Monday 29 July 2013

Public service graft cases: Half were in enforcement

Most offenders were male and money was most common bribe: PMO study
By Bryna Singh, The Straits Times, 27 Jul 2013

ENFORCEMENT officers, nearly all of whom were men, made up half of public officers investigated for graft and similar misconduct over the past five years.

Money was also the most common type of bribe, with cases involving sex accounting for just 11 per cent.

This is what a new study, prompted by the recent spate of high-profile cases involving public officers, established.

Commissioned by the Prime Minister's Office, it was meant to see if there were widespread issues in the public service system. The study was initially "classified" but the PMO made it public yesterday due to "public interest".

It showed that of the 996 cases handled by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), 197 or about one in five cases involved public officers. This works out to an average of 39 cases each year between 2008 and last year.

A third of these cases saw no need for further action after the officer was cleared, investigations proved inconclusive or the Attorney-General decided there was a lack of evidence. The rest of the cases led to criminal prosecution or disciplinary proceedings.

Male officers were the bulk of offenders, forming 92 per cent of those prosecuted or disciplined.

Half of these offenders, or 51 per cent, were also front-line officers whose job was to enforce laws. They included police and anti-narcotics officers and officials from the Housing Board, National Environment Agency and Manpower Ministry, among others.

The other half, or 49 per cent, consisted of those in technical and support roles, as well as those working in administration.

About 30 per cent of those prosecuted or disciplined were A-level or diploma holders; those with degrees accounted for 23 per cent. Close to half had O-level certification as their highest qualification.

The most common accusation against those investigated under the Prevention of Corruption Act was showing unwarranted leniency when doing their job (53 per cent). Twenty-one per cent gave unauthorised services and information, and 15 per cent granted favour in the form of employment and other opportunities.

In return, 6 per cent received sexual favours and 5 per cent got a combination of sex and money.

In 65 per cent of the cases, money was the sole form of illegal gratification. The amounts were usually less than $1,000, which was so for 40 per cent of cases. Cases involving bribes of over $100,000 made up 6 per cent.

Commenting on the results, head of the civil service Peter Ong said in an e-mail sent to the 136,000-strong public service that he was reassured by the findings as they show that "our system as a whole remains sound".

Indeed, Singapore was in fifth place in last year's Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International, which measures perceived levels of public sector corruption.

"We have a strong culture which rejects fraud and corruption," said the PMO yesterday, while highlighting how half the cases which led to prosecution and disciplinary action came from complaints within the civil service. About a third came from members of the public, and the rest from anonymous tipoffs.

These show that existing channels for reporting suspected wrongdoing "have proven useful in many cases", added the PMO.

No room for complacency: Civil service chief
By Bryna Singh, The Straits Times, 27 Jul 2013

ALTHOUGH a study of investigations against public officers for corruption and other financial crimes has found that such cases remained low, the Public Service has said it cannot be complacent.

This is because public officers are in a position of trust and authority, said civil service head Peter Ong in an e-mail sent to the entire service yesterday.

"We owe it to our fellow Singaporeans to carefully guard their trust in us and the Public Service," he wrote. "Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and a long time to repair."

Mr Ong's comments come after a spate of high-profile cases involving errant public officers, which he said raised questions over the integrity of the Public Service. This includes the latest one involving Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) officer Edwin Yeo, who was charged in court on Wednesday for allegedly siphoning funds from the agency and other related offences.

The study Mr Ong referred to was commissioned by the Prime Minister's Office to examine cases involving public officers opened by the CPIB and the police Commercial Affairs Department.

It found that the number of cases against errant officers has remained low and fairly stable over a five-year period.

The CPIB, for instance, conducts an average of 39 investigations involving public officers each year. These make up about one in five of all graft cases.

Said Mr Ong: "I am reassured by these findings as they show that our system as a whole remains sound. But we cannot be complacent. Every case is one too many."

He added that the Public Service has "zero tolerance for corruption" and said its leaders must lead by example and ensure that their actions are beyond reproach.

"The fact that senior officers have been charged in the courts for corruption and other financial crimes is a matter of concern, but it also underscores our deep resolve and commitment to bring all wrongdoers to justice and uphold integrity in the Public Service at all levels," he said. "We will not hesitate to take action against a corrupt officer, no matter how senior he or she might be."

MP Hri Kumar Nair, the chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, agreed.

"People don't expect perfection from public officers, but when they fall, then firm and decisive action needs to be taken," he said. "The Public Service needs to uphold its integrity, and public officers are expected to conduct themselves at a higher standard than most others."

Review of casino rules for public officers
By Bryna Singh, The Straits Times, 27 Jul 2013

THE issue of whether tighter rules on public officers visiting casinos are needed has been included in the latest review of the public service code of conduct.

This was revealed by civil service head Peter Ong yesterday in an e-mail to the 136,000-strong public service, days after one of its own was hauled up to court for fraud and related offences.

Edwin Yeo, an assistant director from the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), was charged on Wednesday with siphoning funds from the anti- graft agency and using them to feed his gambling habit at the casino in Marina Bay Sands.

Mr Ong said he was disappointed by Yeo's case, and such incidents "cast a pall over the honest work done by the majority of public officers every day".

But he said the Public Service Division (PSD) will learn from the incident and tighten its processes.

"To this end, PSD will review if tighter rules with regard to visiting casinos should be put in place for the public service, especially those who work in areas where potential conflict of interest may arise or where there is a high risk of them becoming susceptible to being exploited," he added.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, the PSD said there is no "across-the-board ban" on officers going to the casinos here. "Generally, public officers may visit casinos when they are off duty," it said. "However... some agencies have imposed restrictions."

Casino Regulatory Authority officers, for instance, have been banned from visiting casinos - both here and abroad - belonging to the parent companies of the two operators here since 2008.

Since 2009, the police have also instituted a ban on visits to the casinos for officers from its Casino Crime Investigation Branch and those in Central and Clementi police divisions, who cover both integrated resorts.

Other police officers and those from the Central Narcotics Bureau are required to declare casino visits to their supervisors within seven days of each visit.

The Straits Times understands that CPIB will follow suit with its own restrictions soon.

* Debt-hit officers are helped, not punished: PSD

WE THANK Mr Colin Loh and Credit Counselling Singapore's Mr Kuo How Nam for their comments ("Spell out clear rules for civil servants"; last Thursday, and "Debt-hit employees should be helped, not punished"; last Wednesday), which give us an opportunity to clarify and explain some of our rules and processes.

The Civil Service is governed by a Code of Conduct based on principles of integrity, incorruptibility and impartiality. The Code articulates the key conduct principles and expected behaviour of our officers.

Officers are expected to conduct themselves in a manner which upholds the integrity of the Service and the public confidence in it.

The Code is a live document and agency chiefs hold town-hall sessions to discuss with staff how the Code would apply to them as they go about their daily work.

The Code is also discussed at induction and periodically at milestone programmes that officers attend.

On Mr Loh's suggestion to have an ombudsman process for the reporting of wrongdoing, there is a reporting framework in place where officers can report wrongful practices or behaviour they observe in the Service.

An officer may report wrongdoing to his supervisors or his Permanent Secretary directly.

Beyond his own agency, he may report to the Head of the Civil Service. He may also report to the Public Service Commission, which is an independent body with the authority to discipline civil servants.

The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) and Auditor-General's Office are also independent channels for such reporting.

As part of CPIB's preventive programmes, it also regularly conducts talks to remind officers of the importance of maintaining incorruptibility and the potential consequences of a failure to do so.

We agree with Mr Kuo that we should help our officers, and indeed we do when they encounter problems.

The default consequence for a declaration of financial embarrassment is not punishment or retribution.

As caring employers, our agencies implement such declaration rules with empathy.

Factors such as whether the officer had made an honest declaration, and whether there were extenuating or mitigating circumstances, are considered.

This is because we recognise that each officer's circumstances are unique.

We will help officers resolve their financial issues, for example, through financial counselling and helping him to work out a repayment plan.

Some agencies such as the Ministry of Home Affairs are already actively doing this.

As part of continuing education and awareness for officers, talks and seminars on financial planning and prudence are also held.

Officers are also informed of assistance channels such as Credit Counselling Singapore.

We would like to cite an example of assistance given to an officer in need.

This officer was heavily indebted due to a combination of family medical bills and unemployment of loved ones. His house was repossessed as a result of loan defaults.

Upon learning of his situation, the agency referred him to a government cooperative to get a loan with a repayment period that he could cope with.

The officer remained in Service and was able to sort out his financial problems with the assistance offered.

Steven Bong
Director, Capability Development
Public Service Division, Prime Minister's Office
ST Forum, 5 Aug 2013

Preventing graft: System not perfect but works

MR COLIN Loh disagreed that paying top dollar for public servants is necessary to avert corruption ("Spell out clear rules for civil servants"; last Thursday).

While Singapore consistently ranks in the upper echelons of least corrupt countries, has very low crime rates and an extremely low infant mortality rate, it certainly is no idyllic utopia.

Humans are fallible, systems fail, accidents occur and crooks are ingenious - but conventional wisdom dictates that quoting exceptions do not prove the rule.

If government officials are not to be lured by material gain and iniquitously engage in graft, the Government is obliged by implicit contract to provide, fairly, all monetary and welfare benefits to ensure their loyalty.

Our government servants are handsomely remunerated, but the scale is equitably commensurate with their qualifications, experience and expertise, and no more than how their contemporaries are compensated in the private sector.

When bureaucrats are paid a high enough wage, even a small chance of losing their jobs is a very strong deterrent in preventing corruption.

I agree with Mr Loh that instituting more rigid standard operating procedures in procurement decreases the opportunities for public servants to dip their hands into the till. However, this will increase the inflexibility, inadaptability and lack of initiative that the civil service is already commonly accused of.

Singapore's modus operandi of combating corruption - where nobody can be beyond reproach or investigation, fair wages, an independent anti-corruption agency, and draconian punishments for those judged guilty - has rooted out most of the entrenched corruption prevalent in colonial Singapore.

It is not perfect, as nothing in the real world is, and needs constant refinement and fine-tuning, but it has served us well thus far.

Yik Keng Yeong (Dr)
ST Forum, 5 Aug 2013

Debt-hit employees should be helped, not punished

APART from reviewing the need for tighter rules on casino visits for public officers ("Review of casino rules for public officers"; last Saturday), the Public Service Division should also relook its present practice regarding the indebtedness of civil servants.

Currently, all civil servants have to make an annual declaration of whether or not they are in debt, which could mean having unsecured debts of just a few months' salary.

While this declaration reinforces the need for civil servants to be free from pecuniary embarrassment, there will always be those who are unable to stay out of debt.

The causes could be gambling and irresponsible spending, but some people are victims of unfortunate circumstances, such as having special-needs dependants, having to foot emergency medical bills for their loved ones, having a spouse who is retrenched, or helping family members in dire financial straits.

Civil servants face a dilemma - declare they are in debt and face the consequences, which could mean termination of service; or keep quiet and hope that the problem can be resolved somehow.

Some have chosen the latter course of action. Added to their financial worries will be the fear of being discovered, driving some to take desperate measures.

Thus, the organisation is exposed to the possibility of fraud, misappropriation and other risks.

What is required is a more proactive and supportive employment regime that will encourage individuals to come forward with their financial problems.

Rather than face punishment and retribution, affected individuals should be offered counselling and financial advice so they can understand the options available to them. Debts, for example, can be restructured into instalment loans.

Credit Counselling Singapore has collaborated with consumer banks since 2004 in its debt management programme and has successfully restructured the debts of thousands of people.

Their average unsecured debts - mainly credit card debt - owed to consumer banks have been around $70,000 with a pay-back period of about six years. This has allowed debtors to live normal lives, free from harassment and anxiety.

Past incidents involving civil servants in debt have driven home the urgent need to review present human resource policies that place individuals and their organisations at risk.

This is something that should be done not only by the Public Service Division, but also by all employers in Singapore.

Kuo How Nam
Credit Counselling Singapore
ST Forum, 31 Jul 2013

Spell out clear rules for civil servants

I DISAGREE that "paying public servants top dollar is necessary to avert corruption" ("Staying steadfast against graft"; Monday). If that were so, then the recent high-profile corruption cases, where the perpetrators were more than well compensated, would not have happened.

Civil servants should be paid adequately but not handsomely.

There are three contributing factors to the current state of affairs.

First, I sense a trend in society where things are not seen in black and white, but in shades of grey. It is dangerous to rationalise everything that we do.

I was brought up in an era when we were clear about what was right and wrong.

The Government should clearly spell out the processes, procedures and behaviours that all civil servants should adhere to. Ambiguous rules and regulations lead to time wasted in second-guessing and checking on multiple levels.

Second, there is no official policy in the civil service on whistle-blowing.

An official ombudsman should be appointed for this purpose, and this person should be from the judiciary in order to maintain independence.

Third, talks and lectures on the rules are insufficient. These should be complemented with workshops, where there are discussions on case studies. All civil servants should also be made to attend talks by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

Civil servants must not just do things right but should also do the right things.

Colin Loh
ST Forum, 1 Aug 2013


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