Thursday, 31 May 2007

The faculty of accountability

TODAY published this article yesterday. To me, UNSW's departure demonstrates the downside of the steadfast pursuit of foreign investments that we continually engage in. Here, it was students' dreams that were shattered -- in the case of MNCs, it is workers' livelihoods. The three local universities cannot uproot and leave, the way UNSW has.

The lesson then is that we need to develop a strong domestic commercial sector that can at least partially wean us off foreign investment. We are still quite a long way off -- just see the paucity of homegrown global brand names. Citing the usual suspects like Singapore Airlines (and I would really leave out Creative) simply proves my point.

On the same day, TODAY also published a letter from EDB that sought to clarify what happened. EDB cited confidentiality obligations as the reason for not disclosing the support package offered, and I suppose that's also why it could not disclose the extent of losses (since the losses are due to the support package).

But then, why is that UNSW could cite its loss of A$17.5 (S$22) million? Also, The Financial Times has reported the figure of S$80 million as EDB's loss. If that is correct, then this information has entered the public domain and is, as a matter of law, no longer confidential. If it is not correct, then the information remains confidential, but EDB is entitled to deny that the figure is correct -- something that EDB has not done at all.

So I don't really see EDB's letter as being sufficient to address the calls for true accountability.

Note: I'm told that there was a factual error, in that MOE was not involved in the negotiations to bring UNSW to Singapore. I had stated that, based on previous news reports I had read. TODAY will run a correction tomorrow. I stand corrected and would like to apologise to MOE for any discomfort or embarrassment from this error. Having said that, I still believe that MOE has some degree of responsibility to account to the public for what had happened here -- I cannot imagine that MOE had no part to play in regulating UNSW's affairs. And you really cannot purport to regulate without taking responsibility when things go wrong.

The faculty of accountability

In the Singapore model, mitigating the risks when things go wrong is crucial

Wednesday • May 30, 2007

Siew Kum Hong

Anger, disbelief, fear, shock and tears. Those were just some of the reactions to the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Asia's announcement that it was giving up after just one term. Even as UNSW, the Economic Development Board (EDB), the Ministry of Education (MOE) and other educational institutions (including the three local universities) continue to try to help UNSW students deal with the aftermath, there are other issues that merit debate on a more macro level.

The first concerns the accountability of government agencies. The MOE had reportedly played an important role in attracting UNSW to Singapore in the first place. Furthermore, all private schools must register with the MOE. Yet, when students and parents wanted to meet with the latter after UNSW's decision, the MOE's response was that UNSW had ultimate responsibility.

As for the EDB, it had sealed the deal with UNSW and had invested heavily in the project. Yet, it has declined to reveal the losses resulting from UNSW's pullout. While disclosing the figures could affect the EDB's bargaining position in future negotiations with other universities, the fact remains that this is taxpayers' money. The Financial Times has reported the amount to be as high as $80 million.

The EDB has also not provided information on how the deal was structured. What sort of guarantees and commitments were extracted from UNSW? How could UNSW simply quit after just one term, when construction work on the new campus was already underway, apparently without having to pay compensation?

Did we give away too much to lure UNSW here?

The onus is on the EDB to explain what had happened and give an indication of our losses, while not compromising its ability to negotiate future deals. Its continued silence does not sit well with Singaporeans, particularly in light of the Public Accounts Committee's recent findings of significant lapses in the EDB's internal controls and governance.

Singaporeans expect greater accountability from ministers and civil servants, given the recent public service pay hike. The handling of this case may not have met the enhanced standards expected by the public.

A more fundamental question concerns the Singapore model, which relies heavily on foreign investments to drive the economy. UNSW's departure demonstrates the risks inherent in playing this game, especially in an increasingly globalised world where competitors are everywhere and funds come and go easily.

Investors are understandably fickle, coming to seek returns and leaving if there are none. As with UNSW and other multinational corporations, when they pull out, Singaporeans have to pick up the pieces, whether they be lost jobs, missed opportunities or dashed dreams.

This could come without warning, such as when there is a management change and hardnosed businessmen such as UNSW vice-chancellor Professor Fred Hilmer disagree with the previous decisions made.

So long as we persist with this economic model, the risk will remain. I am not saying we should abandon this model — it has served us well in the past, and it could continue to work for the future.

But we have to be aware of the inherent risks, make sure our eyes are open to what could happen if things go wrong, and do our best to mitigate the risks. Just as foreign investments have a multiplier effect on the economy, the negative repercussions of capital outflows will similarly be amplified.

And that brings us back to the EDB's role in attracting investments. Yes, capital should be able to flow in and out of Singapore freely, and we cannot stop an investor from leaving. But surely it is not too much to ask that where public funds are spent to entice foreign investments, we also extract some assurances and commitments to stay in Singapore. This not only minimises the wastage of taxpayers' money, but also mitigates the risk of lives being disrupted by premature departures.

Ultimately, our model of foreign investments requires us to keep foreign investors happy, to ensure that the business case presented is realistic and justifiable, and to ensure a long-term binding commitment. But, at the same time, we must not lose sight of the need to grow indigenous players who can compete internationally while retaining local roots. Otherwise, we will always remain hostage to the whims of foreign investors.

The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament and a corporate counsel, commenting in his personal capacity.


family man said...

Thank you Mr Siew. Yes, we need some accountability. Why was the NKF chap allowed to leave Singapore? How much are the national servicemen paid upon their death in Taiwan - these must be debated and made know to all Singaporean mothers and fathers. Thank you Mr Siew.

KiWeTO said...

Both questions of a non-audit, and a fleeing bankrupt, are questions of conscience that every MP should be asking.

The sad fact that it has to fall to a non-elected (appointed by government?) MP to raise these questions, brings into greater question, the competence of the other elected MPs. Are they doing their job of protecting the public from the excesses of the executive?


Siew Kum Hong said...

To family man: Well, I actually have quite a bit of sympathy for the "new" NKF, because they are the net losers from this incident.

Richard Yong had obviously planned to flee. He became prohibited from leaving Singapore only when he was made bankrupt -- and he ran in the short gap between being made bankrupt and the ICA being notified.

With hindsight, it is easy to argue that the OA, the courts and ICA should have a more efficient process for catching bankrupts. And I'm sure that there are improvements that can be made, which is why I am glad to hear that the authorities are reviewing the process (although it is obviously being done after the horse has bolted, so to speak).

But if someone wants to run, they will find a way. It's not exactly difficult to flee Singapore -- many wanted criminals manage that feat. I would put this incident down to a mistake. Yes, it was something that could have been avoided, but I don't think it really warrants a witch-hunt.

To kiweto: I can only try my best. I'm not sure what you meant by a non-audit though.

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