Former Singapore library board manager pleads guilty to taking S$580,000 in bribes over 4 years

Low Pok Woen (left) and Ivan Koh Siong Wee leaving the Singapore State Courts on Aug 4, 2020. — TODAY pic
Low Pok Woen (left) and Ivan Koh Siong Wee leaving the Singapore State Courts on Aug 4, 2020. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Aug 5 — A former manager from the National Library Board (NLB) pleaded guilty yesterday to taking S$581,730 (RM1.786 million) in bribes in order to advance the business interests of three digital content providers run by an ex-employee.  

Ivan Koh Siong Wee accepted the money from the companies' director Low Pok Woen from 2005 to 2009. 

Koh was either involved in or supervised NLB’s procurements from Low’s firms.

Low also kept detailed records, including spreadsheets and deposit slips of the bribes.

They were found out in February 2014 when the Auditor-General’s Office made an observation of “possible wrongdoing.”

A senior assistant director from NLB then lodged a police report. 

Koh resigned from the statutory board in November 2014.

Koh, 50, and Low, 51, each pleaded guilty to 20 charges under the Prevention of Corruption Act and are both out on bail.

Another 36 similar charges will be considered for sentencing on September 15. 

Each charge of giving or taking bribes carries a maximum punishment of five years’ jail or a fine of S$100,000, or both.

Low worked for Koh at hairdressing chain

The court heard that Low — also known as Daniel — was Koh’s former employee at hairdressing chain Speedcuts between 2001 and 2005. Koh was its sole director and ran the chain as a side gig.

Around 2005, NLB made a strategic move towards digitalisation and Koh was appointed as a manager in the digital resources service department, now known as the digital library services department, to oversee the move.

Koh told Low that he could explore providing digital content to NLB. 

The NLB department was headed by Buddharaju Kakshmi Narayana Raju, with Koh as the second-in-command. 

Koh oversaw the department’s human resources, budget and administrative matters. He also supervised librarians in searching for digital resources for NLB to acquire. 

If the shortlisted resources were found suitable, he and his team would contact either the authorised publisher or the vendor for the resources.

If the librarian was satisfied with the vendor’s or publisher’s proposal, he or she drafted approval papers to Mr Buddharaju through Koh, recommending that NLB procure the resource. These papers indicated the price and cost per use. 

Koh himself also prepared approval papers for the renewal of digital resources to Buddharaju, including those provided by Low’s companies.

In making the final decision on procurement, Buddharaju relied heavily on the recommendations and information in the approval papers. 

NLB procured over S$6m of resources from low's firms

Their deception started when Koh introduced Low to a salesperson for an overseas database publisher, Terrence Shan Chee Hoong.

Low and Shan eventually incorporated a company, Database Resource Services, as an authorised vendor for overseas publishers. 

Low owned 70 per cent of its shares, while Shan owned the rest.

The pair signed contracts with overseas publishers, acquiring the legal rights to distribute their content in Singapore. 

They then marketed their products to NLB.

In 2007 and 2009, Low incorporated two more companies — JCD Crossmedia and W3.XS.

Between November 2005 and November 2009, Koh took the bribes on 51 occasions from Low. NLB became the biggest customer of the three companies, with the statutory board procuring almost S$6 million in digital resources from them. 

During this time, Koh also asked Low for money for various purposes, such as personal expenses and payment of Speedcuts' business expenses.

Low set aside about 30 per cent of the profits he earned from his companies’ subscription contracts with NLB to give as bribes to Koh.

Koh told the other man confidential information about the digital resources, meaning Low could selectively source the market and supply the resources to NLB when the opportunity arose.

In particular, Low could focus his attention on high-priority resources and knew which ones NLB would procure for a higher price.

Koh also advised Low on what prices to quote NLB and that he should sign off with a different name for each of his three companies to avoid suspicion.

When Koh got one of Low’s databases approved for renewal, Koh emailed him to say he got it renewed “superbly” and “with a covert plan.”

Separately, a senior librarian who reported to Koh asked him for a loan. Koh could not help the other man and turned to Low for help. 

Unknown to Low, the librarian had helped Koh to promote Speedcuts on an ad-hoc basis, so Koh suggested that Low loan him money as remuneration.

Low then gave S$13,500 to the librarian through Koh, as he did not want the librarian to give bad reviews of the digital resources that he supplied.

No further action was taken against the librarian, as he believed the money he received was payment for promoting Speedcuts.

An NLB spokesperson said in response to queries that it takes a serious view of any corrupt act and does not condone any misconduct by its officers.

“We expect our officers to uphold the highest standards of duty, conduct and integrity. Officers who break the law will be prosecuted, and have to face the full extent of the law,” the spokesperson said. 

The spokesperson added that following the incident, NLB regularly refines and streamlines its direct contracting process. It also enforces direct verification of sole distributorships and rigorously monitors the evaluation process for subscription renewals, “in compliance with the Government’s Instruction Manual.” — TODAY

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