Saturday, 4 April 2015

Corruption complaints at 30-year low: CPIB

Release of detailed statistics part of move to maintain strong anti-graft culture in Singapore
By Ng Siqi Kelly, TODAY, 3 Apr 2015

Traditionally an organisation that keeps its workings away from the public eye, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) yesterday released for the first time detailed statistics, which showed that the number of complaints it received fell to a 30-year low last year.

Among these, the number of complaints containing enough information for investigations to be carried out is also at the lowest in three decades, showing that the corruption situation in Singapore remains stable, the bureau said in a press release yesterday.

The CPIB received 736 complaints last year, 7 per cent lower than the 792 in 2013. Of these, 136 cases were logged for graft investigations. Of the rest, some complaints were not able to be acted on because of scanty information, while others pertained to other kinds of offences, such as cheating and misappropriation of funds.

A total of 168 cases were prosecuted in court last year, although the figure could include cases that the CPIB had started work on in preceding years. The conviction rate was 96 per cent.

The lifting of the veil of secrecy is, in part, to maintain a strong anti-graft culture, CPIB said.

The move comes after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced stronger measures to fight corruption in January, as he noted that high-profile cases in recent years have hurt Singapore’s pristine reputation not just in the eyes of the public but also among the international community.

While these cases involving prominent and senior public officers are fresh in the memory, CPIB’s statistics showed that the bulk of the investigable complaints last year actually involved the private sector (85 per cent).

The CPIB flagged three areas of concerns from the private employees it prosecuted last year — construction; sales of household goods in departmental stores; and warehouse and logistics services.

Other than a review of anti-graft laws and beefing up of CPIB’s manpower, Mr Lee had also announced that a new one-stop centre will be set up in the city centre, which will allow whistle-blowers to come forward in a discreet manner. This centre is expected to be ready in one year’s time, CPIB said, without revealing more details.

The bureau’s inaugural statistics report also showed that complaints lodged in person are the most likely to result in investigation. However, only 8 per cent of complaints last year were walk-ins.

Out of the 59 complaints made in person, 63 per cent of them resulted in investigations. In contrast, only 6 per cent of the 280 complaints via email and fax — the predominant mode — had enough details for investigators to work with.

To encourage more walk-ins from whistle-blowers, better protection is needed, said corporate governance experts. In the United States and the United Kingdom, for instance, protection for whistle-blowers is legislated, they noted.

Professor Mak Yuen Teen from National University of Singapore said the one-stop centre to allow for more discreet reporting is not enough assurance for whistle-blowers.

While the Prevention of Corruption Act currently offers some protection — such as the withholding of names and addresses of informants — there should be a comprehensive piece of legislation protecting from reprisals or potentially defamatory actions, he said.

What whistle-blowers fear most, said lawyer Daniel Chia from Morgan Lewis Stamford, is that the affected party may sue for defamation if the complaint is dismissed. This has a “chilling effect” on complaints, he added.

Prof Mak added that some countries such as the UK also have an Ombudsman to whom protected disclosures can be made.

Without the level of assurance that legislation can provide, certain disclosures may not be forthcoming, said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan, citing subordinates who hold back on reporting their bosses for suspected corrupt acts out of fear of repercussions.

“These are precisely the people in best positions to sense when something is amiss, but the power difference causes them to hold back on complaints. This is where greater assurance of protection will help,” he said.

However, Associate Professor Tan noted that laws meant to protect whistleblowers may also be abused by some to mount personal attacks.

“There must be sufficient sanctions and a clear definition of a ‘whistle-blower’ to prevent abuse,” he said.

Most of the experts said that complaints should not be anonymous to allow for more effective investigations.

Allowing anonymity will lead to unsubstantiated complaints which may result in a waste of time and resources, said lawyer Raj Mannar from Peter Low LLC.

The CPIB, however, said all complaints will be deliberated upon in the same manner regardless of whether the complainant has identified himself or chooses to remain anonymous.

Reiterating its zero-tolerance stance, CPIB director Wong Hong Kuan added: “No amount is too trivial. Even if it involves a S$1 bribe, the CPIB has and will not hesitate to investigate and get to the root of the matter.”

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