Singapore auditor-general flags ‘possible irregularities’ in records of several ministries, statutory boards; police reports filed

The Auditor-General’s Office found ‘possible irregularities’ in the records of three government ministries and two statutory boards. ― Reuters pic
The Auditor-General’s Office found ‘possible irregularities’ in the records of three government ministries and two statutory boards. ― Reuters pic

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SINGAPORE, July 22 — A yearly audit of the public sector by the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO) has not only turned up lapses in areas such as procurement and weaknesses in information technology controls. It also found “possible irregularities” in the records of three government ministries and two statutory boards.

Police reports were filed after these potential irregularities surfaced. 

AGO’s report for the 2020 to 2021 financial year, made public today and tabled in Parliament the day before, listed the agencies where the possible irregularities were found. They were the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), Ministry of Education (MOE), Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and People’s Association (PA).

AGO said its audit of MCCY found that supporting documents for claims contained signs that they could have been photocopies of one another, with changes made to the dates and duration of services rendered.

One example highlighted by the AGO involves 10 claims totalling S$1,812 (RM5,627) made between April 2019 and March 2020.

Six out of 10 soft-copy attendance records submitted to the AGO as supporting documents for the claims “contained tell-tale signs, which cast doubt on their authenticity”, it said.

In audits of MOE and MHA, there were “a few instances” indicating that supporting documents were created or other documents backdated to satisfy AGO’s queries.

As for HDB, AGO said it found indications that some quotations could have been created or altered to give the impression that they were obtained from other suppliers. 

PA’s possible irregularities included signs of falsification of quotations, alteration of hard-copy payment supporting documents, and the creation and backdating of documents.

These agencies, AGO said, have since carried out investigations and made police reports where appropriate.

Responding to AGO’s report, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) said that it was disappointed with instances of public officers fabricating or altering documents for audit because such actions “weaken the system of public accountability”.

The ministry said that the Government took a zero-tolerance approach to fraud and corruption, and stressed that every case would be thoroughly investigated. 

“We will throw the book at officers involved in suspected fraud and corruption, including lodging police reports for criminal investigations to be conducted,” MOF said.

Among the series of lapses found by AGO is one involving wastage on the part of the Health Promotion Board (HPB) from excess fitness trackers that were not put to use. 

After AGO’s test checks, HPB carried out a full stock count and found 341,000 excess trackers with a value totalling S$5.39 million. 

AGO described this as a “significant sum of public funds wasted over the last five years”.  

A separate audit of medical and dental claims in the civil service, administered by the Public Service Division (PSD), found around 9,500 possibly erroneous claims paid to ineligible officers and pensioners between January 1, 2018 and March 31 last year. 

These were equivalent to 0.3 per cent of the three million claims processed over that period, but the estimated possible overpayment was “not small”, at about S$500,000, AGO noted.

Other lapses included those at the Accountant-General’s Department as well as the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra). These involved the management of “most privileged operating system user accounts”. 

AGO said that such accounts give users full access privileges to the operating system, including the ability to make changes to audit logs on the operating system as well as user access and security settings. 

“Unauthorised activities could compromise the respective servers and affect the processing and recording of financial transactions in the servers,” it added.

After AGO’s test checks, HPB carried out a full stock count and found 341,000 excess trackers with a value totalling S$5.39 million. Photo: iStock

Remedial steps

MOF said that the audit raised three areas to which public agencies should pay greater attention. They are the outsourcing of services, straight-through processing — processing financial transactions without manual intervention — and records management.

Acknowledging the need for improvements in these areas, the ministry said that the heads of the agencies concerned have reviewed each case carefully and were taking steps to deal with the lapses identified. 

“Where there are lapses, we undertake corrective actions and learn from them,” MOF said.

“Where AGO has affirmed good practices, we share these positive practices, so that all public agencies can raise their standards of performance.”

What MOE and MHA say

Both ministries said that they take a serious view of the irregularities that the AGO has found and that police reports have been filed.

They added that they have reminded their respective vendors that the creation or backdating of documents for audit is unacceptable.

On MOE’s end, it acknowledged that there is scope for internal processes to be further tightened and strengthened to ensure greater accountability, and has put in place more policies to make it happen. 

MHA said that internal investigations are in progress and disciplinary action will be taken should any officers be found guilty of such wrongdoing.

What HPB says

HPB said that the excess fitness trackers were bought as a result of over-estimation of demand for its past National Steps Challenge seasons as it noticed that the programme grew more than five-fold from 156,000 sign-ups in the first season, to more than 900,000 sign-ups in the fifth season. 

Moving forward, it said that it will be more conservative in its projections and will make procurements “based on a modest percentage of the previous season’s demand”. It will buy more only when it receives excess bookings from participants. 

Of the 341,208 excess trackers, 120,000 are still working, HPB said. 

Close to 48,000 of the functional trackers have been used for replacements and exchanges of faulty trackers and those with expired warranties. Another 3,000 have been allocated to support community partners, companies and other government agencies in their health and wellness initiatives. The remaining will be used for all these purposes.

As for the excess trackers that do not work, HPB told TODAY that there are 218,400 of them. They include obsolete and non-functional fitness trackers that have been disposed of, which amounts to S$3.28 million.

What PA says

On the possible irregularities in its quotations and documents, PA said that it immediately convened an internal investigation panel upon being informed of the potential lapses by the AGO.

The panel, led by senior officers from PA and MCCY, confirmed AGO’s observations.

“As the lapses relate to serious allegations involving falsification of documents, including in relation to claims by external parties, PA has lodged a police report and investigations are ongoing. 

“PA has suspended its staff pending the outcome of these investigations.”

TODAY has reached out to MCCY, HDB, the Accountant-General’s Department and Acra for comments.

The police and MHA were also asked how many police reports and arrests have been made, if any, in relation to AGO’s findings. They were not able to provide an answer at the time of publication.

What MCCY says

On AGO’s finding regarding instances where there were duplicate or incorrect claims, MCCY said its investigation verified that all the claims in question were valid, in return for services carried out. 

There was no fraud involved and the lapses were a “result of the partners seeking administrative convenience” at a time when the processes were newly introduced, coupled with teething issues during implementation that could have been addressed in a more timely manner. 

MCCY said that it takes the lapses seriously and has sought to remedy them through a comprehensive review of workflows. This includes tightening and streamlining processes to make them more practical for their partners while still ensuring sound internal controls and documentation.

What PSD says

PSD and the Accountant-General’s Department said they understand that AGO has found no systemic lapses in its audit of the spending related to medical and dental benefits incurred during the periods concerned. 

However, they are working to determine the appropriate remedial actions for the erroneous cases AGO flagged. For cases found to involve dishonesty, disciplinary actions will be taken against the officers.  

TODAY has reached out to HDB and Acra for comments.

The police and MHA were also asked how many police reports and arrests have been made, if any, in relation to AGO’s findings. They were not able to provide an answer at the time of publication. — TODAY

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