Prime Minister’s Office Committee of Supply 2019 – Cuts by WP MPs and NCMPs

(Delivered on 28 Feb 2019)

Appointment to Constitutional Office – Sylvia Lim

There are certain public offices created under the Constitution, with functions and duties to safeguard the public interest. These appointments are recommended by the Prime Minister and subject to the discretionary approval of the President.

On example is the Attorney-General. Under Article 35, the Attorney-General “shall have power, exercisable at his discretion, to institute, conduct or discontinue any proceedings for any offence”. Another example is the Auditor-General, who under Article 148F is entrusted with the Constitutional duty “to audit and report on the accounts of all departments and offices of the Government, the Public Service Commission, the Legal Service Commission, the Supreme Court, all subordinate courts and Parliament”. We are all familiar with the annual audit reports of the AGO. They often contain embarrassing findings and may uncover misconduct. The AGO Reports are a key measure by the government towards accountability and a prudent use of public funds.

Chairman, I would like to ask for clarification about the selection process and criteria used by the Prime Minister in selecting the Auditor-General. The Constitution does not spell out any qualifying criteria for being the Auditor-General. In recent history, our Auditor-Generals have been drawn from senior civil servants, and there a new Auditor-General appointed this year. I do not know the new appointee personally, and I have no reason to doubt her integrity. Indeed, I am prepared to assume that she will do her best to do her work honourably.

However, can the Prime Minister confirm that the current appointee is the spouse of a Senior Minister of State, and if this is so, did the Prime Minister consider how appointing the spouse of the Senior Minister of State would affect the public perception of the independence of the AGO?

Pensioners under Medishield Life – Png Eng Huat

Sir, I had spoken on the impact of MediShield Life on pensioners when the compulsory health insurance scheme was introduced and debated in this house in 2014 and 2015. As I understood from some pensioners, they have continued to receive the same medical benefits as before, as assured in this house, though not under MediShield Life but under their original pension medical schemes. As it is, these pensioners are insured under MediShield Life in name only, even though they do not need the coverage. I understand their MediShield Life premiums are paid for by government and transitional subsidies through Medisave top-ups.

The MediShield Life scheme is almost 5 years old now. While pensioners are not worse off in terms of their medical benefits, I wish to ask the government if there is any survey or study done to ascertain the financial impact of the redundant MediShield Life coverage on pensioners. After factoring in the various Medisave top-ups, did the subsidies help pensioners pay for their MediShield Life premiums as well as their spouses’ premiums in full, without the need to incur any out of pocket expenses? This is important because this government has assured pensioners in this house that they would not be worse off under MediShield Life, and by that, it should also mean that they would not be financially burdened when they are put under the compulsory but never used medical scheme.

Next, DPM Teo Chee Hean had said that pensioners have one important benefit with MediShield Life that they did not have previously. He said the spouse of a pensioner would cease to have medical benefits when the pensioner passes away, but under MediShield Life, that spouse will be covered by MediShield Life when the pensioner is no longer around.

Sir, this important benefit is assuring but it is also a benefit by default to begin with, since MediShield Life is made compulsory for all. Everyone has to pay for the medical coverage by law, regardless of who you are. So this important MediShield Life benefit, as mentioned by the minister, only makes more sense for pensioners if the government continues to pay the premiums for their spouses when they are no longer around. Otherwise, the spouses will have to come under MediShield Life by law. They don’t have a choice.

So I would like the government to clarify if it would continue to pay the MediShield Life premiums for the spouse of pensioner as a benefit when the old medical coverage ceases with the passing of the pensioner.

Personal Data with Public Agencies – Sylvia Lim

Digital Defence is now our sixth pillar of Total Defence, and all, including the Government, play a role in this. On 12 February this year, the Minister for Communications and Information told the House that GovTech is overall in-charge of the security and safeguard systems for data, and that GovTech is the agency that does many of the reviews and ensures that the Government agencies are in compliance with the Instruction Manuals and other provisions.

I would like to ask whether GovTech specifically oversees that citizens’ personal data stored within public agencies is safeguarded from misuse, hacking or leaks. For instance,
does GovTech audit the data and privacy protection practices of public agencies? In view of the risks and breaches that have occurred, would the government look into publishing an annual report on the cybersecurity readiness of public agencies, to give some reassurance to citizens and to encourage the achievement of high standards?

Next, while there are regulations to punish public officers who do not comply with confidentiality obligations, what is the position of the innocent persons whose data has been compromised? For instance, it was recently reported that a Station Inspector had illegally accessed the police computer system to screen the telephone records of a man he suspected of having an affair with his wife. In such a case, are there guidelines about whether the affected persons should be told, and within a certain a certain time frame? Such information is crucial for victims to protect themselves and to seek recourse in a timely manner.

Finally, during the recent debate on the HIV Registry leak, the government told the House that a person whose data had been leaked had the recourse of suing the Ministry of Health. Besides commencing an expensive law suit against the government, how else can an aggrieved person get compensation?

Improving Election Processes – Pritam Singh

Sir, in 2015, WP NCMP Yee Jenn Jong noted that the completeness of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) report had been shrinking over the years and asked for the meeting minutes of the Committee’s report to be released. In response, Prime Minister replied that on the completeness of the report and the minutes, “I leave that to the Committee”. Even though PM said that he was not in favour of publishing every twist and turn that would be reflected in the minutes, PM was noncommittal on the prospect of a more complete report. It would appear that this can change should the Government decide to do so since the EBRC’s Terms of Reference are determined by the PM himself. I hope we can move from the circular nature of these justifications and provide a report for the public that details why specific precincts in GRCs and SMCs are moved or swapped for each and every constituency in future.

In addition, why does the Government not announce the formation of the EBRC as a matter of practice? It would be a waste of parliament’s time and bordering on an abuse of process if an MP had to file the same parliamentary question to the PM when rumours of an imminent election are in the air. In making the point, can I enquire if the EBRC has been formed? In 2013, DPM Teo stated that PM will certainly remain open to and consider making refinements to its procedures when necessary. I hope these suggestions on greater detail in the Committee’s report and announcing when the Committee is formed will be taken on board.

Finally, it was announced that elections department would conduct roadshows to educate voters on changes to the parliamentary elections system – specifically, the electronic registration for voters. Can the PM update the House on this matter and the number of roadshows that will be organised for the purpose, where and when they will be held in the months to come.

Subsidising the Stock Market – Daniel Goh

Chairman, the Monetary Authority of Singapore recently announced a $75 million plan to boost equities research and equity listings. The Grant for Equity Market Singapore (GEMS) will co-fund listing costs of companies and the salaries of equity research hires by 50 to 70 per cent.
Critics have argued that this is throwing money at the problem without addressing the fundamental issues of stock market malaise.
For small to mid-size caps, the main problem seems to be the lack of expertise and experience on corporate governance. Even before we can talk about investor excitement, we should address the confidence of retail investors in small and mid-caps. There is often excitement in initial listings, many times encouraged by enthusiastic analyst coverage, but this excitement very easily gives way to collapsing stock prices due to corporate governance issues.

Recent examples include e-commerce start-up Y Ventures and F&B company Kimly. These have affected retail investor confidence. The restructuring of Noble Group, which has not been allowed to re-list, and the current restructuring of Hyflux to save it from liquidation have further affected confidence.

For both Noble and Hyflux, analyst reports had little impact in educating retail investors about their cash flow problems. Shareholder activism and academic scrutiny have done more to highlight potential issues, but often too late for retail investors. Would not GEMS do better to fund programmes to advise small and mid-caps on corporate governance and improve their performance in this aspect?

Corporate Governance in Companies – Dennis Tan

Last year, the Keppel Offshore & Marine’s corruption case was discussed in this house. Many people have wondered how sizable bribe payments were made without oversight from the highest level of management or its board. Like the Swiber case, we are still waiting for the outcome of the Keppel case.

The ongoing problems plaguing Hyflux that have since surfaced remind us that corporate governance issues remain complex and entrenched, with potential market-wide implications. This, in turn, can affect shareholder value and investor confidence.

The repercussions of such problems affect many small-scale retail investors. 60-year-old Mrs. Goh shared with ChannelNewsAsia her worries of not being able to recoup her investment in Hyflux. Such worries are not unfounded as recent announcements by Hyflux have indicated that investors like her will have to suffer losses on their investments if a proposed restructuring plan proceeds.

In many other cases, it is often the minority investors that lack protection and do not get any help from the regulators or the law when majority shareholders and directors make use of loopholes in regulations to effect transactions at the expense of minority shareholders.
Another worry arising from such corporate malfeasances is the impact such incidents can have on the companies’ reputation, and by extension, on Singapore’s. Some international commentators have made unflattering remarks on the robustness of Singapore’s regulatory regime and enforcement.

I note that MAS have set up a Corporate Governance Advisory Committee (CGAC) as part of the recommendations by the Corporate Governance Council, itself set up in 2018 to review the Code of Corporate Governance.

Despite such efforts, it may be time for us to acknowledge that self-regulation and internally-driven processes on corporate governance cannot be relied upon solely. The present oversight processes and regime are surely not adequate. In some of these cases, the problems reported seemed to have escaped the attention of their auditors or the problems have not been commented upon by their auditors.

In cases where the executive management of a company or its board is aware of serious malfeasances or malpractices, or is not aware of such malfeasances but ought to be aware, the buck should never stop anywhere below executive management and its board.

Regulators should be more proactive in taking errant or neglectful directors to account when they fail in their duties and obligations.
Can SGX RegCo or ACRA not do more?

The Government should do more to improve the corporate governance regime of our companies. I would like to propose that an independent taskforce be convened to evaluate the need for a government agency to provide oversight on corporate governance standards and to improve audit quality.

Such a review is timely and necessary to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect shareholder value and to ensure that the reputation of Singapore companies is not adversely affected by those who have fallen short.