After a 4-year long review of the Town Council Act (TCA), the government finally passed amendments to it in Parliament earlier this month.

The changes, which are ostensibly to institute higher standards of governance, now grant the Minister of National Development more powers of oversight of town councils.

Among the new rules, town councils must declare any conflicts of interest involving its staff; and they also have to submit audited financial reports within six months of the end of the financial year, and may also be required to submit financial projections.

One of the key changes which was opposed by the opposition Workers’ Party (WP), gives “the MND powers to conduct regular checks on the financial health of town councils and look into suspected irregularities.”

“These new provisions give the Minister powers that he did not have before,” WP chairman, Sylvia Lim, said in her parliamentary speech in response to the amendments.

For example, if the minister has “reasonable grounds to suspect a material irregularity in or affecting the conduct of a TC’s affairs”, he now has the power to order an investigation into the town council involved.

But what is “reasonable grounds” is not defined, and is left to the minister’s discretions.

The biggest conflict of all

The amendments, in effect, overturn the very premise and purpose of town councils when they were set up – that they are autonomous political entities which are politically accountable to the residents (voters) through the vote.

Now, however, through the enhanced powers given to the MND minister, the changes “perpetuate the biggest conflict of all”, as Ms Lim explained.

Lim

“Who is the gatekeeper of this regime?  The Minister for National Development.  But the Minister himself is supposed to be running a Town Council too, as are his Senior Minister of State and Minister of State.  His bosses, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Ministers, and the Co-ordinating Minister for Infrastructure, are all also running Town Councils.  Their comrades in arms are running all the Town Councils in Singapore except one – our WP Town Council.  Is the Minister a suitable gatekeeper, with these massive conflicts of interest?”

Ms Lim further elaborated.

“It is not possible to argue that the Ministry is a politically neutral body, as recent history, unfortunately, belies that claim.  Singaporeans will recall that during the General Election campaign in 2015, the Ministry was an active campaigner against the Workers’ Party, issuing statements practically daily on the alleged misconduct of AHPETC.  After Polling Day, the Ministry took a break and little was heard for weeks.”

The WP chairman cites another example of such conflicts of interest in having the MND minister have oversight over town councils.

“To take another example: we have also seen past records of how the Ministry advised a PAP TC how to make good a breach of the Town Councils Financial Rules, quietly behind closed doors, without any media release on the same.  These are but two examples of the double-standards practised by the PAP government.”

Ms Lim also raised further concerns, in particular, about how the MND could appoint public servants and HDB employees as inspectors of town councils.

“Do we expect these HDB officers to issue stinging reports against the Town Councils run by the PM or the Minister for National Development?” she asked.

Having town councils report to the MND – which itself is accountable to PAP MPs and ministers – is problematic, as observed by Associate Professor Mak Yuen Teen, who told the media in February: “I think this creates, at least, perception issues… that the system might be unfair or lenient to Town Councils because the PAP dominates the government”.

Dragging Public Service into political arena

In short, the amendments drag a Public Service entity dangerously into the political arena.

This is because, with his wide-ranging powers, the MND Minister can wield it for political gain or advantage, especially during politically sensitive times such as in the lead-up to a general election. This, as Ms Lim illustrated, has in fact happened during the last general elections.

When PAP chairman is also MND Minister

Besides the obvious and disturbing conflicts of interests raised by Ms Lim, there is also another, which had in fact happened in real life – when the MND Minister was also the chairman of the PAP during a time when a review was ordered by the Prime Minister over the PAP town councils’ sale of a computer system to a PAP-owned company.

In 2010, after a huge public uproar over the matter, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ordered the MND to conduct a “review” of the sale of the computer system by the 14 PAP town councils to Action Information Management (AIM), a company fully-owned by the PAP.

As some observed at the time, there was a conflict of interests in having the MND conduct the “review”.

This was because the Minister of MND at the time was Khaw Boon Wan, who was also the chairman of the PAP, the very same PAP whose decision to sell the computer system was under review.

PAP CEC

In short:

MND Minister = Khaw Boon Wan

PAP Chairman = Khaw Boon Wan

Computer sold by PAP to = PAP-owned Company headed by ex-PAP MPs

Review of sale conducted by = MND

The conflict was obvious, and raised some pertinent questions, as this blogger highlighted. (Click here.)

Nonetheless, the government proceeded with having the MND conduct the “review”.

After a 4-month “review”, the MND finally issued its report: it found “no conflict of interest nor any misuse of public funds” in the transaction.

The Prime Minister, who is also the secretary general of the PAP, accepted the report; and the MND Minister then, Khaw, made a parliamentary statement following the release of the report.

The matter was then closed.

MND a political tool

Putting aside the findings of the MND “review” report on AIM itself, it is patently obvious that having such a situation is a massive conflict of interest, even as we do not doubt the integrity of the MND Minister or his permanent secretary who headed the “review” team.

But in such situations, would it not be prudent, and responsible, to not have the same persons involved in the matter, whether directly or not, oversee the “review” or an investigation?

Would it not make perfect and common sense to have such a review done by an external, independent body or committee?

With the changes to the TCA, the MND Minister now has further powers, especially to conduct investigations into opposition town councils, even and especially during politically sensitive periods.

The sensible alternatives which the PAP rejects

Given the glaring conflicts of interests in the new powers of the Minister, what are the alternatives to hold town councils to account, besides the once-in-5 years elections?

“In our view, instead of having the Minister direct partisan investigations, we should revive the audits by the AGO,” Ms Lim said, referring to the Auditor General’s Office. “Town Councils were in the past audited by the AGO, and we believe the AGO should be tasked to audit TCs on a rotational basis i.e. a few TCs could be picked each year for audit.”

This is indeed a genuine alternative, so that all town councils – and not only opposition ones – are subject to accountability by a highly respected Organ of  State.

“Such a scheme of AGO audits would engender greater public confidence that the exercise is impartial and focused on what the public interest is – safeguarding public monies,” Ms Lim added.

The AGO conducts an annual audit of selected government ministries and their affiliated organisations, including statutory boards. The AGO then publishes the results of the audits on the AGO website so that the public have access to them.

Ms Lim also suggested that instead of having the courts settle disputes between the MND/HDB, NEA and other authorities, an “independent Housing Tribunal authorised to mediate and adjudicate disputes relating to the management of public housing” should be set up.

“Where the Tribunal makes a decision, its decisions would be binding unless on an error of law, which should be appealable to the Courts,” Ms Lim, who is a lawyer, explained. “The setting up of such a Housing Tribunal would go a long way towards having a more considered and just resolution of disputes, and residents would ultimately benefit.”

Unfortunately, such feasible, rational and fair suggestions have been rejected by the ruling party.

Lee

The WP, said MND Senior Minister of State, Desmond Lee, was “pointing at shadows” and “claiming conspiracies”.

In a rather strange turn of events, Mr Lee accused the WP of making “serious allegations.”

These, he said, were “quite unwarranted and perhaps are indicative of the worldview from which the Workers’ Party comes from – that when a political entity and a politician gets into power, there is no trust in his integrity, there is no trust in the voter.”

It is a strange accusation because if Mr Lee and his government trust the voter, they would have not made the amendments to the TCA, and allow the Act to do what it was originally set up to do – to let town councils run autonomously and to let residents (voters) decide on the performance of the town council.

Instead, the amendments have now usurped this authority from the voters and ascribe it to one single person – the MND Minister.

Mr Lee said “autonomy does not give anyone a blank cheque to run down the town council or the estate, misuse funds, mismanage system or break clearly established rules.”

Indeed, it does not.

So why is the PAP government afraid of subjecting its own town councils to the rigour of regular audits by the AGO, as the WP has been subjected to?

Does the PAP not trust the independence and professionalism of the AGO, despite the latter having been asked by the PAP government itself to carry out an audit on the WP which had lasted a whole year?

Why does the PAP, when it comes to subjecting itself to rigorous vetting, suddenly shy away from it?

Having the MND Minister, with his necessary vested interest in the outcome of any investigation into any town council – PAP or opposition – wield such enormous power is to not only entrench the inherent obvious conflict of interest in law, but to also dangerously drag a Public Service institution into the realm of partisan party politics.

Such a thing should be rejected by all right-thinking Singaporeans.

Our Public Service institutions must remain politically neutral and fair, and no political party should corrupt it with its own selfish political agenda which is not in the public’s interest.

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