Thursday, June 10, 2004

Straightening the Straits Times (9)

Sometimes it’s not just our compliant newspaper that will try to mislead the public with its biased reporting. Government and semi/quasi-government officials often resort to flawed arguments to justify flawed causes. Disguised with flowery words and patronising rhetoric, these arguments can easily sway readers who are less discerning.

Case in point: The reply by NKF’s treasurer, Loo Say San, to a forum writer. For the benefit of everyone, I will reproduce the entire letter and pick apart the arguments point-by-point.

NKF complies with rigorous legal requirements

WE WRITE in response to the letter from Mr Chong Wee Lee (ST, April 22) and others who have written in on the National Kidney Foundation (NKF).
We thank the writers for their opinions and also for donating to the cause of dialysis patients. However, we wish to place on record a few points.
We are surprised by your newspaper's choice of headline for Mr Chong's letter, 'Time for NKF to set the record straight'. In effect, it suggests that our record isn't straight. We regret the insinuation.
We cannot set straight what is not bent, crooked, curved or twisted. We wish to remind Mr Chong, as well as your headline-writers, that the NKF, like any other non-profit organisation in our country, functions in accordance with the rigorous requirements of Singapore's laws.
We could not breach the trust that our donors have placed in us. Our utilisation of every donated cent is subject to an exacting internal and external audit mechanism headed by some of the world's keenest minds in corporate audit, including PricewaterhouseCoopers. [1]
In addition to the external audit, our accounts are also subject to lawful assessment as to whether they meet the transparency levels required by the Singapore Government - levels that are among the world's highest.
In recent days, the transparency we believe is inherent in our organisation has thrice been endorsed by Singapore's honourable ministers. It was vindication indeed. [2]
For 35 years, the NKF has been functioning in absolute compliance with every requirement that the laws of Singapore mandate of a non-profit organisation.
Donors do have rights and that includes the right to know whether their donation is being utilised in accordance with the law of the land.
To know more about us, our finances and whether we adhere to lawful stipulations, we would recommend these sites: www.iras.gov.sg and www.nkfs.org/aboutus/aboutus_finance.htm.
However, demands for other details will have to be dealt with by the NKF on merit and not on curiosity value.
The NKF's governing board comprises individuals of impeccable character, integrity, standing and commitment. The board is collectively responsible for deciding not just salaries but also the NKF's plans and strategies, which are then seen through by people of proven operational acumen.
The principal question that the NKF addresses every moment is 'how can we save more lives?'.
Addressing questions like who is being paid what has no useful bearing on our primary mission. We have spent time and valuable resources addressing these same questions time and again over the past few weeks. Such time and resources would have been better spent saving lives. [3]
We sincerely believe that we should not let anyone keep us occupied with answering what is at best an individual curiosity.
We are of the view that every one of our employees is answerable for what they do, not for what they are.
We would ask the curious few to pay attention to our outcomes, rather than hanker after details that should remain personal to our employees. [4]
Pages in print to rooms in cyberspace have been used by a handful of people to malign our employees. Such malicious chatter can only hurt our staff, who have poured their sweat and blood into their work for the sake of our patients, and not because of what we pay them. [5]
These are people who have chosen to work at the NKF because it is a charity without parallel, where giving, not earning, is the career.
For 35 years, we have given of our best to the people who depend on our continuance: The patients, their families and their little children.
Our loyal donors, who understand our mission of saving lives, have stood strong with us during these few weeks. They are the ones who have made us what we are - a strong organisation equipped to save lives both now and in the future.
As an institution anchored by the power of loyal donors, the NKF is designed to last hundreds of generations. [6] It is our donors' trust that has sustained our mission so far - and we believe that trust will see us through for as long as the Singaporean cares for his own.
LOO SAY SAN
Treasurer
National Kidney Foundation

[1] If indeed “every donated cent is subject to an exacting internal and external audit mechanism”, why is there such a big surprise (and much debate) among the public about the apparent inefficiency in the disbursement of donations? Why is there such an outcry about the excessive compensation of NKF’s top management? Secondly, name-dropping is a typical strategy employed by people when their argument lacks substance. It is as if by dropping names, the argument would substantiate itself. (See point #2) If equally big names like Arthur Andersen, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PwC have failed to prevent accounting scandals like Enron, AOL Time Warner, IM Clone and Tyco respectively, what makes Loo think that NKF is immune to such a possibility? Furthermore, what role did PwC play in the whole scheme of things? Were they hired as consultants to advise on executive compensation, or were they hired just to audit the books and look out for financial discrepancies? There’s a whole world of difference between the two arrangements. Words alone, therefore, do not serve as supporting evidence. Until the NKF provides full details of how the internal and external audits are carried out, the exacting mechanism mentioned will sound as hollow as the empty rhetoric regularly dished out by our nation’s top leaders.

[2] “They said so” can hardly qualify as a fact. If the public remains unconvinced, it matters not who the NKF relied upon as endorsement. Not ministers. Not even the prime minister.

[3] First, the letter writer said that “donors do have rights” to know how the NKF functions. Then, he contradicts himself by insisting that “addressing questions like who is being paid what has no useful bearing on our primary mission”. Nothing can be further from the truth. If the top management is paid excessively, does it not affect the way NKF operates? Does it not mean that less donated dollars will actually reach the intended recipients? If such questions have no useful bearing on NKF’s primary mission, then I wonder what would. In the US, where the economic security of millions has been jeopardised by the systematic looting of public monies by greedy insiders, accountability has become a huge concern. And if the NKF had not chosen to duck the issues and had released the relevant information, it would not have to spend “time and valuable resources addressing these same questions time and again”.

[4] I believe what “the curious few” (or should I say the curious majority?) are interested in is not the personal details (like sexual orientation, for instance) of NKF’s employees but information pertaining to executive compensation, which, in turn, relates to how every donated cent is utilised by the NKF.

[5] A typical diversion tactic employed by the letter writer to sow doubts amongst readers by suggesting that people who raised questions about NKF’s transparency (or lack of) inevitably have an axe to grind.

[6] “NKF is designed to last hundreds of generations” – is that why it’s so profit-driven? The question here is not whether the NKF can (or should) last that long, but whether it is serving its purpose of saving more lives, as Loo puts it.

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