Ex-NLB manager admits to taking bribes of over $581,000 from ex-employee

FILE PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore
FILE PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore

SINGAPORE — A former National Library Board (NLB) manager took bribes from his former employee while giving him inside information on supplying digital resources to the statutory board from 2005 to 2009.

On Tuesday (4 August), Ivan Koh Siong Wee – who left NLB in 2014 – pleaded guilty to 20 charges of corruption after taking $581,730 in bribes from his former employee Low Pok Woen, whose three firms supplied millions of dollars of digital resources like electronic books to NLB.

Low also pleaded guilty to 20 similar charges. Another 36 charges will be taken into consideration for sentencing for each of them.

Supervised librarians in procuring digital resources

Koh, 50, joined NLB in 2003, and was a manager of a department in charge of procuring digital resources between 2005 and 2010.

Between 2001 and 2009, he was also the sole director of hairdressing company Speedcuts where Low, 51, had worked from 2001 to 2005.

Around 2005, NLB moved towards digitalisation, and Koh was appointed as a manager in the digital resources service department, now known as the digital library services department, to oversee the implementation.

Koh was then supervising librarians in procuring digital resources, a process which involved shortlisting material and seeking input from the Public Library Group and Reference Library Group.

Should the shortlisted material be found suitable by these groups, Koh and his team of librarians would negotiate with the publisher or vendor on the price to subscribe to the resource.

Draft approval papers indicating details such as 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, Buddharaju Kakshmi Narayana Raju, for approval.

Shared info, took money for personal purposes

When Koh learnt about NLB’s move towards digitalisation in 2004, he shared the information with Low. He also introduced Low to a salesperson for an overseas database publisher, Terrence Shan Chee Hoong.

Low then set up three companies – Database Resource Services, JCD Crossmedia and W3.XS – that provided digital content, becoming a director and shareholder of the companies between 2005 and 2010.

Together with Shan, who was a shareholder for Database Resource Services, they signed contracts with overseas publishers, acquiring the legal rights to distribute their content in Singapore. Low and Shan would then market the content to NLB.

The statutory board became the biggest customer of Low's three companies, procuring almost $6 million in digital resources from them.

Between November 2005 and November 2009, Koh asked Low for money for various personal purposes such as expenses, payment of Speedcuts' business expenses, and for a business called Promopower operated by his sister.

Low agreed, setting aside about 30 per cent of the profits he earned from his companies’ subscription contracts with NLB to give as bribes to Koh. He kept records of the bribes he paid to Koh, filling out spreadsheets detailing how much each company payment was to be set aside as Koh’s “commission”.

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

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

Discovery of fraud in 2014

NLB discovered the possible fraud and falsification of documents in Low's supply of digital content in 2014 and lodged a police report.

This sparked an investigation by the Commercial Affairs Department, and the case was subsequently referred to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau in 2016. The bureau then recovered Low's spreadsheets detailing the bribes.

Low and Koh were each offered bail of $80,000 on Tuesday. Mitigation and sentencing have been set on 15 September.

If convicted of graft, each offender can be jailed for up to five years and fined up to $100,000 for each charge.

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