Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang explains the shortcomings of PAP’s town council handover process
The most explosive exchange in Parliament to date that Singaporeans have been waiting for.
Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang spoke publicly about the Auditor-General’s Office’s report for the first time in Parliament this afternoon on Feb. 12, 2015.
He said that his party takes seriously the findings of lapses in governance and compliance in its Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) and supports the government’s move to strengthen the oversight of town councils.
Even as parliament exploded with a flurry of exchanges as the incumbent and opposition party clashed (see here, here, here and here) for the first real time since the General Election 2011, the reasons offered by WP for their lapses have been convincing, to say the least.
Here are four justifications offered by Low in parliament to explain the predicament the party found themselves:
1. AHPETC’s problems stemmed from its difficulty in finding an established managing agent to hire after winning Aljunied GRC in May 2011.
Low revealed that large managing agents that run People’s Action Party town councils in Singapore would not take the WP’s business.
Speaking in Parliament, Low said: “… it seems that the managing agents serving PAP town councils are unwilling to serve in non-PAP town councils, and the reason appears to be political rather than professional.”
2. Winning a GRC in GE2011 is tantamount to having to get hundreds of civil servants on standby to take over.
After winning a proper GRC, WP’s MPs were responsible for scaling up Hougang SMC’s system to fit a GRC many times its size.
The difficulty of this task was compounded in the face of previous Aljunied GRC contractors, who served the PAP, terminating their services abruptly — all within a stipulated 90 days transition period.
Low said: “Under our current system, it seems to be that any opposition party which aspires to be elected in a GRC will have to build a town management team to train hundreds of staff officers first, (then) start shopping for an off-the-shelf accounting software.”
“If an opposition party aspires to be the next government, it may need to build an army of civil servants first.”
“This is a strange political situation for any functioning democracy to be in.”
3. Teething problems: The severity of AHPETC’s problems are minimised when looked at from a different scale.
Low said that this current episode should be put in the proper perspective.
This is because AHPETC’s performance in the annual town council grading exercise had been found to be “comparable to other town councils.”
Other than poor management of its service & conservancy charges, Low emphasised that the AGO report did not find the town council to be engaged in corrupt practices nor were there any lost of money.
4. Workers’ Party’s steep learning curve will serve it well
The conclusion drawn from Low’s remarks are clear: The learning curve is invaluable for WP as it will only do better next time it wins another election/ GRC.
Low said that the WP has learned from the AGO audit that it should have appointed a consultant to look at internal controls in compliance with the Town Council Act, to allow the elected MPs focused on taking over the town to ensure that major services are not disrupted.
He said: “This is something we would do if such a privilege happens in future elections.”
Low emphasised that in addition to strengthening the Town Councils Act, he hopes that the Government looks at the “de-politicisation of the transition process” when town councils change hands, adding that the WP welcomes the PAP Government’s scrutiny of its town council as this is what happens in a “First World Parliament”.