“Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam recently assured Parliament that channels were open for whistleblowers to report irregularities” (Whistleblowing Has Its Limits, The Straits Times Editorial).
The Straits Times Editorial “Whistleblowing Has Its Limits” (February 18, 2011) focuses attention on the prevalence of purported fraud and wrong-doing in the assortment of public agencies, with the case of bogus procurements in the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) casting a negative light on the integrity of public service administrators. More importantly, there has been an avalanche of criticisms hurled upon the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC); with many members of the public questioning its capabilities of deterrence, level of vigilance and ability to detect unlawful activities within offices, insufficient safeguards and guarantees for whistleblowers et cetera. In the long run, while the SLA renders existing whistleblowing channels more secure and confidential, the PAC has the imperative to strengthen liabilities of agencies and improve detection methodologies, so as to combat more wholesomely against fraud.
Whistleblowing will continue to be an important tool against misconduct or illegal financial transactions occurring in government organisations. Premising their propositions primarily for public interest, general accountability and organisational responsibilities, whistleblowers – if guided by good faith and a sense of duty – can do well for the general public. Given the number of statutory boards and their corresponding departments, the fact that the Auditor-General receives about fifty complaints a year can be considered to be relatively heartening. From a general perspective, it does mean that misconduct and irregularities in these organisations have been kept to a minimum; though it can be contended that elements of contentment with the status quo or the fear of reprisals might have prevented officers or employees from coming forward.
The PAC should laboriously investigate individual cases of accusations to ascertain authenticity, before going ahead with in-depth examinations to distinguish between genuine cases and disgruntled employees seeking to voice personal frustrations or complaints. If whistleblowing is to be instituted as a formal, unified code, whistleblowers should reveal their identities to the PAC; however, the PAC would have to maintain the respondents’ anonymity. In the United States, under the False Claims Act, whistleblowers are also promised a percentage of the recovered money, and protect them from dismissal.
If necessary, the PAC can be strengthened in terms of resources and manpower provided so that it has the capacity to carry out its mandate effectively and efficiently.
The focus on whistleblowing does take away the focus on the incompetence of the PAC in identifying the particular case in the SLA. Personnel training and identification programmes must be magnified so that potential cases of fraud can be determined speedily and dealt with severity. Prevention will always be better than cure.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.