Thursday 16 February 2012

DPM Teo: Not right to reveal CPIB probe too early

By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2012

ANY announcement immediately after two top civil servants were arrested would have been premature and unfair, and would have compromised investigations, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said yesterday.

There was 'no delay' in releasing news of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) probe involving the former chiefs of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), he told Parliament.

'It was necessary to give CPIB time to gather evidence, seize documents, conduct interviews with various persons who were connected to the case and establish whether further action was warranted,' he said.

'A premature release of information in such cases would jeopardise the investigations, and also unfairly prejudice the officers and any other parties who are involved in the case.'

Mr Teo, who is also Minister for Home Affairs, was responding to questions from Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) and Mr Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) on the case, which has captured national attention over the past three weeks.

Both MPs had asked why the arrests of the SCDF's Peter Lim Sin Pang and the CNB's Ng Boon Gay - after allegations of 'serious personal misconduct' - were not disclosed earlier.

Mr Ng was arrested on Dec 19, while Mr Lim was nabbed on Jan 4. They are out on bail and assisting in investigations.

While the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and CPIB have not revealed details, sources told the media that the case was believed to be linked to the tender process for IT products and involved a woman.

In his answer yesterday, DPM Teo said the ministry had reviewed various outstanding IT tenders.

Chinese language evening daily Lianhe Wanbao first broke the news on the two top guns on Jan 24, prompting the MHA, which oversees the SCDF and CNB, to issue a statement the same day.

Both men were placed on leave once they were arrested and told not to return to their offices nor carry out any official duties, Mr Teo said.

This meant there was no way they could have influenced the investigations due to their senior positions.

But Mr Teo noted, too, that an arrest by CPIB did not necessarily mean that the person would be prosecuted or referred to any disciplinary action.

'And it is possible that after referral to the Attorney-General's Chambers, no further action is taken. So the arrest, therefore, has no bearing on the guilt or innocence of the person.'

However, on Jan 20, the CPIB informed the MHA that though criminal investigations had not finished, there was sufficient basis for the ministry to consider civil service disciplinary action for misconduct.

The ministry immediately commenced the proceedings, including interdicting the officers from their duties.

On Jan 24, after getting the Public Service Commission's approval, MHA called up the two officers and served them notices of their interdiction, which would have taken effect the next day.

Mr Teo said the ministry had intended to carry out these procedures and make a media statement on Jan 25, the first working day after the four-day Chinese New Year long weekend.

But Lianhe Wanbao's story prompted them to advance the process. In reply to a supplementary question from Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC), he said that any leak to the media will be investigated, particularly if it pertained to official information which should not have been revealed.

Mr Teo also admitted that the cases were disappointing, but they also showed that any allegation of misconduct against public officers is investigated fully, regardless of the officers' position or seniority.

Mr Tong, who is also deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Law and Home Affairs, asked in a supplementary question if the CPIB probe and recent investigations into an online vice ring that allegedly involved public servants reflect a lowering of moral and ethical standards in the public service.

Mr Teo, who is also the Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service, said he was confident the vast majority of civil servants live up to the Government's high moral and ethical standards.

'However, when we come across an officer who has transgressed, we will not hesitate to act against him, even if he is in a senior position, and even if it may embarrass the Government,' he said.

'I have told our public officers to continue to hold true to the public service values of integrity, excellence and service, and continue to carry out their duties diligently, honestly and to the best of their abilities.'

The minister also said that once the outcome of the investigations is known, the ministry will correct any lapses uncovered in the procurement systems and processes in the SCDF and CNB.

The Civil Service and MHA will apply those lessons civil service-wide where applicable, he added.

Mr Teo said that to safeguard the tender system's integrity and fairness, the MHA has reviewed various outstanding IT tenders, including the composition of the evaluation committees.

In another supplementary question, Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) asked if there was prior internal information about the case before CPIB investigations commenced.

Mr Teo said he did not have the findings of the CPIB report, and could not say whether there were officers who knew and had not previously reported it.

The MHA, he added, will do its utmost to uphold the trust placed in its officers. 'The public depends on the Home Team officers to do their job right, and to do their job properly. Key to this is that they act with the utmost integrity in whatever they do.'

Confidential channel for whistle-blowers
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2012 

HOME team officers can report improper conduct of superiors using a confidential channel, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said yesterday.

It is not hampered by the hierarchy of ranks and the identity of the whistle-blower will also be kept confidential.

Typically, a uniformed Ministry of Home Affairs officer can raise concerns and feedback in person or in writing to designated persons within their department, said Mr Teo. These are usually the department head or his deputy.

If they are uncomfortable with raising their concerns this way, they can also send the information to the Deputy Secretary or the senior director of human resources.

He was responding to Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) in Parliament.

She had asked, among other questions tabled, the channels available for uniformed officers to furnish information about superiors' improper conduct and whether reporting is hampered by the uniformed services' strict hierarchy of ranks.

Last month, news broke that the former chiefs of two Home Team agencies, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), had been arrested following allegations of 'serious personal misconduct'.

The SCDF's Mr Peter Lim Sin Pang and CNB's Mr Ng Boon Gay are out on bail.

They are assisting the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau in a probe allegedly revolving around irregularities in the tender process of IT-related products. A 36-year-old woman IT executive is also believed to be involved.

The authorities, however, have not revealed whether the whistle-blower in this case is from the private or public sector.

Yesterday, Mr Teo also gave statistics on how many reports of improper conduct had been made in the last five years.

There were 59 cases reported. Fifteen were not anonymous, and of these, eight were against a superior officer.

Later, he also spoke on maintaining the Civil Service's high standards of conduct, in response to parliamentary questions tabled by Ms Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) and Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC).

There are requirements set out in a Code of Conduct which governs the Civil Service, said Mr Teo, who is also Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service.

For example, the approving authority for awarding tenders in procurement consists of a panel of at least three officers.

Internal audits are also conducted regularly, and there are avenues to report wrongdoings and irregularities.

While reassuring Ms Tin that integrity ranks high in the Government's selection of officers, Mr Teo noted that assessing someone is difficult, as they may have weaknesses which may develop or are uncovered later.

But, the important thing is to be 'clear, accountable and transparent', he added, and how an organisation responds to such cases defines it.

'This Government has always been clear and unequivocal in dealing with any such issues of integrity, honesty or wrongdoing,' he said.

What the MPs' silence means
By Chua Lee Hoong, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2012

THE corruption probe into the former heads of the Central Narcotics Bureau and the Singapore Civil Defence Force has been the talk of the town for the past three weeks, so I was expecting fireworks when Parliament sat yesterday for the Minister of Home Affairs himself to be probed by parliamentarians on the subject.

In the end, however, the questioning proved gentle and shortlived, thus begging the question: Why?

One probable reason is Mr Teo Chee Hean himself. The man who is also Deputy Prime Minister has an understated and quietly commanding style; when he speaks, you not only do not doubt his words, you actually feel soothed by the cadences of his voice - so much so that even Workers' Party MPs Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh were less combative than usual when they rose to ask questions.

Likewise, People's Action Party MPs Edwin Tong, Zaqy Mohamad, Lim Biow Chuan and Tin Pei Ling - while all posed impromptu follow-up questions, the tone of the answers remained unflappable throughout.

Mr Teo is one rare person who can deliver a sentence like the following without sounding hectoring, posturing or defensive: 'This Government has always been clear and unequivocal in dealing with any such issues of integrity, honesty or wrongdoing. We come out with it in the open, we deal with it by the law, by disciplinary proceedings and we are not shy of doing so even if it causes embarrassment to the Government.'

But beyond Mr Teo's style, I believe another reason is simply that there is confidence in the probe itself - even on the part of the opposition MPs.

They did not seize the opportunity to score political points by questioning, say, the integrity of the public service, or the pace of investigations, but sat docilely.

Ms Lim, a former policewoman, would probably appreciate the need for evidence that can stand up in court and hence, the difficulty of speeding things up.

Mr Yaw Shin Leong, Mr Chen Show Mao, Mr Low Thia Khiang, Mr Yee Jenn Jong, Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, Mr Gerald Giam and Mrs Lina Chiam all kept silent.

The CPIB - Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau - is a household word in Singapore, the very mention of which evokes a hush. Few doubt that it will act if there is evidence - even against very senior public officials.

Older Singaporeans know of Wee Toon Boon, minister of state in the environment ministry, who in 1975 was sentenced to jail for 41/2 years. He had taken a free trip to Indonesia for himself and his family, paid for by a property developer. He had also accepted a bungalow worth half a million dollars then. Speaking of his case in 2005, then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said he had been a loyal supporter from the 1950s and 'it was painful' to have to charge him.

Then there was national development minister Teh Cheang Wan, who took his own life in 1986 rather than face questioning over $800,000 in bribes. The money came from a property developer who wanted to retain some of his land which had been earmarked for compulsory government acquisition.

The biggest case in CPIB's history is that of Public Utilities Board deputy chief Choy Hon Tim, who was convicted in 1995 of taking nearly $14 million in kickbacks. He was jailed for 14 years, the highest sentence so far for taking bribes.

The CPIB was set up by the British in 1952 and sited in the Attorney-General's Chambers, but when Singapore attained self-government in 1959, Mr Lee, the founding prime minister, moved it to the Prime Minister's Office.

Mr Lee's uncompromising stance against corruption is well-known. 'Corruption is incipient in every society and must be continuously purged,' he said in a speech to a Kuala Lumpur forum in 2005. 'Corruption eats into any system, regardless of the philosophy or ideology of the founding fathers, of the government, or the location of a country.'

As part of that unceasing vigilance, months before he stepped down as prime minister in late 1990, he even initiated moves to make sure that no prime minister of the day would be able to thwart the CPIB in its investigations.

The government eventually enshrined into law the provision that the elected president would be able to order CPIB investigations to proceed if the PM refused.

The number of cases the CPIB handles each year has remained largely constant, at one to two hundred cases a year, and mostly involving individuals rather than syndicates.

'When we come across an officer who has transgressed, we will not hesitate to act against him, even if he's in a senior position and even if it may embarrass the Government,' Mr Teo said yesterday.

It was his second mention of embarrassment to the Government - and the fact that he said it can only augur well for Singapore.

Rather than sweeping things under the carpet, the Government's handling of the case so far indicates its commitment to act even if it runs the risk of political damage.

Even if its reputation is hurt in the short term, it secures its reputation for zero tolerance of corruption in the long term.

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