Since the Straits Times chose not to print my letter, I'll publish it here.
I refer to the article, "HDB wants $18k payout back from ex-hawker" (ST, Jan 12).Background on the issue (from Today, because Straits Times doesn't have the article freely available on its website).
It states that the Housing Board wants Madam Lee Ah Muey to return $18,000 that it had given to her after she closed her stall. However, she was not entitled to this compensation since she had signed a contract agreeing to it. Four years later, Mdm Lee now has three weeks to cough up the huge amount.
This incident reeks of heavy-handedness and coercion. It is unfair of HDB to demand the money back for three reasons:
I realise that the issue is about HDB's accountability of the usage of public funds. However, accountability can go both ways. HDB should admit to its screw-up and write off the payout. It is the only logical and compassionate avenue available to it.
- It was HDB's mistake in the first place. So why is it forcing its former tenant to pay for its mistake?
- The incident happened in 2003. That is longer than necessary for HDB to realise and investigate its mistake, especially for such a large amount of money.
- Mdm Lee is a senior citizen living off her savings. It is unlikely that she can return the money in time and will probably be forced into debt by borrowing from others. The article even states that she may be forced to crawl back to HDB to rent a stall. Yet it is not her fault to be in this predicament in the first place.
For the sake of its brand and reputation, I advise HDB to take the high road in this issue and not pursue the matter any more. It should also ensure that processes are put in place to ensure that no such mistakes occur again, so as to ensure proper accountability of public funds.
If this incident had happened in a private company, the CEO would most likely have apologised for the mistake, then fired the employee responsible for it. The savings from the employee's salary would more than make up for the wrongful payout!