Mr Leon Perera asked the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (a) whether individuals who are volunteers but not staff of the People’s Association have the authority to approve decisions in relation to the engagement and payment of vendors for grassroots services; (b) if so, what is the rationale for such a convention; and (c) whether the Government will consider enhancing safeguards to deter improper procurement practices, in light of the conviction of a Residents Network ex-chairman for cheating offences.
Mr Edwin Tong Chun Fai: Grassroots leaders (GRLs) are volunteers appointed by the People’s Association (PA) to serve in various grassroots organisations (GROs). They play an integral role in building and serving our communities actively through programmes and events they organise and schemes that they help to administer and also help PA to oversee and supervise local amenities. The work that they do contributes to our racial harmony and social cohesion and helps promote a diverse, united and resilient society.
Numerous events are organised for residents each year. The GRLs, together with PA staff, plan the programmes, raise funds where necessary, and make decisions on how they will be executed. This process gives GRLs more ownership of their programmes and allows them to respond to the needs of residents more efficiently and in a more timely manner.
This authority, however, is not at the expense of governance. The GROs are guided by a set of Rules and Regulations that stipulate their roles and composition, how they conduct their meetings and activities, and the authority to use their funds in accordance with the Financial Rules for GROs. The Financial Rules stipulates how the GROs should manage the receipts, payments and acquisition of goods, services and works.
Beyond these rules, there are existing measures and safeguards put in place by PA to minimise conflict of interest (COI) and to uphold transparency in our grassroots procurement rules for goods and services to reduce the likelihood of fraudulent activities. Training is an important strategy to instil strong governance principles. To develop the competency of key Office Bearers of GROs, PA has induction and refresher training programmes to instil proper governance.
Regular audits by auditors and compliance checks by PA staff are also conducted to send a strong signal in policing malpractices. As evident in the incident involving the former Residents’ Network (RN) Chairman, his offences came to light as part of PA’s review of the RN’s finances.
Governance compliance has strengthened in recent years with the digitalisation of procurement and payment procedures via systems to reduce the amount of manual tasks and paperwork. This helps to tighten compliance with existing rules as every transaction is recorded in the system for future audits.
There are also sound processes and due diligence in place when it comes to the appointment of GRLs, and we expect GRLs to conduct themselves in a manner that befits their standing and roles in the community. We do not condone nor trivialise wrongdoings. However, we should not allow a few cases to tar the good work by many more GRLs who have volunteered their time and efforts to build and bond the community and provide support to the residents, particularly during trying times such as in our fight against COVID-19, while conscientiously adhering to the financial rules at the same time.
At the same time, no system can completely prevent attempts at fraud and misconduct. Therefore, PA will continue to identify new controls and measures, to strengthen our systems and processes to ensure that there is proper adherence to the financial rules and regulations, and to enhance the ability to detect irregularity.
Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth
23 February 2023