Chees’ case against the Lees: Part II

Dr Chee Soon Juan and Ms Chee Siok Chin filed their affidavits for the summary judgement hearing on 3 Aug 06. The affidavit which presents the case against the Lees will be posted on this website in separate instalments. Part B is presented below:

B. The meaning of the words in Article

1. Essentially the Article makes the argument that the NKF scandal “is about greed and power.” This greed and power of T T Durai and the other officials in the NKF is borne out of a political culture bred by the PAP.

On greed

2. The Government insists that its ministers be paid millions of dollars in salaries in order to attract and retain talent in its ranks. Without this kind of pay, the Government insists, many of the individuals now serving as ministers will quit public service and join the private sector, thus depriving Singapore of talent and capability. Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong said that if “you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” to justify their salaries. Also, the Government says that it is important for the ministers to be paid their current salaries so that they will not be tempted by corruption.

3. On the first point about retaining talent through high pay, the Government forgets that it is not a corporation where profit-making and the increment of shareholders’ values are the prime objectives. Public-service and working for the common, greater good of society are the overriding objectives of public servants in government (especially ministers and lawmakers). To be in positions of power and using that power to enrich themselves financially is to indulge in the politics of greed.

4. The Defendants are not saying that ministers should not be paid their worth but when the rationale is that their salaries should be pegged at those at the top levels of the private sector, monetary gain (instead of public-oriented, public-minded type of service) becomes the main motivating factor. And when money becomes the main motivating factor, greed surfaces. Our nation’s ministers must have the wherewithal to want to be leaders of the country and that includes have the vision and passion to lead. True political leaders don’t need to be enticed and retained by unseemly large amounts of money.

5. As for the reason that high salaries are a deterrent against corruption, a nation’s leaders must be of such character that they should be able to resist wrongdoing without being enticed by money. Ministers who are enticed by money do not make good leaders for the country.

6. An extension of this type of thinking can be found in the NKF when it was revealed that T T Durai was paid $600,00 a year. This caused a public uproar. Mrs Goh Chok Tong uncannily also used the same word that her former prime minister husband did when talking about salaries – that paying TT Durai $600,000 is “peanuts.” 

7. The public outrage caused Mr Goh Chok Tong to apologise on his wife’s behalf. The public was angry because NKF was not a profit-making entity but a charitable organization set up to help those with severe medical problems. More importantly it relies on the goodwill donations from the people. To draw salaries as much as top earners in private business corporations was seen as greed and unacceptable.   

8. Similarly, the Government of Singapore is not a profit-generating body and is not meant to be one. It derives its “wealth” through taxes, fees, levies, forced savings and acquisitions on the people. To pay ministers salaries comparable to business executives is also seen by many to be motivated by greed and is unacceptable.

9. It is this idea from the Government that people of “talent” must be paid salaries of private business executives, regardless of the fact that they serve in non-business capacities that allowed the thinking in the NKF that its executives must also be paid market rate. Mrs Goh’s “peanuts” comment testifies to this type of thinking.

10. This was not an opinion formed exclusively by the Defendants. The Yawning Bread website also wrote:

“Durai’s high salary and perks.

There were audible gasps in the courtroom when, in July, Durai revealed that his annual salary and bonuses amounted to $600,000 a year. Did he forget that he was running a charity? people asked.

Did he forget that the money for NKF came from the pockets of ordinary citizens, almost all of whom earned less than he did?

To compound matters, Mrs Goh Chok Tong, the wife of the former Prime Minister, and then-patron of the NKF, remarked to the press that Durai’s $600,000 pay was “peanuts” for someone who ran a multi-million charity with a few hundred million in reserves.

She would later publicly express regrets for those words, but the damage had been done. The public would see the PAP elite as completely out of touch with the average Singaporean’s feelings.

The additional revelations from KPMG’s report on 19 December 2005 only makes things worse. The report documented how Durai was given backdated salary increments, paid extra for “overtime” work, and how he was given extra days’ leave, only to convert those days into cash. 

He also charged an average of $32,952 a month to his corporate credit card in 2004.

Singaporeans have never stopped grumbling about high salaries for ministers and senior civil servants. A case like this only keeps the grumbling alive.

Mrs Goh’s now-withdrawn remarks also reveal the tendency to measure the appropriateness of salary levels as a ratio to how much money is in the kitty, while the common man may think in terms of what is morally right for the job.

The government has always argued that however big the topline figure is, total ministers’ salaries are just a small percentage of the government budget, and that given the heavy responsibility to run an economy of billions, high salaries are justified. That’s the ratio justification. Mrs Goh’s remark basically runs along the same vein. 

Few have bought that kind of argument, and now the depravity of it all as seen from the NKF saga, have once more turned people against it.”

11. Another similarity between the salaries of ministers and that of NKF officials is that they are not made readily available. When asked by Nominated Member of Parliament Braema Mathi during a Parliamentary sitting on 19 April 2004 to reveal T T Durai’s salary, Second Minister for Finance Lim Hng Kiang replied: “…this is a decision by NKF whether to disclose the salaries of the CEOs. Here, I have some sympathy for their dilemma.  If they do not disclose, then there will be critics who say they are not transparent. If they disclose, there will also be critics who will say that whatever they pay are too high.” In a similar way, ministerial salaries are not made public as a matter of course. This is especially troubling when the levels are, by far, the highest in the world.  

On Power

12. Greed cannot exist without power. It is power that enables those in top positions to indulge in greed by paying themselves astronomical sums of money. More importantly, power also enables the powerful to silence their critics through punitive action as well as to manipulate systems and people so that they can retain their positions. In other words, the greed can only be fed if the individuals indulging in greed remain in positions of power. 

13. When volunteers criticised T T Durai’s practices at NKF, they were sued by Durai and were silenced even though they were clearly justified in their criticisms. Because they could not afford to fight the suit due to limited financial means, they had to agree to pay Durai and settle the matter out of court. This has the added advantage of ensuring that other critics also keep their views to themselves.

14. Again, this notion was not exclusively held by the Defendants. The Yawning Bread website wrote:

“The use of defamation suits

The moment Durai’s and NKF’s suit against Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and journalist Susan Long collapsed on 12 July 2005, the point was not lost on Singaporeans. Here was proof, if they ever needed it, that defamation suits can be used for dishonourable purposes.

The Straits Times’ article was not the first time allegations of impropriety at NKF had been aired. In August 1997 and December 1998, two volunteers at the NKF had also been sued for loose talk about misuse of funds at the charity. One of them, Archie Ong, made a casual comment to Alwyn Lim, another volunteer at NKF, that the NKF management squandered money meant for patients. He also said that Durai “jets about here and there in first class”.

Alwyn Lim reported this comment to Durai and the next thing Archie Ong knew, he was faced with a lawsuit. Lacking the means to prove his allegations, he settled out of court. He had to pay a “five-figure sum” in damages and legal costs.

Later, Alwyn Lim would be a board director and head the Finance Committee at NKF, flying first class alongside Durai.

In May 1999, the same thing happened again. This time, Tan Kiat Noi had to pay $50,000 in damages and legal costs for sending an email to 48 persons on 5 April 1999. Acording to news agency DPA, in her email, she alleged that the NKF did not help the poor and needy and paid its staff unrealistically high bonuses.  She also urged members of the public not to donate money to it.

DPA news agency quoted Matilda Chua, speaking for the NKF, as saying, “NKF employees were paid an average bonus of 1.4 months last year [i.e. 1998] and were not given a 13th month bonus.”

Chua herself received a bonus in 1998 equivalent to 14 months’ salary.

But things were different with the 2005 case. Probably because SPH could afford high-powered lawyers, they could contest their suit where the volunteers and Tan Kiat Noi had not felt confident doing the same earlier. SPH’s high-powered lawyers could demand from NKF the information they needed. What this information showed was not only that the Straits Times’ article was well-founded, but also that the volunteers and Tan had been right all along.

The Singapore public now feels it was extremely perverse that the law had been used to shield wrong-doers from the “little guy”. Only in the rare case of the NKF taking on a “big guy” – the Straits Times – was justice obtained.

As everyone knows, People’s Action Party (PAP) ministers have regularly taken their political opponents to court for defamation, always against the “little guy”. The Straits Times is unlikely to pick up this thread, but that’s not to say it won’t be a question asked around in coffeeshop talk: what’s the difference between Durai’s defamation suits and the PAP’s?

Will the public recall the NKF scandal the next time the PAP sues someone for defamation? And then, if the court finds for the PAP, will respect for the judicial system go down the same chute?”

15. In the PAP’s case, the officials have the power to amend the rules and laws governing elections so that they are returned to power. These undemocratic measures help the PAP to retain power and it is this power that enables them to indulge in greed and to silence their opponents. Freedom House reported in its annual report in 2005:

“Citizens of Singapore cannot change their government democratically. Singapore’s 1959 constitution created a parliamentary system of government and allowed for the right of citizens to change their government peacefully. Periodic elections are held on the basis of universal suffrage, and voting is compulsory. In practice, however, the ruling PAP dominates the government and the political process, and uses a variety of indirect methods to handicap opposition parties. The head of government is not chosen through elections; the prime minister, like the cabinet, is appointed by the president…Though general elections are free from irregularities and vote rigging, the PAP’s manipulation of the political system means that they cannot be termed fair. Opposition parties are constrained by the ban on political films and televised programs; the curtailing of expressions of political opinion by the threat of libel or slander suits; strict regulations and limitations on associations, including political associations; and the PAP’s influence of the media and in the courts, among other things. The net result is that there is no effective opposition.”

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