Tuesday 14 May 2013

Town councils political by nature: Khaw

Workers' Party gave supporters million-dollar contracts, he reveals
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 14 May 2013

MEMBERS of Parliament enjoy latitude running their town councils and the Workers' Party (WP), like the ruling party, has turned to party affliates to run its operations, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday.

In a feisty rebuttal to the WP's accusations that the People's Action Party (PAP) had compromised residents' interest in its IT deal with a PAP-owned company, Mr Khaw laid out facts and figures detailing WP's own town council management.

At the heart of his argument: the WP might want to take a look in the mirror.

Mr Khaw was speaking during the debate on town councils, following a report that had found nothing wrong with the IT deal between PAP town councils and PAP-owned company AIM.

Addressing the report's larger recommendation of a strategic review of town councils, he said it cannot be to revert to "status quo ante", that is, go back to the days when the HDB ran everything and the MP is not accountable for how the ward is run.

Mr Khaw revealed that a company closely affiliated with the WP, FM Solutions and Services (FMSS), was itself awarded contracts worth millions of dollars by the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC).

The company is principally owned by Ms How Weng Fan, an estate manager of Hougang Town Council, and her husband Danny Loh, who provided contract services to Hougang Town Council.

The pair has a close relationship with the party, acting as assenter and proposer to the WP's Ang Mo Kio GRC team in the 2006 General Election.

The contracts FMSS won were: first, a management contract worth $5.2 million a year awarded without a tender; second, a three-year contract worth $16.8 million after AHTC called for a tender for which FMSS was the only tenderer one year later; and a third, a three-year contract for essential maintenance services unit worth $3.9 million.

"So when we talk about public interest, how would Ms Sylvia Lim characterise the FMSS transactions?" Mr Khaw said.

"In substance, has public interest been protected? Would she take the position that contracts like these given to close party associates be prohibited? In the AIM contract, public interest was enhanced. Can the same be said of the FMSS contract?"

Yet, despite these questions, he pointed out that MND took no issue with the deals. "MND accepted that consistent with this approach to allow all town councils the same latitude with regard to party affiliation, and we did not interfere with any of the transactions. And I think that should be the same, fair, consistent approach that we apply to all parties, whether it's PAP, WP or SPP (Singapore People's Party)."

His rebuttal came after Ms Lim led the WP charge against the PAP. On the ministry report last week that had cleared the AIM transaction of any wrongdoing, she and other WP MPs continued to ask whether the public funds were safeguarded, and residents' interests compromised.

Mr Khaw sought to debunk their claims on every flank, calling Ms Lim's accusations that the contract was timed for the 2011 General Election "a paranoid view". He said he was disappointed she chose to construe the AIM transaction was to trip up the WP.

He also revealed that AHTC has charged higher management agent fees to its residents, than when under the PAP.

In her responses, Ms Lim defended the AHTC's decision, saying, among other things, that FMSS was run by supporters, not party members, an important distinction, she felt.

Earlier, Mr Khaw said that the Town Councils Act does not prohibit transactions between the town council and party-related entities. Thus, the transaction between the PAP-run town councils and AIM was above board. He emphasised that the political nature of town councils linking the MP with the town council "is a strategic imperative which cannot be faulted".

As MND now embarks on a strategic review, Mr Khaw said it will look into gaps in the rules dealing with handovers of town councils, as he urged MPs not to go down the road of "political theatre".

Govt, WP duel over town councils
They exchange blows over AIM, party affiliations, playing politics
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 14 May 2013

THE gloves came off in Parliament yesterday, as the Government and the Workers' Party came to blows over the town council review report and the controversy surrounding Action Information Management (AIM), a company owned by the People's Action Party (PAP).

The debate centred on four issues: the AIM tender, party affiliation and town councils, the question of who was playing politics, and the nature of AIM as a company with just $2 of paid-up capital.

The tender

WORKERS' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim scrutinised the tender process, asking if it was fair and open given the short tender period, the requirement that all directors of a bidder must have town council experience and the contract with a one-month termination clause.

In his reply, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the two-week tender was above board as the rules allowed town council chairmen to waive the need for tenders to last three weeks.

He added: "Ms Sylvia Lim would be familiar with this because she exercised this latitude when her town council (Aljunied-Hougang Town Council) waived competition and appointed FM Solutions and Services Pte Ltd (FMSS) as its managing agent (MA) in 2011."

On the requirement that all directors have town council experience, Mr Khaw said it was important for any vendor to have "an established track record in town council operation", adding that this was in residents' interests.

Mr Khaw then turned the argument on WP and FMSS again.

AIM was not the only company that passed the bar of town council experience, he said. FMSS would have too, since owner How Weng Fan "with her extensive experience in town council work could have formed a company with others like her and submitted a bid for this".

He noted that this was what they did by setting up FMSS after WP won Aljunied GRC in the 2011 General Election.

"And they went on to win the contract to be the town council's managing agent, which is worth millions of dollars, without even a tender being called," he said.

FMSS subsequently won another contract with the WP-run town council for three years after it was the only company to submit a bid, he noted.

Ms Lim later clarified that she waived the rules for open tender for FMSS because they needed a managing agent in place quickly to handle the handover. For the second contract, she said the town council carried out a special audit of the deal.

She also said that FMSS was set up because of the "very real possibility" that the other companies that do town management for HDB estates might not want to work with the WP as they concurrently had contracts with PAP town councils.

Finally, on the issue of the one-month termination clause, Mr Khaw said this was inserted to help "reduce the vendor's business risk and hopefully fetch a better price (for the town councils)".

He added that if Ms Lim had only written to AIM to request further extensions, AIM would have agreed to them - but she did not.

Party affiliation

WP MP Pritam Singh and the Singapore People's Party's Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam charged that the ownership of AIM by PAP raised conflict-of-interest issues.

Mr Khaw said that town councils were set up specifically to "establish a link" between elected MPs and the running of a town.

Thus, "the Town Council Act by design does not prohibit transactions between the town council and party-related entities or persons".

He added: "Latitude has always been given to MPs to manage their town councils according to their best judgment and be accountable to their residents politically."

He went on to point out that if the rules were changed to forbid political affiliation, FMSS would also not be allowed to manage Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, since it was similarly politically affiliated to the WP.

FMSS, he said, was formed by a group of Hougang Town Council employees.

The firm's owners, Ms How Weng Fan and her husband Danny Loh, have long associations with WP and acted as assentor and proposer to the WP team running in Ang Mo Kio GRC in the 2006 General Election, he said.

Although Mr Loh was not a staff member of Hougang Town Council, he was a contractor of services to the town council when his wife, Ms How, was estate manager there, he added.

FMSS went on to be awarded millions in town council contracts by the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council - $5.2 million for management in the first year, then $16.8 million over the three years that followed, plus another $3.9 million for a three-year contract on the town council's essential maintenance service unit.

Mr Khaw also asked questions about the managing agent rates charged by FMSS, noting that it was, in 2011, 20 per cent higher higher than it had been in 2010, when Aljunied GRC was under PAP control.

"So, when we talk about public interest, how would Ms Sylvia Lim characterise the FMSS transactions?" Mr Khaw asked.

"In substance, has public interest been protected? Would she take the position that contracts like these given to close party associates be prohibited?

"In the AIM contract, public interest was enhanced. Can the same be said of the FMSS contract?" he said.

Ms Lim replied that she had to "double-check" the managing agent rates that Mr Khaw cited.

Mr Singh also countered that service and conservancy charges had gone down for Aljunied residents after WP took control.

But Mr Khaw said that was "precisely one of those great concerns of MND (Ministry of National Development) because when town councils for political reasons, wanting to be populist, and reduce fees or set low fees when they are not appropriate, they are sacrificing long-term financial viability of the town councils".

On party affiliation, Mr Singh drew a distinction between FMSS, which was owned by party supporters and not members, and AIM, which was owned by PAP.

Mr Khaw disagreed that party affiliation should be defined narrowly. The owners of FMSS, he said, were clearly strong and long-term supporters of WP.

Who is playing politics?

MS LIM has argued that the PAP is playing politics through AIM, because it was using the company to trip up opposition parties that take over PAP wards, jeopardising the smooth continuation of services for residents in the process.

Mr Khaw said he was disappointed that Ms Lim had chosen to "construe the AIM transaction in such a sinister light".

"In any case, are we so stupid?... The people who would suffer are the residents. Why would we want to deliberately disrupt the lives of residents in Aljunied?" he asked.

He continued: "Would the WP just keep quiet and not make a political issue out of it? Who then would get the blame? Why would the PAP want to hurt the interests of residents in Aljunied and alienate them? How could we hope to regain Aljunied if we did this?"

Mr Khaw then directed some very strong words at Ms Lim.

"This is self-righteous and - pardon me for saying so - arrogant. Many of us in this House have been serving Singaporeans for decades, long before she entered this House," he said.

"Please, don't behave as if you're the only patriot in this House."

He contended that it was the WP, not the PAP, that was playing politics. Mr Khaw asked why Ms Lim did not raise the AIM issue as it was happening, but chose to wait 18 months until an unfavourable report by the MND on Aljunied-Hougang Town Council.

He suggested that she was using the issue to distract attention from her town council's performance.

Ms Lim later said she did not raise the issue at once because she was busy with the handover and because "we needed the public to see the sting of the clause before they can understand how it can jeopardise the handover".

AIM, the $2 company

MS LIM argued that since AIM was a company with paid-up capital of just $2, there was risk to residents if AIM were wound up.

Mr Khaw said he accepted the general point that when a company had only $2 of paid-up capital, a red flag had to be raised.

AIM, however, was "not an ordinary $2 company", he said.

"It was set up by the PAP specifically... to help its PAP MPs do a better job running their town councils. The party was standing behind it, effectively guaranteeing its performance," he said, adding that AIM was the only PAP- owned company.

He added that the outcome was that the company did deliver the goods as required.

It centralised the software at no extra cost to the town councils. Within 18 months, it also helped the town councils extend a service maintenance contract with NCS at no increased cost.

Finally, it got the town councils onto a new generation of software to be developed and owned by NEC under a new agreement.

"The town councils have benefited from the AIM services," he concluded.

Mr Khaw also responded to WP's questions on why a software that town councils spent $24 million to build up was sold for just $140,000 to AIM and then leased back by the PAP town councils.

He said that it was in the nature of software that it tends to become obsolete after some time. This was in fact what was happening to the town councils' software, which was by then worth "very little - probably zero".

He added that the sale and leaseback arrangement was common in the industry, and a practical solution, since the town councils still needed to use the software, but wanted a company to help secure extensions to its maintenance contract.


Is this what this whole AIM episode is about - ensuring that the passengers in the Cessnas have bumpy rides or even crash land? Does the Government even care about the passengers in the Cessnas, or are they simply collateral damage in a bigger political game?

- Ms Sylvia Lim, accusing the PAP of jeopardising town council services for residents in order to trip up the WP


This is self-righteous and - pardon me for saying so - arrogant. Many of us in this House have been serving Singaporeans for decades, long before she entered this House... Please, don't behave as if you're the only patriot in this House.

- Mr Khaw Boon Wan, responding to Ms Sylvia Lim's charge that the PAP was not concerned about residents but its own political interest

PAP town councils not out to trip WP
No political motivation in software sale, which was planned earlier: MP
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 14 May 2013

THE People's Action Party (PAP) town councils were not out to "fix and trip" the opposition with their transaction with party-owned company Action Information Management (AIM), said PAP MP Denise Phua yesterday.

They were just concerned with finding a cost-effective solution to redevelop the town council management software, Ms Phua said in an impassioned speech. She is chairman of Moulmein-Kallang Town Council.

Several Workers' Party (WP) MPs had asked earlier in the debate if the decision to sell town council management software to AIM prior to the 2011 General Election was a politically motivated attempt to hobble the opposition, should they win a constituency.

Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim said the timing of the sale of the software a few months before the election called for an explanation.

"Was it a pure coincidence or was there simply a need to sell the software quickly so that termination can be effected if political seats were lost?" she asked.

But Ms Phua said planning for the sale started in 2009, and accusing them of "plotting to sell the software" before the election was "nothing but a figment of the imagination of some parties".

"The election was the last thing on our minds. Some of us didn't even know if we would be fielded," she said.

Ms Phua said the town councils agreed on the sale and leaseback arrangement with AIM as it was "the most practical solution that could meet all the needs".

"We acted in good faith. None of us wanted our individual town councils and residents we serve to have to bear any operational or financial risk or burden.

"Our conscience was and is clear - and in the face of my maker," she added, in response to an earlier comment by WP MP Png Eng Huat (Hougang).

Mr Png had said whatever that was noted in black and white about the transaction has already been reviewed by a committee from the Ministry of National Development. But "whatever intention that was written in the hearts of the people that were involved in this transaction would remain hidden for their conscience and their makers to judge", he said.

Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh meanwhile said Singaporeans view the AIM transaction through the "historical lenses" of the PAP government hindering opposition MPs, such as putting opposition wards at the back of the queue for upgrading programmes.

He called for a ban on transactions between town councils and party-owned companies.

Ms Phua, in her speech, tabled several suggestions on revamping the town council model. These include: studying best practices from other parts of the world; engaging residents, in both public and private estates, for suggestions on improving their towns; and clearly demarcating the responsibilities of the Government, town councils and residents.

For instance, the Government could lead in developing nationwide town council management software for leasing back to individual town councils, she said.

She also called for active use of technology to collect and provide data; better guidelines for raising service and conservancy charges; and differentiation in government grants given to town councils to cover operational costs.

WP continues to question motives of AIM deal
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 14 May 2013

THE Workers' Party yesterday rejected the Ministry of National Development's (MND's) finding that residents' interests had not been compromised in a software deal between PAP town councils and a PAP-owned IT firm.

Leading the charge in a strongly worded speech, WP chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) said the transaction, whatever its other benefits, was to enable the firm, Action Information Management (AIM), to cut off non-PAP town councils from using the software at short notice, thereby "crippling" them.

"By doing so, they acted in their party political interest and jeopardised the public interest, using a critical asset developed with public funds," said Ms Lim, who is also chairman of the WP's Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC).

Citing past episodes of town councils' politicised nature, she and AHPETC vice-chairmen Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) and Png Eng Huat (Hougang) raised questions on the AIM deal which they said the MND report failed to answer. It prompted a strong rebuttal from National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who suggested that WP too had dealings that could be construed as party political in nature (see story on this page).

The WP MPs said that while the AIM deal may have complied with the letter of the law, it did not take place in the spirit of good governance, They took issue with it on several counts.

One, how and when it was carried out. While the MND report found that the sale was made after an open tender, Ms Lim suggested that only AIM could have fulfilled the contract specifications, which required each director of the tendering software company to have experience with town councils.

Ms Lim also asked if there was a political motive behind the timing of the sale a few months before the 2011 general election.

While the PAP town councils had cited savings of $8,000 from selling their near-obsolete software to AIM as a reason for the sale, Ms Lim said this worked out to just about $571 per council.

WP also took aim at a contract clause which lets AIM end its services with a month's notice if there are "material changes" to the town council's membership and scope. All three MPs called for greater clarity on what "material changes" meant.

Ms Lim also asked why residents should pay for a new IT system if a town council changes hands after an election. She pledged that AHPETC's system will stay in place even if there is a change in political leadership.

"MND fell short in not admonishing the PAP TCs (town councils) for risking disruption to the public in the name of politics," she said.

However, Ms Lim said that regardless of what is done in other countries, the WP MPs accept they are responsible to voters for town management under the law.

She gave several suggestions for the upcoming review on town councils, including prohibiting the sale of a town council's "critical assets", such as its IT system, to third parties, longer termination periods for other services in a handover, and disallowing unilateral termination of contracts.


“Whatever that was written in black and white in the AIM transaction has been reviewed by the committee, but whatever intention that was written in the hearts of the people that were involved in this transaction will remain hidden for their conscience and makers to judge.”
– Hougang MP Png Eng Huat 


“Accusing us of plotting to sell the town council management system software in 2009 prior to the 2011 General Election is nothing but a figment of the imagination of some parties... Our conscience was and is clear – and in the face of my maker, to whom Member Png Eng Huat has referred.”
– MP Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC)


“I hope the facts of the AIM transaction will help the public to understand that the PAP-run town councils have acted in good faith in the interest of and for the benefit of their residents.”
Dr Teo Ho Pin (Bukit Panjang), who is coordinating chairman of the 15 PAP town councils


“I must confess the handover was personally an emotionally tiring experience for me... But having lived through and survived a handover, my view is that the town council framework is very much functioning as it was designed to be.”
– MP Sitoh Yih Pin, who took over Potong Pasir Town Council from the Singapore People’s Party in 2011

MPs should still have say over housing estates: Khaw
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 14 May 2013

TOWN councils should continue to be managed by MPs, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday, rejecting recent suggestions that the councils be depoliticised and return to being run by the Housing Board.

Delivering a ministerial statement on town councils in Parliament, he said the current system has largely worked.

"The legislation to empower the elected MP to run the town council, so that he can respond more promptly to his residents' needs and work with his voters to shape their town's identity, has generally been a success," he said.

He added that the need to create a link between an elected MP and his voters through his work in a town council remains "a strategic imperative that cannot be faulted".

His comments come after an MND panel released its findings last Friday, concluding that a 2010 transaction between People's Action Party (PAP) town councils and a PAP-owned IT firm was in line with the Town Council Act and financial rules.

But a recent Straits Times poll of 50 people found that 41 still want the town councils depoliticised.

However, Mr Khaw said: "We should not return to status quo ante, where HDB administers estates all over Singapore, and MPs have no authority or responsibility over what is done or how well things work."

He stressed, however, that how estates are managed is a critical issue and the Government owes it to Singaporeans to find "a good accommodative solution".

He announced that the impending strategic review will be led by Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan and focus on three broad areas.

They are the councils' duties and responsibilities in relation to HDB, the adequacy of their sinking funds and long-term financial sustainability, and the arrangements when they change hands between MPs.

Mr Khaw noted that last week's MND report had identified gaps in the current rules on the handover of town councils from one political party to another.

These gaps have led to difficulties and disagreements, he said, citing two examples.

One was the handover of Potong Pasir Town Council in 2011. The Singapore Democratic Party, and later the Singapore People's Party, had been running the town council on their own without a managing agent.

But when PAP MP Sitoh Yih Pin took over, he had to persuade a managing agent, EM Services, to come in at short notice so that services for residents were not disrupted.

While Mr Sitoh managed a successful handover, it was a "trying time for him and his team", Mr Khaw said.

Another case was when Punggol East changed hands from a PAP town council to a Workers' Party-run town council earlier this month.

The incumbent town council needed more time to prepare its alternative office before it could move out, but both parties could not agree on the layout to share office space.

Only when his ministry stepped in did both sides reach a compromise, Mr Khaw said.

He noted the suggestions in the report on more rules for the handover, as well as those from town councils that his ministry extend the handover period and play a greater role in the process, saying that the handover issue needs to be looked into.

Yesterday, he also outlined the genesis of the town councils and their political nature.

Before 1989, the HDB maintained all common areas of HDB estates centrally. Parliament then decided to give MPs more say in their wards to strengthen their link with residents.

"This would enhance accountability, push MPs to focus on what mattered to the residents, and in turn, encourage voters to scrutinise more closely the capabilities and the track record of election candidates," he said.

'Residents may lose out in political heat'
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 14 May 2013

THE political pressures on town councils can sometimes leave residents with the short end of the stick, said Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan yesterday.

Delivering a ministerial statement on town councils in Parliament, he said that an upcoming strategic review of town councils will need to look into these problems even as he stressed that town councils need to remain political.

"This is not a simple problem to tackle as it is an unintended consequence of the very nature of town councils and is deep-seated in the current practice of many town councils," he said.

He gave several examples of the sort of issues that can arise, starting with how town councils handled service and conservancy (S&C) charges.

He said some may be more populist and less stringent in recovering arrears.

Some also delay raising S&C charges, which jeopardises the build-up of their sinking fund for big-ticket items like replacements and maintenance works.

But their choice comes at the expense of their financial health and the interests of most residents who pay on time, Mr Khaw cautioned.

"This is clearly not sustainable," he said.

But he admitted that most town councils find it tough to explain to residents why their S&C charges had to increase to build up a sinking fund that already has millions of dollars in the kitty - but will be drawn down years later.

The Ministry of National Development later released figures showing that the management of arrears in S&C charges has deteriorated in Aljunied GRC since 2011 when the Workers' Party took over the ward.

Another example is when town councils avoid taking on more responsibilities for fear of the political costs. For instance, some are reluctant to strictly enforce town council by-laws, such as laws against obstructing common corridors even if there is a fire safety risk.

Others disagree about who should clean the hawker centres: One contractor appointed by the Hawkers' Association cleans table tops, while another team engaged by the town council cleans the floor and toilets.

This division of labour is obviously inefficient, he said.

To group all the cleaning into a single party, town councils must charge stallholders a higher S&C, but most are reluctant to do so, Mr Khaw said.

Ideas for smooth town council handover
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 14 May 2013

ONE way to safeguard the interests of Housing Board residents is to have a framework to facilitate the handover of a constituency's town council to its new MPs, said Mayor Teo Ho Pin, the coordinating chairman of People's Action Party town councils, yesterday.

He also suggested the setting up of a code of conduct for MPs in the event of a handover.

Dr Teo proposed these ideas in Parliament for the Ministry of National Development (MND) to consider in the impending review of the Town Councils Act.

These measures would help obviate public concerns over the handover of town councils when the political party running them or the constituency boundary is changed. The MND could also act as the arbitrator in the event of any disputes, he added.

Dr Teo also pointed out that MPs should refrain from the "blame game and politicise the handover", as such unproductive actions would not benefit residents.

The code of conduct he has in mind for a smooth handover is similar to that found in existing strata title developments, such as condominiums, for a change of managing agent.

Such a code would ensure both incoming and outgoing MPs owe a duty of care that town council services would not be disrupted, he said.

Mr Zainal Sapari, who chairs the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council, also called on the MND to lay out rules and guidelines, and play a mediating role on issues that are "deadlocked or involve substantial costs to be apportioned".

He said his staff ran into problems when the administration of Punggol East was handed over to the Aljunied-Hougang- Punggol East Town Council, shortly after the Workers' Party (WP) won the single-seat constituency in a by-election earlier this year.

The two councils are sharing the same space while Mr Zainal's council prepares to vacate the office by the end of next month for the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council.

The MND's intervention was sought to divide the space as the office is leased from the HDB, said Mr Zainal.

His town council also had to seek MND's advice on whether it should provide the WP's town council with a new computer server for transferred data on Punggol East. It was told the WP's town council should pay for the server.

In his wrap-up of the debate, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said town councils should not incur unnecessary expenses, whether during handovers or for day-to-day operations, as this would involve spending residents' funds.

While it is not necessary for a new council management to terminate existing systems and then replicate them, he noted that significant software changes are necessary when the constituency's boundary changes, even if the political party remains the same.

However, when a rival party takes over, a software change is inevitable "to suit the new MP's management style and operational preference", he said.

Still, such costs should be minimised, an outcome that would need "some give and take" by the two parties involved, he added.

Sitoh recalls challenging transition in Potong Pasir
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 14 May 2013

WHEN Mr Sitoh Yih Pin first found out that he had won Potong Pasir in the 2011 General Election, his thoughts turned not to his victory but to the impending town council handover.

Telling the story of how he took over Potong Pasir Town Council from veteran Singapore People's Party (SPP) MP Chiam See Tong yesterday, he said the process was difficult, through no fault of his predecessor.

"Ask any company that changes vendors and they will tell you it is never easy, from a change in, say, a cleaning and landscape company in a condominium estate to a change in security guard services in a shopping mall. There are always transition and handover problems, despite the best intentions," he said.

A changing of the guard at town councils is even more complicated as there is a change in systems, culture and leadership, and it must take place immediately after the polls, he said.

To ensure continuity and minimal disruption to residents, his town council appointed EM Services, which manages several other People's Action Party (PAP) councils, as its managing agent.

The Ministry of National Development's recent report noted that both Mr Sitoh's town council and the Workers' Party's Aljunied- Hougang Town Council had waived the tender for their managing agents for a year.

Yesterday, Mr Sitoh explained his decision, saying that in retrospect, it was correct as "having a professional and experienced agent allowed us to stabilise the situation quickly".

Under the SPP, the town council had not appointed a managing agent but hired its staff directly. Mr Sitoh said he recognised that the handover involved the staff's livelihoods as well. While there was some "inevitable turnover", three members of the original staff are still working with Potong Pasir Town Council, while another works in another constituency managed by EM Services.

However, the PAP town council was unable to give the compensation which some of the old staff had requested, said Mr Sitoh.

He cited this as an example of how it is hard to please everyone in a handover. "But I felt I did what I had to do, always putting the interests of residents first. I try my best not to hurt anyone."

Despite the difficulty of the transition, Mr Sitoh said he was in favour of keeping the political dimension of town councils.

He said one thing he learnt during the handover was that town councils are designed so that Singaporeans have more at stake when they vote.

Mr Sitoh added that though town councils are first and foremost instruments to serve residents, this is not in conflict with their political dimension: "Ultimately, it means empowering voters to choose an MP that can have more impact on their everyday lives. Now, isn't that what democracy is all about?"

Taking aim over town council handover
Robust exchanges to score political points make for exciting debate
By Lydia Lim, The Straits Times, 14 May 2013

AFTER months of holding her fire, Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim yesterday took aim at the People's Action Party (PAP) for what she alleged was a plot, hatched ahead of General Election 2011.

The purpose: to cripple opposition town councils.

In a hard-hitting 20-minute speech delivered at speed, she questioned the PAP town councils' sale of their software to a PAP-owned company AIM Pte Ltd, just a few months before the polls in May 2011.

Was it a coincidence, she asked, or so that AIM could terminate its IT contract with just one month's notice in towns where the PAP lost seats?

She set out why the WP believed the AIM transaction had been against the public interest, and implied the PAP Government was willing to sacrifice continuity of essential services for partisan gain, and treating residents as "collateral damage in a bigger political game".

Ms Lim was one of 10 MPs to join the debate on National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan's ministerial statement on town councils. He summarised the outcome of a government review of the AIM transaction, which the Prime Minister had ordered after complaints by the WP last December.

He also spelt out areas of focus in a new government review of town councils - 24 years after they were first set up.

When Mr Khaw sat down, PAP and WP MPs jumped into the ring with gusto, showing off their own expertise and track records in town council management, and attempting to knock out arguments from the other side.

Leading the PAP's counter-attack were Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) and Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir), and a fired-up Mr Khaw.

Mr Sitoh recounted how he successfully navigated the obstacles when he took over Potong Pasir Town Council in 2011, after he won back the single-member constituency from opposition veteran Chiam See Tong after 27 years.

"It was not an easy handover," he said, adding: "I wish to stress that it is not the fault of the previous MP, a man I continue to respect as a politician. But handovers are seldom easy."

Ms Phua, a town council chairman, meanwhile explained the circumstances that led up to the PAP town councils' decision to sell their software to AIM, dismissing Ms Lim's claim of a plot to fix the opposition as "a figment of imagination".

Mr Khaw, in a lengthy and robust concluding speech, shone the spotlight on how the WP had itself waived the need to call for a tender when it appointed a company owned by long-time party supporters as managing agent for Aljunied-Hougang Town Council. These WP supporters went on to make considerable sums, he noted pointedly.

As the debate progressed, the political edge seemed to swing from the WP to the PAP and perhaps, back again. At one point, personal barbs flew across the chamber, as Mr Khaw chided Ms Lim for pride and arrogance, and for behaving as if she thought she was "the only patriot in the House".

The political point scoring made for an exciting debate, with the kind of robust exchanges not always seen in the House. Yet, most town council residents looking on, I think, might prefer if the intense partisan bickering was set aside, sooner rather than later.

As Nominated MP Eugene Tan pointed out: "There are much bigger issues at stake and the political catfights must not compromise the best interests of residents living in our HDB heartland."

He also observed that the misunderstanding between the outgoing and incoming political parties in Aljunied had, in his view, hurt public confidence in town councils.

What needs work is the town council handover process when a constituency changes hands after an election.

The recent government review, spearheaded by National Development Ministry permanent secretary Benny Lim, identified gaps in the Town Council Act in this area.

Since such handovers could become more common at future polls, it is important that a new framework be put in place to ensure continuity of services for residents.

The other big concern is town council financial sustainability, with Mr Khaw worrying that some "populist" MPs are loath to raise service and conservancy charges for fear they will lose residents' support.

These are the larger issues that MPs from both Government and opposition ranks should now be taking aim at, and working on a goal they all presumably share - making local government, Singapore style, work even better.

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