The Government Needs to Come Clean on How and Why Contracts Were Awarded to Surbana Jurong
The posts about Surbana Jurong profiting from the explosion of Covid cases among foreign workers, for which Josephine Teo (whose husband appears to be No.2 or 3 at Surbana) must take some responsibility, have drawn an angry response from the company. Legal threats have been bandied about:
“We absolutely refute the allegations and will not hesitate to take legal action against any perpetrator who continues to make scurrilous attacks against our company.”
Unfortunately the PAP Government’s (or its myriad agencies, statutory boards and companies which collectively account for well over 50% of the economy) standard response when any questions are raised is to threaten legal action or to use repressive instruments like the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to try and shut citizens up rather than providing the information that would put to rest any rumours. We saw this with the rapid barrage of POFMAs from Seat Warmer-in-Waiting Heng Swee Keat as he desperately tried to stop speculation about his master’s wife’s salary, even though she supposedly works for a private company and has nothing to do with the Government.
The standard response of the PAP to uncomfortable questions is not to shine a light on muddy waters in the interests of transparency and accountability but instead to behave as though we have no right to know about the way our elite divide up the spoils of office or how much they pay themselves out of public funds. Their attitude can be summed up as “How dare you ignorant peasants ask questions of your meritocratically selected betters! Let us get on with the tough business of governing and paying ourselves and our spouses and children salaries appropriate to our vast talents while you stick to scratching a living. And don’t you dare ask us for handouts! You must be self-reliant and resilient.”
In my last blog I said that Surbana Jurong was only 51% owned by Temasek with the remaining shareholding held by Jurong Town Corporation (JTC). That was not correct as in June 2016 Temasek acquired JTC’s shares. We need to be told the terms on which Temasek acquired JTC’s shares. Even though Temasek is a state-owned holding company (though the Government is going to some lengths to bamboozle Singaporeans into thinking that Temasek is a private company and therefore the remuneration of its CEO and other top executives is a private matter), the bonuses of its senior management, and in particular the PM’s wife, are determined by the performance of its portfolio. If JTC’s shares were transferred below market value then that would trigger a revaluation gain at Temasek which would be reflected in the performance-related bonus pool for senior executives (read more money for Ho Ching!).
Though Surbana’s board might angrily retort that there has been no profiteering from the contracts it was awarded to build (or manage the construction of) the temporary facilities at Singapore Expo (another Temasek-owned entity), this is moot unless the Government can show that the contracts were put out to open tender. Until it does so we have no way of knowing whether Surbana was the cheapest and best proposal. If it was not then Singaporeans will have been cheated and forced to pay higher costs than they need to.
When the Government owns so much of the economy and directs business to state-owned companies headed by relatives of Ministers from the PM downwards without competition, it is impossible to know whether Singaporeans are getting a good deal. However basic economics teaches us that where there is monopoly part of the excess profits will be taken in the form of decreased efficiency, featherbedding and increased costs, not least in the salaries of the top executives at those companies. By benchmarking their remuneration against their peers at other state-owned companies, they can collectively raise their pay even though it is completely unnecessary to attract and retain talent (though a glance at the CVs of many of these people suggests that their chief talent lies in being related to people in Government rather than the quality of their academic qualifications!). Even if their relatives are not beneficiaries, MInisters are happy because higher “private” (actually state-owned) sector pay boosts their remuneration via the circular mechanism set up by the ministerial pay review in 2011.
The PAP Government, which includes its vast network of agencies, statutory boards and companies, thrives on secrecy and fails basic tests of accountability and transparency. Singaporeans have no idea whether they are getting value for money and who is benefiting just as they have no idea of the size of the reserves and how the reserves will benefit them. Something as basic as how much the PM pays his wife remains a state secret. We need a Freedom of Information Act like in the US and the UK but we also need to ensure that there are enough Opposition MPs in Parliament to held the Government to account. This election will show whether Singaporeans are indeed interested in genuine reform.