Letters - Tighten vetting of top civil servants

THE members of G25, many of whom are retired senior civil servants, are greatly impressed by the new vigour shown by the MACC in stepping up investigations into corruption at senior levels of the civil service. The arrest of a ministry secretary-general is clear indication that the agency is gaining credibility in nabbing senior civil servants whose lifestyles suggest they are on the take.

We are optimistic that the authorities will exercise due diligence in their investigation, followed by proper prosecution. We urge the MACC to continue the close surveillance of top civil servants and to extend it to politicians and political nominees holding positions in the government, the GLCs and statutory agencies.

The arrest of the secretary-general has raised questions on how he was promoted. We call upon the Public Services Department and the chief secretary to the government to explain publicly whether there was omission and negligence in conducting proper vetting when he was being considered for promotion.

There is also a need to explain whether there was any political pressure and interference in his promotion.

There is a procedure in government which requires civil servants to declare their assets and those of their family. We would like to know from the chief secretary how this asset declaration is implemented and whether there is any follow-up on reports that raise suspicion.

A lot of claims have been made in the media by the government that it has set up integrity units in several ministries under the Government Transformation Programme to modernise public administration and cultivate principles of transparency and accountability among civil servants.

The Integrity Unit was introduced to ensure that each ministry and department conducts its internal checks on compliance with the financial and administrative procedures on spending its budgetary allocations, particularly on the procurement of supplies and services. In addition, the unit is expected to serve as the eyes and ears for reporting on the personal conduct of the officers. The Integrity Unit can easily check from the declaration of assets such as bank balances, number of cars and houses owned and income tax returns to form an opinion on the character of the senior officers.

The idea behind the Integrity Unit is that it is independent and not answerable to the secretary-general so that it is free to report to the MACC, the Public Services Department or Ministry of Finance if it has reason to believe that there is unethical behaviour in the ministry, or if there are officers not following Treasury instructions on financial management. The chief secretary should instruct all secretaries-general to respect the independence of integrity units to file reports on officers for disciplinary action or investigation.

In the corporate and financial sectors, the guidelines on good governance practices require that the internal audit and compliance unit within the company or the bank is independent of the CEO and its findings must be reported direct to the audit and risk committees of the board, which will have the final say on whether any disciplinary action should be taken.

It is regrettable that while there has been a major improvement in the standards of governance in the corporate and financial sectors, and a corresponding increase in confidence on the local capital and financial markets, the civil service has lagged behind in adopting the same principles of checks and balance on the powers of government officers and ministers, creating a trust deficit on the administration of the country. The reputation of the civil service has taken a hard knock with unresolved issues. The arrests of senior civil servants have created further concerns on honesty and accountability at the top levels.

The secretaries-general are extremely powerful as they are designated under the Financial General Orders as the controlling officers of the budget in ministries. They have to sign the approval to authorise the expenditures and therefore, they are accountable for any mismanagement of the ministry budget. As their personal qualities are essential to uphold the good reputation of the civil service in managing the ministries, it is absolutely essential that the chief secretary look into the procedures of checking on their wealth and private life to ensure that only the most trustworthy are considered for promotion.

G25 Secretariat