Friday, 7 November 2014

NTU Governance - Integrity, Transparency and Accountability

Integrity, Transparency and Accountability in 
NTU Governance
Importance of Honesty and Trustworthiness in 
University Leadership

Reflections on Purported Forensic Investigations by the major public accounting firm Ernst&Young into possible financial improprieties and misconduct at the highest levels of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

Good Governance is not natural or automatic. The promotion and maintenance of good governance is not easy.  Powerful financial forces act to corrupt power and trust to erode and succumb feeble-minds to the temptation of greed and corruption.  An unspoken “social contract” exists between public officials and the Singapore people whereby we “The People” can expect public institutions to put the interests of the many over those of a few, including themselves, as they exercise wise judgment in decision-making in accordance with the inherent principle of Trusteeship when advancing the economic, social and moral needs of an ethical and caring society.

By implication, administrators, managers and officers of public institutions are subject to public scrutiny and be held accountable for their actions to the people without any exception.

Whither therefore the truth and nature of purported forensic investigations by the major public accounting firm Ernst&Young into possible financial improprieties and misconduct at the highest levels of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU)? Would the Report, if available, be made public like the one concerning the National Kidney Foundation some years ago? 

Of greater importance and public interest is whether public integrity watchdogs and enforcement agencies like the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) and Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau (CPIB) would follow up on the Report, if any, to evaluate whether any laws were breached and whether anyone should be charged for corruption or other heinous breach-of-trust offences, or they had abused their entrusted power for private profit.

Singapore is generally regarded as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Transparency International (TI), a non-governmental organisation established in 1993, has constantly ranked Singapore as one of the 10 least corrupt countries (based on its Corruption Perceptions Index). In addition, Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy Limited (PERC) has ranked Singapore as the least corrupt among a handful of countries it surveyed. Indeed, the Singapore government has consistently emphasized the critical importance of the virtues of honesty and integrity within public sector officials as well as those entrusted by appointments with responsibilities in public institutions.  They are expected to personify qualities of honesty, probity and meritocracy as they focus on the right rather than popular decisions.  Their decision-making process must be transparent and open to timely scrutiny with the public granted unfettered free access to all information pertaining to associated public policies and projects.

In Singapore, we have over the past 50 years developed a “Zero Tolerance” for corruption. In practice, the credibility and reputation of the CPIB and CAD have played an important preventive and enforcement role.

Our fearlessly independent CPIB has the reputation of investigating high ranking public officials for corruption, including Teh Cheng Wan (former Minister of National Development), Glenn Knight (then Director of the Commercial Affairs Department and former public prosecutor), Yeo Seng Teck (then Chief Executive Officer of Trade Development Board), Choy Hon Tim [then Director of the Electricity Department and Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) of the Public Utilities Board (PUB)], Peter Lim Sin Pang (Former Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) Chief), Lim Cheng Hoe (former Protocol Chief of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs), CPIB’s own Edwin Yeo Seow Hiong (a former CPIB Assistant Director) and others (including those from the private sector) suspected of acting improperly.

Desirable Core Values of NTU Governance
A clear statement of the following core values was suggested in 2007 to guide NTU leaders and supervisors so that they would personify civic virtues as they develop an organisation-wide ‘culture of integrity’ to drive NTU towards true world-class excellence.  The Suggestion was never considered or accepted. 

In Governance
Integrity, Ethical, Professional, Transparency
In People Management
Respect, Participative, Consultative, Openness, Responsible, Competence, Exemplary
In Performance Management
Objective, Fair, Equitable, Social Justice, Accountability

If the purported Ernst&Young Report indeed revealed breaches of laws, it would not be surprising.  On several occasions, it had been mysteriously bizarre as to why NTU Senior Management chose to ignore relevant legal boundaries with such impunity even after these have been pointed out them.

In a 2004 arbitrary action, NTU Finance Department exaggerated the benefits of NTU staff by reporting non-existent “car park” as a taxable “benefit” when it was clearly not true. No car park was “reserved” for staff except for office-holders. When this was pointed out by esteemed HR Experts among NTU Professors, the Department refused to report its “error” to the Inland Revenue Authority (IRAS).  In the event, the affected staff were all so taxed the applicable amount. In so doing, NTU had in fact breached Section 95(2)(b) of the Income Tax Act which stated that:
(2)(b) [Anyone who] gives any incorrect information in relation to any matter affecting .... the liability of any other person or of a partnership, shall be guilty of an offence.

Two years later in 2006, NTU Finance Department again declared to the IRAS non-existent “housing benefits” of some NTU staff who had been appointed as Residential Hall Fellows with a residency requirement. In spite of this being commonsense “trite law”, Finance Department again rejected the expert views of its own Faculty Experts and chose to engaged a Top law firm to represent NTU with IRAS. The final successful submission to IRAS was in fact written by NTU own Professors!  Otherwise, NTU would have again committed a breach of the same Section 95(2)b) of The Income Tax Act.

Again around the same period 2007-2010, NTU Senior Management breached various laws including The Retirement Age Act, Singapore Constitution and a Singapore-ratified International Labour Convention on Discrimination in order to purge Singaporean Professors in an effort to reduce local staff so as to satisfy a key criteria of a bogus World Universities Ranking Standard of dubious excellence.

Would the purported Ernst&Young Report on NTU uncover other instances of corporate misconduct or breaches of established corporate governance rules?  Hopefully, no.  I shudder to think of the shameful publicity and ramifications that would result from such scandals on the fine reputation of NTU.

We must guard the integrity of public institutions jealously. Corruption takes over when we allow our national institutions to be subverted by unprincipled public officials or public employees determined to abuse their power, position and prestige for personal profit and gain.

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