Apathy? Not here

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2005, 12:00am

The latest financial scandal to hit the Lion city has mobilised Singaporeans like never before, showing that, despite a reputation for apathy, they can join forces when they want to - with surprisingly swift results.

The saga at the country's biggest charity, the National Kidney Foundation (NKF), has led to the resignation of its chief executive, its executive board and even patron Tan Choo Leng, wife of Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. Residents of the city state were outraged to learn that the chief executive, T.T. Durai, had felt entitled to the salary and perks normally associated with a fat cat heading a publicly listed company rather than a charity, and the board had supported him.

The case became public when Mr Durai sued The Straits Times newspaper for reporting he had golden taps installed in his office bathroom. The report, he complained, made it seem he was spending donors' funds on luxuries. But the lawsuit backfired, and Mr Durai eventually made some astonishing admissions.

Pushed in court on the charity's lack of transparency, he eventually admitted his annual salary and bonus averaged about S$600,000 [$2.7 million], he travelled in first class and had other perks. As for NKF operations, Mr Durai had led the public to think the charity had only three years' reserves left, when it had 40 years. He had overstated by 1,000 the number of patients the NKF was treating. After two days in court, Mr Durai retracted the lawsuit.

But more fuel was added to the fire: the NKF board continued to support Mr Durai, and Ms Tan helpfully said: 'For a person who runs a big million-dollar charitable organisation, with a few hundred million in reserves, $600,000 a year is peanuts.' That showed how distanced from normal life the charity's top echelons had become.

For once, public outrage was palpable: graffiti - still punishable with caning and imprisonment - was scribbled on a wall at NKF headquarters. An online petition quickly gathered over 30,000 signatures calling for the chief executive and board to resign. And the charity was inundated with the calls of angry patrons cancelling their donations.

The case is likely to raise serious transparency issues among the island's many other charities. The scandal has shown Singaporeans that their opinions do matter: the government quickly stepped in to 'encourage' the chief executive and board to resign. Ms Tan stepped down as patron, while her husband publicly apologised on her behalf. The fact that the press was on the side of the public greatly helped speed things along.

Too often, Singaporeans do not want to make a stand because they feel they cannot change anything: the NKF saga proves otherwise.