The recent spotlight on town council lapses raises several issues ("Audit of WP-run town council flags major lapses"; last Tuesday). These include what constitutes good governance and whether there is a need to specifically include such rules in the law.
Some would argue that officers employed in public institutions should abide by the spirit of the law and act in good faith, with a view to protecting the public interest.
The drawback is that "good faith" and "public interest" are left to different interpretations, and this makes compliance arbitrary and difficult.
Others may prefer that the law include an exhaustive list of good-governance rules for compliance. But this may result in unwieldy legislation which may not cover grey areas.
It may also result in institutions strictly doing what is mandatory while ignoring practices not specifically included, even though it may be in the public interest to do so.
In considering any amendments to the law, include specific baseline mandatory rules, as well as a general provision for institutions to abide by the spirit of the law.
Such baseline mandatory rules should include good-governance practices such as disclosing related party transactions and establishing internal controls over payments and receipts of public funds.
For grey areas, a general provision for officers to act in good faith and public interest would require that institutions abide by the spirit of the law, with the onus of proof to be on the officers running the institution when called upon to do so.
Good governance in public institutions is too important to be left to chance. Clear and unambiguous baseline standards in the law would be instrumental in ensuring transparency, integrity and accountability of Singapore's public institutions.
Tham Tuck Meng
This article was first published on Feb 16, 2015.
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