MPs and Town Councillors are public servants. In Section 21 of the Penal Code, a public servant is defined as an “officer whose duty it is, as such officer, to take, receive, keep or expend any property, on behalf of Government”. Their status was the same before and after the Town Councils Act was passed in 1988. Through that Act, HDB merely divested its powers in the management and maintenance of their estates to the individual Town Councils.
The Town Councils Act might have been enacted to give the elected MPs as much latitude as possible to run the Town Councils within broad and general rules. But they are still fully subject to the Penal Code as public servants.
Singaporeans therefore find some key points in the AIM transaction puzzling. The Review before us has not satisfied the questions in their minds: -
- How can a two-dollar company, with no staff, be deemed to have an established track record in providing IT services to Town Councils? The fact that AIM was awarded the tender seems to have hinged solely on their past working experience with the PAP Town Councils.
- How can the Review report say that there was no conflict of interest in the AIM transaction, simply because ‘no one made money’? I am not sure if any lawyer will be satisfied with how ‘conflict of interest’ is defined here.
Even if Town Councils are understood to be political, as provided for by the Town Councils Act, it does not mean that we can just forget about the concerns of residents over governance and due diligence.
What ever happened to the mantra that we must strive to observe best practices in public transactions? The Review report does not mention anything about best practices.
So if the Review concludes that the AIM transaction is in compliance with the Town Councils Act, then the Act is not well drafted. The Act must be revised to better address public concern over conflict-of-interest issues and criteria for the award of tenders.
The Review Team recommended a strategic review of TCs in their current form. One question that has been posed is – should Town Councils revert to centralised control under HDB, as in the pre-1988 situation?
When the Town Councils Act was passed in 1988, it was said that the Government wanted to make life harder for Opposition MPs in running their constituencies. Nevertheless, Potong Pasir Town Council, the only Opposition-held town council then, took up the challenge. We worked hard to run the town. I believe we did a good job, and I believe we earned the trust of our residents throughout 27 years.
But a lot of unfair obstacles were thrown at the Potong Pasir Town Council.
To obtain CIPC funds, we had to seek the endorsement of the Advisor of the Residents’ Committees, who had always been the PAP’s candidate for the constituency. Indeed, no Opposition politician has ever been allowed to become the Advisor of the RCs, even when that politician is the sitting MP for that constituency.
When it was under the Opposition, Potong Pasir did not obtain a single cent from the CIPC fund or any HDB-related funding. The sole exception was funding for improving barrier-free accessibility, granted in 2010. That was, after all, a nation-wide exercise for wheel-chair bound residents.
Recently, Potong Pasir obtained $5 million from MND for the Neighbourhood Renewal Programe, or NRP. I am happy for the residents of Potong Pasir, but I would have hoped that the residents be more informed and involved in the planning of the NRP exercise to decide what they really want for their estate. After all residents have a stake in their estate. While physical structures and beautifications can be bought with money, the ‘software’ of community ties and interactions can never be bought.
All Town Councils, whether they are held by the PAP or not, should be able to benefit from community improvement grants from the HDB. Residents are all tax-payers and deserve equal treatment.
Advisers to the RCs cannot be given the power to endorse community improvement projects or otherwise. Why should the sitting MP, who is democratically elected by the people, be at the mercy of the RC Adviser? MND has got to change this.
MND started publishing the Town Council Management Report in 2010 as a form of a report card on their town councils’ performance in estate management.
The Opposition-held constituencies of Potong Pasir and Hougang were always ranked lowly. The residents however, are happy with our management of the Town Council.
The evaluation process for the purpose of the TCMR must be led by investigators independent of the MND and HDB, to avoid biasness in the reporting and branding of the performance of Town Councils.
Town Councils should retain their current powers to manage estates, and MND should not have central control over them – for example, when implementing ad-hoc policies at any time, without debate in Parliament.
In conclusion, my question to the Minister is this – is the Government willing to improve the framework for running the Town Councils in the best interests of Singaporeans? Whether they live in a PAP- or an Opposition-held Town Council, they all pay taxes.
Going forward, I urge the MND to review the best practices that Town Councillors must adopt for the running of their Town Councils, as public servants.
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