Published: July 14 2005 01:33 | Last updated: July 14 2005 01:33
An unprecedented wave of public anger has swept Singapore after the head of its largest charity disclosed this week that he was paid up to S$600,000 ($350,000, €290,000, £200,000) annually and took first-class flights.
The headquarters of the National Kidney Foundation was covered with protest graffiti, in a rare act of vandalism for the normally placid city-state, and the topic has dominated internet chatrooms.
The issue could prove embarrassing for the government since the chief patron of the NKF is the wife of Goh Chok Tong, Singapore's senior minister and former prime minister.
The public outrage also reflects complaints that Singapore's elite appears to be enjoying a lavish lifestyle when the income gap between the rich and poor is widening.
NKF, which helps to finance dialysis treatment for kidney patients, has been one of Singapore's most popular charities.
But it also has been criticised for a lack of transparency, including refusing to reveal the salary of its chief executive, T. T. Durai.
The controversy surrounding NKF was triggered after Mr Durai filed a defamation lawsuit against the Straits Times, Singapore's leading newspaper, over an article that said he had installed gold-plated taps in his office bathroom.
Mr Durai said the article suggested he was misusing the charity's funds.
But potentially damaging information concerning NKF was revealed when the defamation trial began this week.
In addition to his high salary and first-class flights, Mr Durai and other staff had access to eight company cars and drivers.
Davinder Singh, the lawyer acting for the Straits Times, alleged that the NKF was misleading the public since it claimed it was treating more patients than it had, while its reserves of S$220m were adequate to help kidney patients for decades, instead of three years as NKF claimed.
Mr Durai was also alleged to have a “commercial relationship” with an NKF board member who had interests in a call centre that NKF was using.
After two days of tough questioning, Mr Durai decided to drop his defamation suit. Mr Durai is under public pressure to resign, with an online petition urging his dismissal having gathered 7,500 signatures in the past day.
NKF also reported that 2,700 people had cancelled donation pledges.
Public attention has also focused on Mrs Goh, the senior minister's wife, after she defended Mr Durai's salary.
“For a person who runs a million-dollar charitable organisation, S$600,000 is peanuts as [NKF] has a few hundred millions in reserves,” she said.
The controversy has led to calls that disclosure guidelines for charities should be tightened, including revealing the salaries of top executives.
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