Davinder Singh: You would lose all authority, all moral authority to look at him (the ordinary Singaporean) in his eyes, isn’t that right?
The T.T. Durai National Kidney Foundation scandal started with a whistleblower who was silenced by a civil defamation suit (sound familiar?) but came to the attention of the wider public in 2005 when NKF and its CEO T.T. Durai sued Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) for an article that became famous for its Golden Taps revelation.
The aftermath of that suit (which Durai dropped on day 2) due to revelations from the trial was various independent and external audits and reports and recommendations. The whole board of NKF including T. T. Durai and former seat warmer PM Goh Chok Tong’s wife, resigned and later criminal charges were brought against T.T. Durai. The charity sector in Singapore then went through a major overhaul with an emphasis on transparency.
There are clear parallels with lessons learnt from that scandal and my concerns over how SLA seems to be managing the land and its properties, which are after all our state asset and reserves, and therefore concerns over how SLA is itself managed. The public anger in finding out that the same Minister who asked sarcastically whether three meals a day in a hawker centre was not enough for low income Singaporeans but then became a “Rajah of Ridout Road” also throws up memories of public anger at GCT’s wife who said that at $600,000, T.T Dorai’s salary was “peanuts.”
Let’s take a closer look at a transcript of the NKF/SPH defamation suit. I always like to show that the queries I raise, the concerns I voice and the transparency I am demanding on behalf of Singaporeans can be found in different settings coming out of the mouths of senior ministers themselves including LKY etc.
Here we have Davinder Singh, defence counsel for SPH (and famous attack dog for both LKY and LHL) and Justice Tan Lee Meng in their own words in an excerpt of the court transcript taken from “If it is above board” T.T. Durai vs Singapore Press Holdings (2005). It starts with a model in how to ask questions and this alone shows why I have said that questions currently filed by the opposition won’t give us the transparency we need:
Davinder Singh: Can we have a straight answer to this question and listen very carefully to it: Using NKF’s funds, have you travelled first class? A straight answer, you are on oath.
T. T. Durai: Yes, NKF has not paid for…
Davinder Singh: No, no. My question is very simple. Using NKF’s fund have you ever travelled first class?
T. T. Durai: No.
Davinder Singh: Is that the honest truth?
To further questions, Mr Durai said he knew that an SIA business-class fare was higher than the first-class fare on other airlines.
Davinder Singh: So effectively, what you have done is you have used money from the NKF ostensibly for business-class travel but really for first-class travel.
T. T. Durai: I have used…
Justice Tan Lee Meng: Yes or no?
T. T. Durai: Yes. Can I explain why?
Judge: You can but I would appreciate if you answer the questions…
Davinder Singh: You see, Mr Durai, this is public money. Isn’t it your duty as a trustee of people’s money to make sure that you get best value on a business-class seat instead of deploying this clever tactic of using one of the highest published rates to get first class on another plane?
Duty to Get Best Value
Let’s consider that. The land and holdings of SLA are public money and a precious natural resource. SLA and our senior ministers, particularly the Minister who appointed the CEO of SLA are trustees of the people’s money and furthermore paid by the people. As such in Davinder Singh’s own words it is their duty to make sure they get the best value on the people’s money. In other words to use the land efficiently and ensure that they get the highest return where it benefits all Singaporeans, not just a privileged few.
A Drain On Our Reserves
In a previous blog I showed how the Minister for National Development in answering a proposal from Leong Mun Wai in parliament in January set out very clearly how poor land values would be a drain on our reserves. He quoted Lee Kuan Yew himself answering Chiam See Tong in Parliament at that time and spelling out that our land has a value, current value not historic.
Unnecessary accumulation of reserves
In the trial the true amount of the reserves accumulated by NKF came out. NKF had said that reserves were not excessive and would run out in 3 years. They used this fear to get more donations from the public. Davinder Singh forced Durai to admit this was a deliberate deception.
Similarly PAP argue, without telling us how much the reserves are or who they will be used for, that we need to keep accumulating reserves and squeezing the ordinary Singaporean otherwise it will be unfair to future generations. I have consistently shown that the reserves must be several trillion dollars and are likely in excess of $3 trillion in financial assets alone. In fact we probably have nearly $1 million reserves for every Singaporean. When you factor in the value of land owned by the Government, the reserves are easily in excess of $10 trillion or $3 million for every Singaporean. Yet LHL and the PAP keep trying to scare Singaporeans that taxes need to go up, belts need to tighten and tough choices must be made by the ordinary Singaporean in her 3 room HDB or Singapore will collapse.
In 2015 BT wrote a follow up article, “NKF moves forward with $31.2 million in surplus.” When the scandal broke in 2005 it wasn’t the gold tap that most angered Singaporeans, it was that they were led to believe that there were only 3 years of reserves left in the pot when in fact it was enough for 30 years. The charges were that this fear over the reserves running out and therefore the ability of dialysis to continue was deliberately manipulated to get ordinary Singaporeans to donate. The question the new BT article in 2015 raises is with an annual surplus rate of $31.2 million why was the NKF ignoring Charity Commission guidelines on the accumulation of reserves? Unnecessary accumulation of reserves is a bad thing. Scaring the ordinary citizen into believing that the reserves are in danger of running out is a worse thing. As the courts found, it was deceptive as well as manipulative practice.
But Ridoutgate demonstrates that far from land being a scarce natural resource that must always be priced at its market value otherwise it would be draining the reserves, when it comes to SLA and Ministers occupying the most prestigious properties in Singapore at what appear to be very low rents relative to achievable market rates, there is no scarcity of land. In fact huge tracts of land can be left vacant or underutilised for years, even decades, for Ministers and anyone else whom the Government wishes to favour, to move into and enjoy.
Telling the ordinary Singaporean to make tough choices while living a first class lifestyle is embarrassing to say the least or, as the PAP puts it, causes all moral authority to be lost. Read more of the transcript below. I thought my father’s old bete noire Davinder Singh made his point very well. I was squirming just reading it.
“Davinder Singh: Isn’t it true that as a trustee of people’s money, you have a duty to ensure that you get value for that money?
T. T. Durai: True.
Davinder Singh: Isn’t it true that you need to fly in business class for business-class comfort?
T. T. Durai: This is an entitlement given by the board to me…
Judge: That was not his question. His question was, the directors feel that you deserve business-class comfort.
T. T. Durai: Yes.
Davinder Singh: And because you deserve business-class comfort, you are given a perk of business-class travel.
T. T. Durai: Yes.
Davinder Singh: Using the money donated by the man in the two-room HDB flat.
T. T. Durai: Yes.
Davinder Singh: Who has never in his life seen a business-class cabin?
T. T. Durai: I would not know that.
Davinder Singh: The reason the public has been misled is that you know that if the public knew the truth, they would be upset that these methods were being used to get yourself on first class. Isn’t that right?
T. T. Durai: No.
Davinder Singh: The public would be upset.
T. T. Durai: No.
Davinder Singh: That is why you are not telling them the truth. Why hide the truth?
T. T. Durai: I am just like every other CEO entitled to benefits and rights. We run a business organisation with a turnover of $120 million.
Judge: Why hide the truth? The question was, why hide the truth?
Davinder Singh: Why hide the truth? You see, if it is completely acceptable, completely above board, why not tell the public this is what you are doing? Why create a totally false impression, as we have seen in this article?
T. T. Durai: On hindsight, we should have done that – to say I travel on first class using a business-class airfare.
Davinder Singh: In your affidavit, you liken yourself to CEOs of companies and ministers in government, right? Would you agree with me that like ministers in the government, you are being paid out of people’s money? Would you agree with me that ministers’ salaries are transparent?
T.T. Durai: Yes.
Davinder Singh: Would you agree with me that CEOs of listed companies have their salaries published in the newspapers?
T.T. Durai: Yes.
Davinder Singh: And you have likened yourself to CEOs of public companies. Why are you not publishing your own information?
T.T. Durai: I like my salary to remain private. My board members know that. My senior colleagues know that.
Davinder Singh: We all like our salaries to be private. But if it’s funded by the public, which takes precedence? The right of the public to know how much of their money goes to you, or your preference for privacy?
T.T. Durai: I think it is for the board to decide. The public doesn’t control the organisation.
Davinder Singh: Exactly. Exactly. You see, Mr Durai, the public does not control, it doesn’t have access to information. So doesn’t that place on you a responsibility?
T.T. Durai: We comply with all the regulatory requirements. If the regulatory authorities imposed a condition that we have to disclose salaries, we would.
Davinder Singh: So for the past three years you have earned about $1.8 million from the NKF.
T.T. Durai: Yes.
Davinder Singh: And the man who earns $1,000 a month who takes out $50 of his pay packet every month thinking that it is going to save lives, should he not know that that is the kind of money you earn?
T.T. Durai: There is nothing wrong with the money I earn.
Davinder Singh: $1.8 million, I wonder what is wrong. $1.8 million. Should the man who takes $50 out of his pay packet of $1,000, leaving $950 for him, his wife and his children, with no savings, should he not know that some of that money is going or has gone into a $500,000 to $600,000 pay package for you?
T.T. Durai: Surely he knows.
Davinder Singh: Tell me, how does he know?
T.T. Durai: Let me explain. People donate money to the NKF to run a dialysis programme that saves lives. We have built a dialysis programme. We run…
Judge: Please answer the question.
Davinder Singh: You said: ‘Surely he knows.’
T.T. Durai: No, I am saying a person who contributes to the foundation knows that there are people working in the institution.
Judge: No. The question is, should that person know that you are earning $500,000, $600,000 a year? It is a simple question.
T.T. Durai: No, your honour, I do not see a need for him to know.
Davinder Singh: Thank you. It has nothing to do with privacy. It is about embarrassment, is it not?
T.T. Durai: No.
Davinder Singh: You would lose all authority, all moral authority to look at him in his eyes, isn’t that right?
T.T. Durai: That is not true.
Davinder Singh: If he knew that you were flying first class on his money, you could not look him in his eyes, isn’t that true?
T.T. Durai: It is not true.
Davinder Singh: If he knew that his salary couldn’t even buy the bathroom fittings in your private office suite, you couldn’t look him in his eyes.
T.T. Durai: That is not true.”
The point here is even leaving aside the very serious, flagrant and egregious breaches of the Ministerial Code, the PAP do try to create “a totally false impression,” of humble lifestyles from Ho Ching’s $10 handbag to ordinary cars and watches to LKY’s two shirts a year. When someone on the public purse steps out of line and shows off their wealth they are put in their place as we saw with the $45,000 cookery course incident. Even though Tan Yeng Soon was using his own money so everything was above board and he was far from secretive, it damaged the false impression everyone else was working so hard to create.
Following the NKF scandal a fundamental overhaul of the charities sector resulted in a new level of transparency. Including the publishing of salaries.
The NKF auditors concluded in their special report that NKF problems stemmed from a lack of meaningful governance. There are important lessons to be gained from their report’s recommendations that I believe relate to SLA.
- Ensure that any conflicts of interest are properly disclosed and disputes should be handled at arms’ length. Obviously the entanglements between T.T. Durai, Ms. Chua and the various Directorships of companies contracted to NKF were fundamental to the poor governance.
- In addition NKF had a 3 member internal audit team that reported to the CEO directly but was ineffectual and therefore left it without guard against the operational lapses which permitted the conflicts of interest to continue. Yet CPIB is under the PMO’s office and thus under LHL’s control, immediately raising the question of “Who watches the Watchmen?”
Lessons that should have been learnt from the NKF scandal and the Ministerial code show that the 2 senior Cabinet Ministers should never have been in a position to bid for and rent the SLA properties. The parallels with T.T. Durai are just too striking. They helped themselves to state assets while keeping it secret and feeding Singaporeans with sanctimonious humbug about the widening inequality gap. There is a system or internal governance failure to keep them at arms’ length to prevent a conflict of interest or the perception of a conflict of interest.”Mentioning to a senior colleague” is no substitute for a proper system of good governance and more than anything else demonstrates the lack of adequate controls.
The PAP says that Vivian and Shanmugam were in full compliance with the procedures. In the NKF trial T.T. Durai tried that line.
“TK Durai: We comply with all the regulatory requirements. If the regulatory authorities imposed a condition that we have to disclose salaries, we would.”
TK Durai was also in full compliance with the letter if not the spirit of his flight entitlements. As I have shown, following this trial all the regulatory requirements were changed and tightened. Salaries were published from that date on. If the Ministers were in full compliance with procedures that they oversee then there is something very amiss with those procedures.
How are ordinary Singaporeans to similarly to get transparency in 2023 so that everything is not only above board but seen to be above board? I have said the questions in Parliament won’t cut it. I have said the expedited review won’t be hard hitting and thorough like the external auditors and reports relating to the NKf scandal. As this scandal cuts to the very heart of the PAP Government and its tissue of lies and hypocrisy about the reserves and need for austerity from the citizens lest the reserves run dry, no Davinder Singh will be unleashed (though of course he would never bite the hand that feeds him).
Of course a court trial might bring the answers. But this isn’t my first rodeo. Look what happened last time I took the government or the MOF to court over the IMF loan. It resulted in one of of the most significant constitutional happenings in our Nation’s recent history. Look what happened when I asked Hri Kumar about our reserves at his CPF forum- he didn’t answer then, called me a load of names including liar on hi social media but was unable to best me and then stepped down as an MP. I remain correct about the black holes in our budget. Indeed look what happened to the first elected President when he asked how much we had in the reserves. At least the people got to find out what T.T. Durai’s salary and bonus package was through legal disclosure because he sued SPH and was forced to reveal it.
Ho Ching now heads Temasek Trust, a charitable organisation where she is again paid from the people’s money but still her remuneration is not published. It is clear that Ministers and MPs must publish a declaration of assets at the very minimum. We must also be given rights to put in requests for public access information.
As for Ho Ching’s salary I say could be in the region of 100 million a year but I guess unless she sues somebody we are never going to find out. In other countries that are democracies. By example in the UK, Ministers must give the Permanent Secretary a full list in writing of interests that might be thought to give rise to a conflict. The list also has to include the interests of the spouses or partners and close family. The relevant interests are published twice yearly.
Meanwhile, the government that promised you a Swiss standard of living will continue to scare you into accepting austerity measures while hiding the truth from you so that they can look you straight in the eye with no shame whatsoever.
For a start, I have to say that I have little or no confidence in any ownself check ownself investigation. But let’s wait and see.
It should be Raja (Tami) and not Rajah (Malay) After all, both of them are tamils. what an appropriate name you have come up with. Keep up the good work
In all, did the minister made proper disclosures for the public to know?