'Checks, balances in place' for public funds

'Checks, balances in place' for public funds
PHOTO: The Straits Times

There is a sound system of checks and balances in place in the public sector to make sure public funds are properly accounted for, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told Parliament yesterday.

He said that the findings highlighted in the latest report by the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) for the Financial Year 2014/2015 did not affect AGO's opinion of the Government's financial statements.

Mr Tharman, who is also Finance Minister, noted that the AGO has given an unmodified audit opinion this year, just as in previous years - that is to say, the accounts of ministries, departments and organs of state are reliable, and public funds properly accounted for.

The same was the case for statutory boards, all of which received an unmodified audit opinion from their auditors for the last financial year.

"Let me reassure members that we have a sound system of checks and balances in place in the public sector, which is why it is regarded as one of the cleanest and most reputable administrations in the world."

Mr Tharman was replying to a question from Nominated MP Mohd Ismail Hussein on lapses in public sector entities.

Some agencies, such as the People's Association and the National Parks Board, were singled out in the AGO's report released last month.

The lapses cited included those in the management and tendering of contracts and related party transactions.

Mr Tharman added: "Public officers and agencies know they have a responsibility to safeguard the use of public funds. Internal controls are in place within each agency, audits by an impartial AGO are carried out regularly and rigorously, and the AGO's findings are made public.

"The agencies take prompt action whenever problems are found, and make no attempt to cover them up. And where there is any suspicion of fraud or corruption, investigations are thorough and errant officers face the full measure of the law, regardless of their seniority."

He said all the agencies involved have conducted their own investigations into the lapses.

And except for one audit finding, concerning an agency's procurement of event management services, all the other audit findings in this year's AGO report were not repeat lapses.

"All agencies where lapses were found have taken steps to improve. Depending on the problem, this includes closer monitoring by supervisors and internal auditors, improved and clearer internal guidelines for officers, enhanced IT systems to enable better tracking, and developing fund administration guidelines for management of programme vendors."

He added that officers responsible for the lapses are taken to task.

Even where there is no evidence of fraud or corrupt intent, Mr Tharman said an officer may face serious disciplinary action, such as having his salary increment withheld and being debarred from promotion for a few years.

Workers' Party MP Png Eng Huat (Hougang) asked how it might be concluded that most of the AGO's findings on lapses were not repeated if the AGO does audits on selected agencies and may not select the same agencies every year.

Mr Tharman said he was not able to say that every fault or lapse found this year has never happened before because the AGO, like any external auditor, can make only selective audits and focuses on different transactions and agencies each year.

"However, if you asked me for an assessment looking at all the years of AGO reports...it is clear that lessons are taken in each and every case," he said, noting that each lapse is tracked and repeated lapses are taken very seriously.



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