Business body puts in safeguard against abuse, infighting

PHOTO: Business body puts in safeguard against abuse, infighting

One of Singapore's top business associations has imposed a new system of checks and balances aimed at preventing abuse and infighting among its leadership.

The Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF) passed changes to its Constitution last month to set up the process.

It touts the move as the first of its kind for societies here although other business groups seemed cool to the idea when approached by The Straits Times.

The SMF step comes in the form of a board of governors who will facilitate opposing views to be thrashed out internally, rather than have them leak into the public domain, said president George Huang.

Leadership struggles and infighting to the point of lawsuits have plagued bodies like the Hainan Clan Association, the Raffles Town Club and the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI) in recent years.

The SMF's board of governors will comprise three to seven people, either past presidents or deputy presidents or "eminent persons" like MPs and ministers.

They will able to investigate any complaint or issue raised by a third of its 32-member council.

The heads of department in its secretariat - who are paid staff - can also ask for its help.

The board will hold a "second key" to SMF's $20 million reserves which will prevent the president and council from committing to expenditure that uses more than 10 per cent of the reserves without getting its green light.

More than 100 members at last month's annual general meeting backed the changes, with only one abstention. The SMF is now awaiting official approval.

The board of governors will act as a "circuit-breaker for major disagreements to be heard, or contentious decisions to be challenged," said SMF secretary-general Lam Joon Khoi.

Mr Huang said he wanted this safeguard during his term as president to show his willingness to accept a check on his own power.

The SMF says it "does not aspire to be a role model" for other associations, as they may have their own safeguards in place.

SICCI chairman R. Narayanamohan, said its Constitution allows for a council of past chairmen, but it relies on a group of seven advisers.

Several senior staff resigned from the SICCI earlier this year in opposition to new chief executive Sanjoy Chowdhury, who himself resigned two months later.

Mr Narayanamohan said its issues have been resolved and that anyone can go to its panel of advisers for redress or counsel.

"In the extreme cases, there is a clash of personalities that causes the problems we see at some associations," he said. "It may not be something that another layer can avoid."

The president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, Mr Chan Chong Beng, said "too many layers makes the functions of the body a bit slow. You can't afford to have a standstill because some people disagree with the direction."

Singapore Institute of Directors chairman Willie Cheng noted that the cumbersome nature of a "two-tier" governance structure is why it is rare in Singapore but he commended SMF for "taking the road less travelled to improve its governance processes".

Mr Cheng noted that a supervisory layer can prevent abuse by a small group given that local societies often see few members show up at their AGMs and have Constitutions that allow them to waive quorum after half an hour.

"But that level of check should be confined to approval or veto of major decisions, otherwise we are encumbering the first-level board."

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