Former NLB manager pleads guilty to taking more than S$580,000 in bribes from ex-employee

Former NLB manager pleads guilty to taking more than S$580,000 in bribes from ex-employee

NLB Ivan Koh Siong Wee and Low Pok Woen
Low Pok Woen (left) and Ivan Koh Siong Wee leaving the State Courts on Aug 4, 2020. (Photo: TODAY/Ili Nadhirah Mansor)

SINGAPORE: After learning about the National Library Board's (NLB) shift to digitalisation, a manager with the statutory board advised his former employee to "explore this business opportunity", giving him inside information to better his chances of supplying digital resources to NLB and later asking for bribes.

In total, former NLB manager Ivan Koh Siong Wee took about S$581,000 in bribes over four years from his former employee Low Pok Woen, whose three firms supplied millions of dollars of digital resources like electronic books to NLB. 

Koh, who left NLB in 2014, admitted on Tuesday (Aug 4) to 20 charges of corruption, while Low admitted to 20 similar charges. Another 36 charges will be taken into consideration for sentencing for each of them.

The court heard that Koh joined NLB in 2003. He was a manager in a department in charge of procuring digital resources between 2005 and 2010.

Koh was also the sole director of hairdressing company Speedcuts between 2001 and 2009, and Low had worked for him there for some years.

As a manager in NLB's Digital Resources Services Department (DRS), Koh, now 50, oversaw human resources, budget and administrative matters.

Koh also supervised librarians in procuring digital resources, a process which involves shortlisting material and seeking input from the Public Library Group and Reference Library Group.

If the shortlisted material was found suitable by these groups, Koh and his team of librarians could then negotiate with the publisher or vendor on the price to subscribe to the resource.

Draft approval papers indicating details like the price of the source, the estimated usage by NLB members and the estimated cost-per-usage were to be sent to Koh, who would vet them and forward them to his director for approval.

KOH INFORMED LOW OF NLB'S MOVE, ASKED HIM TO EXPLORE BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY

When Koh first learned about NLB's move towards digitalisation in 2004, he shared the information with his former employee Low, now 51.

He told Low to explore the business opportunity of providing digital content to NLB, and introduced him to a former salesperson and manager for an overseas database publisher, who knew about the digital content industry.

Low then set up three companies that provided digital content, becoming a director and shareholder of the companies between 2005 and 2010.

NLB was the biggest customer of Low's three companies: Database Resource Services, JCD Crossmedia and W3.XS.

Between November 2005 and November 2009, NLB procured S$5.4 million and US$703,000 (S$967,000) worth of digital resources from Database Resource Services, S$512,700 of digital resources from JCD Crossmedia and S$39,000 of material from W3.XS.

In November 2005, Koh started asking Low for money for various personal purposes. Low set aside about 30 per cent of all the profits earned from his three companies' subscription contracts with NLB to be given to Koh as gratification.

Whenever Koh requested money from him, Low took amounts from this pool of money he had set aside. 

Koh used the money for his personal expenses, for his haircutting business and for a business called Promopower operated by his sister.

Koh advanced Low's business interests in several ways. These include giving him confidential information on digital resources that NLB was interested in, as well as how such resources were assessed for procurement or renewal. Koh also advised him on what prices to quote and how to sign off with different names.

LOW KEPT DETAILED SPREADSHEETS OF THE BRIBES

Low kept records of the bribes he paid Koh, filling out spreadsheets detailing how much each company payment was to be set aside as Koh's "commission".

In total, Low corruptly gave 51 sums of gratification amounting to S$581,730 to Koh and or his nominees, in Koh's capacity as an agent of NLB.

Low also gave sums of money to another senior librarian at DRS as Low did not want the latter to give bad reviews of Low's digital resources.

NLB discovered the possible fraud and falsification of documents in Low's supply of digital content in 2014 and lodged a police report, sparking an investigation by the Commercial Affairs Department. The case was referred to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau in 2016, with the bureau recovering Low's spreadsheets detailing the bribes.

A spokesperson for NLB previously told CNA at Koh's charging that he had resigned and left the statutory board in November 2014.

The judge adjourned mitigation and sentencing to Sep 15. For each charge of corruption, the men face up to five years' jail, a fine of up to S$100,000, or both.

In response to CNA's queries, NLB said that since this incident, it "regularly refines and streamlines" its direct contracting process. 

NLB also enforces direct verification of sole distributorships and rigorously monitors the evaluation process for subscription renewals, said a spokesperson. 

"NLB takes a serious view of any corrupt act and does not condone any misconduct by our officers. Officers who break the law will be prosecuted, and have to face the full extent of the law," the spokesperson added.

Source: CNA/ll(gs)

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