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Friday, 23 November 2012 16:10

Mahen Seeruttun : “I believe taxpayers have the right to know whether the best option was retained on the ID card project"

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Mahen Seeruttun, a qualified accountant also holds an MBA in Finance. After his studies he worked for a firm of accountants in the city of London for two years and upon his return to Mauritius, he joined DCDM (now known as BDO) as auditor before taking up the post of Head of the Finance & Admin Department at the MSIRI for nearly 15 years.
He joined the CIEL Group as Finance Manager for around 7 years. He is now a consultant in project management. He stood as candidate for the general elections of 2005 in constituency No. 11 Vieux Grand Port/Rose Belle but was not elected. He stood again in 2010 in the same constituency and is today a member of the National Assembly as well as a member of the Public Accounts Committee. News on Sunday met him to discuss the reasons for his many questions put to government at the National Assembly on the new national ID card project.

n You raised the issue of ID cards several times at the National Assembly. Why is this issue important to you?
The project to come up with a new National ID cards dates back to some years now and I remember that in 2009 there was a tender exercise launched to call for bidders to make offers for the implementation of the project. We now have confirmation from the Minister’s reply that there was indeed such an exercise and that there were three firms that were pre-selected with the highest bidder quoting for some Euro 8 Million. It is also to be noted that following a PQ in 2010, the Minister stated that a Singaporean firm would conduct a study on the project and following that study, a tender exercise would be launched.

The question that arose was why the project did not go ahead in 2009, what happened to the report of the study carried out by the Singaporean firm he himself mentioned in Parliament in 2010 and how come all of a sudden in September 2012, we were informed that through a decision of the Cabinet government has approved the award of  the project to a Singaporean firm.

The question that I put initially was to know where matters stand with regard to the project implementation. This is a project that would embark the country on a new modern ID card that would be used for multiple purposes and that would cost more than a billion of rupees. I believe that taxpayers have the right to know whether the best option was retained and that their money was being judiciously spent, that the most appropriate technology was being used for the smart card and the types of information that will be kept on that database. I also wanted to know who will be leading the project in Mauritius. Most of the questions have remained without answers. Even the contract signed between the Mauritian government and its counterparts in Singapore is not available to the public. Everything is being done in total opacity.

The production of new ID cards will be done by Singaporean companies following a government to government agreement. What are the main components of the project that you do not agree to?
In his reply to the PQ, the Minister stated that following a government to government agreement, the contract was awarded to the Singapore Enterprise Corporation. He also stated that since it is a G to G agreement, there is no need to go for a tender exercise. I would have thought that when you go for a G to G contract, you should be getting better deals than what you would have got by going through the normal open tender exercise. If it was the case where our Government was getting a better deal then this could have been an argument to justify the government’s decision. But this is not the case. In fact we are paying more for less. (1) the cost of the project will amount to Rs 1.1 Billion far more than what was quoted in 2009,

(2) there is no assistance be it financial or otherwise from the Singaporean government,

(3) the contract awarded to Singapore Enterprise Corporation has been given to Crimson Logic, a private-owned company,

(4) Crimson Logic has been subject to fraud allegation in the past,

(5) Crimson Logic had previously worked on the E-Judiciary project for Mauritius and was subject to various criticisms from the Director of Audit and

(6) in Singapore, for their own ID cards they have a different technology used, i.e, the 2D bar code which is a different technology being proposed for the smart card for Mauritius. I am convinced that we have blindly embarked with the Singapore Company on such a project without looking at all the options available be it at the level of technology or the funding of the project. It’s a secret to none that when it comes to smart card the Europeans have an edge over other nations. The only plausible explanation is that there have been other obscure considerations that have weighed in favour of that decision. The more so when the Government refuses to make the contract public despite the fact that Rs 1.1 billion, if not more, will be spent on that project.

Following the government to government agreement, two Singaporean companies are to produce the ID cards. Do you think these companies have the technical know-how to produce such cards?
Before awarding the contract, there should have been a due diligence carried out and a close scrutiny of the track record of these companies. From my information, there has been no such exercise. As I said earlier, in Singapore itself they have used a different technology from what is being proposed for the smart card for Mauritius. I still believe that we have not looked at all the available options before taking a decision in the best interest of the country. It’s a missed opportunity for the country.

Do you think there are Mauritian companies who could have produced such cards?

In his reply the Minister stated that for security reasons, it was not appropriate to consider local suppliers. I find this ridiculous. I remember that in 2004, when the new passport project was implemented, the contract was awarded to a North American company in a joint venture with a local company, Harel Mallac, and this project was implemented successfully. I think that a passport document is more important than the ID card and yet it did not pose a security problem at that time to allow a local firm to participate in the project.

There are a few Mauritian companies that had expressed interest to participate in the ID card project but unfortunately, the government had ignored them completely. A joint venture between a local firm and an overseas firm could have been an excellent opportunity for capacity building. On the one hand, the government in the 2013 Budget is trying to boost the ICT sector and on the other hand the Minister of ICT is bragging the merit of Singaporean companies at the expense of local firms. 

What if tomorrow you learn that the two Singaporean companies are sub-contracting the project to a Mauritian firm?
This would put the Mauritian government in a very awkward position as they claimed that for security reasons local firms could not be considered.  The Minister of ICT will be the ‘dindon de la farce’ but again it is clear that this project is being led by the Prime Minister’s Office and I wonder if the Minister of ICT has had a say in the decision making of this project.

What is the necessity and importance to have new ID cards issued?
A new modern card has its ‘raison d’être’ but the way the project is being handled and at a time of financial crisis there are other priorities that should have topped the list of the government. I still maintain that the whole project should have been put on halt, until we reconsider going for an open tender exercise at the appropriate time and the selection of the service provider is made based on the best option for the country. This should be done in complete transparency and good governance.

Given its huge cost, what should have been the priority of government - issuing new ID cards or tackling poverty eradication?
You are absolutely right; the timing for the implementation of such a project costing Rs 1.1 billion is for me a total non-sense. There are so many social problems the country is facing and yet there are no concrete measures taken to address these problems. If nothing is done now, we might end up in a social explosion as we witnessed in 1999. It’s no point having a smart card in our pocket and not being able to have a decent job, a clean environment, and a safe place to live in.
Indradev Curpen

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