PETALING JAYA - Money meant for food to feed malnourished children was instead spent on buying meals such as nasi lemak, kuih and teh tarik to be served at meetings by three district health offices.
The abuse is one of the key highlights of the 2013 Auditor-General's Report which listed 283 issues related to wastage of funds, poor revenue and asset management, negligence as well as weak planning and monitoring of projects.
The shocking discovery showed that RM87,851 (S$33,900) out of RM923,000 meant to feed poor rural children was misspent by the Jerantut, Gua Musang and Kota Kinabalu health offices, causing a public uproar.
The report pointed out that the funds were also misused by the three health offices to buy curtains, hampers for cooking programmes, and replica models of food items such as biscuits, nasi goreng, and nasi lemak.
Souvenirs, t-shirts for a choir group, as well as the rental of canopies for a family day were also among the items purchased.
Discrepancies were also found between the prices of food items in the tender documents and invoices.
As a result of the discovery, the Health Ministry set up an internal investigation committee on Feb 27 to investigate and reprimand the officers involved.
Suhakam commissioner James Nayagam described the abuse involving hungry children as a serious crime that should be investigated by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
"This is corruption no matter how you cut the cake, because money meant for hungry children was used to feed those who were supposed to take care of them," said Nayagam who has worked with children's organisations for the past 33 years.
The report said that the weight recovery of the children in the Health Ministry's Rehabilitation Programme for Malnourished Children, which started in 1989, also did not reflect the targets set.
The underweight children were found to have only achieved normal weight after a year and not within the six to 12 months promised by the programme.
A total of 8,556 children were in the programme between 2011 and 2013 with an allocation of RM66.51mil.
All the youngsters were supposed to receive food baskets comprising food items and multivitamins worth RM150 each under the programme.
The food baskets provided 104 per cent of their calorie needs and 222 per cent of their protein needs.
The report said some of the health offices went over the RM150 budget in buying the food items for the children due to the rise in the price of goods and the higher cost of certain items in rural areas.
A total of RM238,213 was overspent on the food baskets, with the Tawau health office found to have overspent by RM88.80 per basket.
The report said the ministry after being queried had set up an internal investigation committee on Jan 27 and that the probe on the matter was expected to be finished by the end of February.
The ministry had also explained to the auditors that it needed to spend not just on the malnourished children's programme but on other programmes as well.
The report in its recommendations said officers must have a good grasp of financial regulations to ensure that allocations were spent according to the rules.
Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam, when contacted, declined to comment, saying his ministry would issue a statement in due time.