering potential gains in the millions of dollars, and what interim measures SSG can take while potentially long investigations are under way.
Ms Gan, who will reply to MPs’ questions on Tuesday, said in her speech that the enhanced enforcement levers and penalties will help ensure that investments from the Government, individuals and others will be channelled towards legitimate training providers and courses.
“Together, these moves will strengthen the SkillsFuture movement and support our effort to equip Singaporeans with the skills to seize the opportunities ahead,” she said.