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Archive for May 2013

Parliament: Ministerial Statement on Town Councils (Pritam Singh) – 13 May 2013

Thank you, Mdm Speaker. The Town Councils Act of 1989 was passed with reference to Singapore politics of the 1980s, when non-People’s Action Party (PAP) Members of Parliament (MPs) were elected to check the government, ending the one-party rule of the PAP in Parliament. Whatever the stated intent and objectives of the Act, Government entities could make life difficult for elected non-PAP MPs from carrying out their duties. For example, by refusing to allow the non-PAP MP to use the existing Town Council (TC) office after securing the people’s mandate at the polls because governing legislation like the Town Councils Act provide no safeguards against direct or indirect actions by a PAP government that is intent on obstructing non-PAP TCs.

The Ministry of National Development’s (MND) findings have cleared Action Information Management Pte Ltd (AIM), a fully owned PAP company from any wrongdoing. But, in the minds of many Singaporeans, while the MND Report found nothing legally out of place with the AIM transaction, legal legitimacy under the Town Councils Act does not necessarily represent a commitment to good governance and the continuity of public services in the aftermath of general elections.

During the reading of the TC Bill, then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong explained the politicisation of the TCs as giving MPs increased authority and responsibility as a result of which, voters would be more likely to vote “carefully and sincerely” and choose honest and effective MPs. However, the years that followed saw other means used by the Government to lower the standing of a duly elected MP, even if that individual was able to run a TC competently. Denial of upgrading projects — such as the then Main Upgrading Programme and the Interim Upgrading Programme – was a ruthless psychological PAP tactic at the polls that pandered to the selfishness of the individual, at the expense of other higher order human instincts such as fair play and equality.

For all practical purposes, the PAP government of the day could jeopardise a candidate’s prospects at the ballot box and punish residents without even having to worry about the legal consequences of doing so, as there were none, forget about any protection under the Town Councils Act. So in spite of the original intent of the Act, even if an MP was honest and effective, the government of the day retained significant powers to cripple him, as it did in Hougang and Potong Pasir. Beyond the determination of the respective MPs in these wards, the thing that held the MPs in esteem was the wisdom, sense of justice and personal sacrifice of the majority of their voters.

It is through these historical lenses that many Singaporeans understood the AIM imbroglio that unfolded at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, after coming to terms with the revelation that the PAP incorporated and owned a private company in 1991 that was operating in the public sector.

While the MND Report saw a “fundamental tension” between the objectives of delivering good public service and the political accountability of MPs – in the specific case of AIM unfortunately, it fell short in exploring the source of this tension. Quite simply, the source of the tension was the political profile of AIM.

The right of a fully-owned PAP company to terminate a critical piece of the then Aljunied-Hougang Town Council’s (AHTC) infrastructure with one month’s notice was not in the public interest precisely because even by the PAP’s own admission, it would have taken up to two years or even longer to establish a new Town Council Management System (TCMS). The presence of this clause, in the political context of the Town Councils, ought to have raised a conflict of interest red flag because a PAP-owned company and the PAP TCs had defined their rights and obligations by virtue of a contract that ran the real risk of undermining and prejudicing an incoming non-PAP run TC.

Many Singaporeans wonder what would happen to a Town Council in the absence of a working and functional TCMS. Beyond managing maintenance records, feedback management amongst other critical day-to-day operational functions, the Town Council would not be able to efficiently manage the collection of S&CC fees from residents. Collection would have been a cumbersome exercise, part-manual, part-electronic, and the Town Council would have been overwhelmed by S&CC collection, leaving little time for other tasks. Until a new TCMS was established, there would have been numerous disputes pertaining to the accurate collection of S&CC fees and potentially, a whole list of unfulfilled contractual obligations with the Town Council’s contractors.

While the standing of the elected MP would be compromised, the real losers would be the residents who would be faced with delays with rubbish collection, dysfunctional amenities, and a very unpleasant state of affairs immediately outside their own homes, all unconnected to the competence of the incumbent MPs. The prospects of this reality would explain why the AHTC team worked in the months after May 2011 to stabilise Town Council operations and upscale the former Hougang Town Council’s IT management system, instead of allowing the residents of Aljunied GRC to be potentially held at ransom by a one-month termination clause in the hands of fully-owned PAP company.

The MND report justified its finding of the absence of any conflict of interest in terms of Town Council members having a pecuniary or direct interest in the AIM transaction, whether the interests of the Town Council’s residents were protected or impaired and whether there was any misuse of public funds. However, beyond the contention that the AIM transaction was not in the public interest, if one reflects on the historical context in the aftermath of the passing of the Town Councils Act, a fully-owned PAP company’s right to terminate the TCMS was in keeping with the philosophy that has defined the relationship of the PAP government with opposition-run Town Councils since 1988, and therein lies the inherent conflict of interest surrounding AIM – a conflict of interest that has been duly recognised by discerning Singaporeans.

In the more recent past, the PAP has moved away from denying upgrading to opposition wards, but the political calculations behind this move do not mean that a u-turn can never take place. The historical record shows that the public interest in the non-PAP Town Council context is usually a victim of PAP pressure on voters during parliamentary elections. There is significant opinion outside this House that this is an ethically unacceptable state of affairs.

It is for this reason that the remarks of the Permanent Secretary of the MND in his letter of 30 April 2013 to the Prime Minister, which called for a strategic and comprehensive review of Town Councils, ought to be welcomed. Of particular significance is MND Report’s recognition of public calls to depoliticise Town Councils, a point that was somewhat reinforced by a Straits Times poll of 7 May 2013 where 41 out of 50 residents called for the same, the main concern for some being the lack of a political level-playing field and its impact on residents.

The question of depoliticisation is significant because it raises not just the issue of a review of the Town Councils Act, but the substantive relationship of the Government towards wards which are not run by PAP Town Councils. For the specific purposes of this debate, depoliticisation must mean that companies owned by political parties should not tender for Town Councils contracts – a glaring omission from the MND report. In addition to the recommendations called for by the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC Ms Sylvia Lim, the report’s call for depoliticisation – if executed as imagined by most Singaporeans – would effectively entail inducting a new brand of politics into Singapore insofar as Government-Town Council relations is concerned, representing a hope and desire that goes far beyond the findings of the MND report, but one that is in line with public expectations.

Some members of the public have suggested that certain Town Council functions like the provision of the TCMS can be the purview of agencies like HDB and that governance would improve with MND’s oversight. However, putting critical infrastructure in MND’s hands would be self-defeating if agencies like HDB are open to political influence in matters concerning local Town Council administration.

If such agencies are open to political influence, they would effectively be operating like quasi-Managing Agents, as evidenced by the HDB’s decision to lease 26 common properties under the then Aljunied Town Council to the People’s Association in the aftermath of the 2011 General Elections, to the exclusion of the incoming Town Council and newly elected MPs. In the AIM context, the larger point is that critical assets like the Town Council’s IT system and its intellectual property must remain part of the Town Council and cannot be terminated unilaterally. Non-PAP Town Councils must be allowed to effectively manage the town without political interference by HDB or MND, or have its functions compromised by policies that serve a political purpose to the advantage of the ruling party.

Mdm Speaker, the findings of the MND report provides a rare opportunity for the Government to look into substantively depoliticising not just Town Councils, but the relationship between TCs and the government. The MND report at paragraph 59 states that there were some who opined that depoliticising TCs can improve their governance and that MND can “regulate and oversee Town Councils without perception issues.”

Unfortunately, as I have explained earlier, the historical track record of the PAP is not promising in this regard. Depoliticising Town Councils will not mean anything if political calculations continue to determine how MND or other agencies deal with non-PAP Town Councils. It will not guarantee a level playing field as sought by Singaporeans, nor will it be reflective of the “new normal” we operate in today where an expectation of transparency, accountability and equality ought to represent the guiding principles of good governance.

I look forward to the tabling of the Town Council amendment bill where these matters will inevitably be debated in greater detail. For the immediate term, it would only be appropriate, in light of the findings of the MND Report for the Minister to direct that companies fully-owned by political parties ought to have no business dealing with Town Councils.

Written by singapore 2025

13/05/2013 at 8:58 am

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