Parliament 2014: Report on defence spending 'flawed'

DEFENCE Minister Ng Eng Hen on Monday took issue with an international anti-corruption watchdog that gave Singapore a "poor" rating last year for the way it spends money in buying weapons.

Dr Ng said that Transparency International's (TI) assumptions for its assessment were flawed.

He also questioned its move to group Singapore in the same category as Iraq and Afghanistan as he pointed out the "credibility gap" in its report.

Dr Ng noted that in a separate report, TI's Corruption Perception Index, Singapore was placed as the fifth least corrupt nation in the world. "The fact that the same organisation, albeit through another publication, can now produce a completely different assessment, again calls into question TI's credibility," he said.

In fact, Singapore's high-standing reputation as a country with a clean and honest government is also backed by the findings of other think-tanks and bodies like the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, he said in his reply to Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC).

Dr Lim had asked whether Singapore's defence budget oversight and procurement processes were sufficiently robust, in the light of TI's poor rating for Singapore.

Dr Ng said his ministry has strict procedures to ensure procurement systems "adhere to the highest and most rigorous standards".

Citing publications such as Jane's Defence Weekly, Financial Times and Aviation Week, he told the House that these credible publications acknowledge Singapore's stringent, transparent and cost- effective procurement practices.

Singapore is also a "reference customer" that is closely watched by other suppliers and countries buying weapons.

"Mindef has examined TI's assessment and found its assumptions to be flawed and processes weak," he added.

He rebutted two points on Singapore in the TI report.

While it stated that there is "no evidence of illicit economic activity", it added that "we may assume some off-budget allocations, perhaps on a limited basis".

Said Dr Ng: "I don't know what the basis of that assumption is but it is a very, very serious allegation."

The report's evaluator further claimed he had it "on good personal authority" that there was a phantom employee on the Defence Ministry's (Mindef) payroll, without giving details.

TI's processes need to be strengthened "by relying on more authoritative sources and substantiated facts", Dr Ng said, pointing out that its analysis seems to be based mainly on Internet sources.

He said Mindef tried to reach out to TI to give it more information, but it "flatly declined our offers of more information to debunk their false assertions".

Dr Ng also said the defence budget is presented and passed by Parliament, and approved by the President, each year.

Parliament appoints a watchdog panel, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), made up of MPs, to work closely with the Auditor-General's Office to scrutinise expenditure and accounts of ministries and statutory boards.

"This is further complemented by strong executive oversight, and we have a robust system of checks and balances, an independent Auditor-General who reports to the President, and a clean civil service," he said.

Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer), who chairs PAC, said he was shocked to read of Singapore's poor rating. He told The Straits Times that Mindef and its procurement arm, the Defence Science Technology Agency, have often been held up as good examples for other ministries to emulate.

Except for a few administrative lapses, he said, there have been no systemic issues in Mindef pointing to corruption.

When contacted, TI said it had tried to contact Singapore's defence officials in September 2011 and followed up with an e-mail a month later to invite Mindef to review the findings in December that year.

But Mindef replied in July 2012, which was past the review deadline, said TI's advocacy and communications lead Leah Wawro.

She told The Straits Times that TI sent another three letters. "We still wanted their input and published their response to the findings on our website... Mindef was well aware of that. So it's not true that we have not been willing to engage."

Ms Wawro added that TI is still keen to work with Mindef on this research. "We hope to have an earlier engagement so that the review can be included and we can improve the integrity of the study."

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