15 July 2005

What Do You Mean - "The Government Can't Do Anything?"

First, the latest news. Durai and the NKF board members have resigned. NKF Patron Mrs Goh Chok Tong also stepped down. Good for her husband.

What disturbs me today is this little paragraph in the TODAY newspaper:
    The resignations - which came in the afternoon - were accepted by Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who admitted that the Government had "no legal rights" to intervene in a private charity.
I think what Khaw meant to convey was that the resignations were voluntary and that the government, in any case, doesn't have the power to force Durai and gang to resign.

However, this started me thinking about the powers that the government does have over the NKF. This is Singapore, after all. There can't be anything on our little island that the government doesn't have some power over.

The NKF is a charity. So it must be registered under the Charities Act. Under the Charities Act, there is a Commissioner of Charities. He is appointed by the Minister. The Commissioner has some power over all charities in Singapore. That includes the NKF. And what are the functions and duties of the Commissioner?
    4. —(1) The Commissioner shall have the general function of promoting the effective use of charitable resources by encouraging the development of better methods of administration, by giving charity trustees information on any matter affecting the charity and by investigating and checking abuses.
Aha. What Mr Wang would like to know -

what actions, if any, did the Commissioner take, say, in the past five years, to promote the "effective use of charitable resources" in the NKF? Did the Commissioner do anything to encourage the development of "better methods of administration" in the NKF? Did the Commissioner "investigate and check" any potential abuses in the NKF?

Or did the Commissioner think that everything about the NKF was good and well and proceeding exactly as it should?

To be fair to the Commissioner, his powers are not that vast. He cannot and is not expected to control the day-to-day operations of charities. See the last part of section 4(2) of the Charities Act:
    (2) It shall be the general object of the Commissioner so to act in the case of any charity (unless it is a matter of altering its purposes) as best to promote and make effective the work of the charity in meeting the needs designated by its trusts; but the Commissioner shall not have power to act in the administration of a charity.

On the other hand, the Commissioner is not exactly powerless either (I'll come to this shortly). Furthermore, I think that our dear Singapore government ministers are also part of the overall picture, since Parliament itself is regularly notified about the Commissioner's work on charities:
    (3) The Commissioner shall, as soon as possible after the end of every year, make to the Minister a report on his operations during that year, and the Minister shall present a copy of the report to Parliament.
So Parliament is supposed to know what charities are up to in Singapore, and if there are any doubts or irregularities or concerns, Members of Parliaments would be under a duty to ask questions and debate the issues. I don't know if this was ever done. Unfortunately, Mr Wang doesn't have access to Lawnet anymore, so he can't dig up the parliamentary debate transcripts.

What powers does the Commissioner actually have, over charities? Quite a lot, actually. See for yourself:
    General power of Commissioner to institute inquiries.
    8. —(1) The Commissioner may from time to time institute inquiries with regard to charities or a particular charity or class of charities, either generally or for particular purposes.

    (2) The Commissioner may either conduct such an inquiry himself or appoint a person to conduct it and make a report to him.

    (3) For the purposes of any such inquiry, the Commissioner or a person appointed by him to conduct the inquiry may by order require any person —

    (a) to furnish accounts and statements in writing with respect to any matter in question at the inquiry, being a matter on which that person has or can reasonably obtain information, or to return answers in writing to any questions or inquiries addressed to him on any such matter, and to verify any such accounts, statements or answers by statutory declaration;

    (b) to furnish copies of documents in his custody or under his control which relate to any matter in question at the inquiry, and to verify any such copies by statutory declaration; and

    (c) to attend at a specified time and place and give evidence or produce any such documents,

    and any person who fails to comply with any requirement specified in the order shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or to both and, in the case of a continuing offence, to a further fine not exceeding $50 for every day or part thereof during which the offence continues after conviction.

    (4) For the purposes of any such inquiry, evidence may be taken on oath, and the person conducting the inquiry may for that purpose administer oaths, or may instead of administering an oath require the person examined to make and subscribe a declaration of the truth of the matters about which he is examined.

    (5) Where the Commissioner proposes to take any action in consequence of an inquiry under this section, the Commissioner may publish the report of the person conducting the inquiry, or such other statement of the results of the inquiry as he thinks fit, in any manner calculated in his opinion to bring it to the attention of persons who may wish to make representations to him about the action to be taken.

    (6) A copy of the report of the person conducting an inquiry under this section shall, if certified by the Commissioner to be a true copy, be admissible as evidence of any fact stated in the report, and as evidence of the opinion of that person as to any matter referred to in the report, in any legal proceedings instituted by the Commissioner under section 25 and in any legal proceedings instituted by the Attorney-General in respect of a charity.

    (7) A document purporting to be a certificate issued for the purposes of subsection (6) shall be received in evidence and be deemed to be such a certificate unless the contrary is proved.

    (8) If any person wilfully alters, suppresses, conceals or destroys any document which he may be required to produce under this section, he shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or to both.

    Power of Commissioner to call for documents and search records.

    9. —(1) The Commissioner may, for the purpose of discharging his functions under this Act, by order —

    (a) require any person to furnish the Commissioner with any information in his possession which relates to any charity; and

    (b) require any person who has in his custody or under his control any document which relates to any charity —
    (i) to furnish the Commissioner with a copy of or extract from the document; or
    (ii) unless the document forms part of the records or other documents of a court or public authority, to transmit the document itself to the Commissioner for his inspection.

    (2) The Commissioner shall be entitled without payment to keep any copy or extract furnished to him under subsection (1); and where a document transmitted to him for his inspection relates only to one or more charities and is not held by any person entitled as trustee or otherwise to the custody of the document, the Commissioner may keep it or may deliver it to the charity trustees or to any other person who may be so entitled.

    (3) The Commissioner or any officer authorised by him in that behalf shall at all times have full and free access to all buildings, places, books, documents and other papers for the purpose of discharging his functions under this Act, and may, without payment, inspect, copy or make extracts from any such books, documents or papers.

    (4) The Commissioner may take possession of any books, documents or papers where in his opinion —

    (a) the inspection, copying thereof or extraction therefrom cannot reasonably be performed without taking possession;

    (b) the books, documents or papers may be interfered with or destroyed unless possession is taken; or

    (c) the books, documents or papers may be required as evidence in proceedings for an offence under this Act or any regulations made thereunder.

    (5) The Commissioner may require any person to give orally or in writing, as may be required, all such information concerning any charity as may be demanded of him by the Commissioner for the purposes of this Act.

    (6) The rights conferred by this section shall, in relation to information recorded otherwise than in legible form, include the right to require the information to be made available in legible form for inspection or for a copy or extract to be made of or from it.

    (7) Any person who fails to comply with any requirement specified in any order under subsection (1) or any requirement under subsection (5) shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or to both and, in the case of a continuing offence, to a further fine not exceeding $50 for every day or part thereof during which the offence continues after conviction.

    (8) Subject to section 11 (2), no person shall by virtue of this section be obliged to disclose any particulars as to which he is under any statutory obligation to observe secrecy.
Wow, that's a lot. In a nutshell, the Commissioner can demand that Durai and the NKF Board tell him just about anything that the Commissioner wants to know about the NKF. And if Durai and the NKF Board refuse, lie or conceal documents, then that's a criminal offence and they can all be sent to jail.

Pretty powerful, if you ask me.

If you've been following my post so far, the question may now arise in your mind: "Has the Commissioner been doing his job all these years? If he has, then how could this NKF debacle arise?"

Mr Wang Zhen has his own theories about that. But never mind. Mr Wang is a practical man. What's done is done. What wasn't done, wasn't. Let's look to the future now. What Mr Wang would like to see is the Commissioner undertake a full inquiry into this matter, using his powers under the Charities Act, and submit his report to Parliament via the Minister.

Let the truth emerge now.

P.S There is more interesting stuff in the Charities Act. But I'll let the readers of Commentary Singapore chew on the above for a while first.

One version of Janu Sirsasana.
A yoga asana said to be good for your kidneys.

12 comments:

Rialce said...

Straight to the point. Do you have a blog somewhere??? Well, though I hope you will produce more articles, I hope your anonymity will help you to avoid ......
Best of luck

John Lim the-one-who-splits-PAP-apart said...

The Government Can't Do Anything?

of course they can do something.
too sensitive to say it here.

akikonomu said...

Well, according to Balaji, the NKF is an "efficient organisation". That's the Senior Minister of State for Health speaking. But what about his superior, the Minister of State for Health? Khaw Boon Wan himself apparently thinks the NKF model is the best one (although he takes pains not to say so), and wants MORE charities like NKF.

I argue contrary to Mr Wang that for the past 5 years, the Minister and his commissioner have carried out their usual audits and were very happy about NKF's governance and corporate philosophy. It should not be forgotten that over the past 5 years, Khaw has consistently shielded the NKF against demands for greater transparency and criticisms of its corporate/commercial structure, and constantly joined in NKF's derision of "traditional charities" as poor and living hand to mouth.

akikonomu said...

I suggest that if not for the public outcry over Durai, Balaji and Khaw would've stuck to their defence of Durai and the NKF.

Mr Wang Says So said...

"I argue contrary to Mr Wang that for the past 5 years, the Minister and his commissioner have carried out their usual audits and were very happy about NKF's governance and corporate philosophy."

Your view is not very contrary to mine, lah. Although I know my post may have given you the impression. I will write more on this point later.

The main point of my latest post is just that the government should look thoroughly into this matter. They DO have the power and they DO have the responsibility.

tosh said...

"What Mr Wang would like to see is the Commissioner undertake a full inquiry into this matter, using his powers under the Charities Act, and submit his report to Parliament via the Minister."

I concur! An inquiry should be launched. The ex-NKF Board should disclose their 'dividends' for the past three years to the public. I believe there're about 6-8 members on the Board, no? Did they each get a 12-month-bonus too? And I also wonder, as patron of the org, does Mrs Goh get a cut.. Ooh, that would be scandalous.

Kevin said...

There's bound to be more board members involved in this... Durai's probably the fall guy, but I shouldn't say anything more.

Zyl said...

I just read Tan Sai Siong's op-ed in the Straits Times today and he said that the NKF is not registered as a charity but as a company (I assume that means private limited).

As such, should VWOs who are not registered as charities and as companies be made to tell potential donors this?

Sleepless in Singapore said...

I believe there are a few things we can learn from this sad episode about Sporeans.

1) Sporeans (myself included) are too trusting. They are easily influenced by "spin".

2) We are too lazy to do our homework. One of the officials from a charitable organisation (sorry cannot remember his name)said something to this effect when interviewed on tv this week.

3) As Mr Tan Kin Lian mentioned in one of his posts, we have short memory span. When we are unhappy about something, we will make a lot of noise. But after a few months will quickly forget.

4) Finally, we have a good heart.

Unfortunately all this add together to equal "gullible"; easy meat for the unscrupulous.

By the way, I hope that as they look into this matter, they will also give the public an update of the millions that the public gave to the Courage Fund during the SARS crisis.

Anonymous said...

zyl
a charity can either be a society or a company limited by guaranteee..
NKF belongs to the second.
thts about it

asterisk said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
asterisk said...

"..not for the public outcry over Durai, Balaji and Khaw would've stuck to their defence of Durai and the NKF".
How true, Khaw was so enamored of TT Durai's funding raising prowess, he asked the latter to start something for cancer patients. This, inspite of the questionable amount of reserves revealed to be accumulated at the NKF. This sums it, doesn't it? So long as the money is flowing in, never mind if the casino will be breaking up homes and destroying lives, the "substantial economic benefits" justify all. So the little people spoke up. And the little people wil have to speak up again, and again, and again.