Wednesday 10 July 2013

Workers' Party MPs 'untruthful' over hawker centre cleaning, says Vivian Balakrishnan in Parliament, 9 July 2013

Minister presents dossier on row over cleaning of hawker centres
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2013

WORKERS' Party MPs Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh made "false and untruthful" statements to cover up their town council's demand for extra charges for hawker centre cleaning, the Government charged yesterday.

Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan reprimanded them thus in Parliament, before telling the media he was withdrawing his parliamentary privilege for his statements. The highly unusual move means he is effectively challenging the two MPs to sue him for defamation for accusing them of lying.

During their tense exchange, Ms Lim called the allegations "serious" and categorically denied them, which prompted the minister to distribute a 22-page dossier of evidence to support his case.

Dr Balakrishnan said a property manager from the WP town council had on three occasions asked Bedok hawkers to pay for cleaning the high areas, even though town councils must foot such bills.

Throughout the spat, Ms Lim and Mr Singh had denied that the manager, Mr Tai Vie Shun, had asked for extra payment.

But Dr Balakrishnan noted that their denials did not square with "incontrovertible" evidence in the dossier. "These two public denials were therefore false and untruthful," he told the House.

Explaining why he would not let the matter rest, he framed the issue as one of integrity and clean politics, and not the cleanliness of hawker centres. "All of us will make mistakes. But when a mistake is made, just come clean and say so... don't cover up. That's why I have not let this go."

The dispute over the cleaning of two Bedok hawker centres in the WP-run Aljunied GRC began in April, and last month an agreement was reached on when they would be cleaned.

Yesterday's exchange began with PAP MP Lee Bee Wah asking Dr Balakrishnan to clarify the role of town councils in hawker centre cleaning, and what went wrong in Bedok. Describing what he called a "sorry episode", the minister said all town councils were obliged to carry out major cleaning - including high areas - once a year. This rule had been in place for 10 years and had been complied with even by WP town councils until this year.

On March 8, April 26 and April 28, Mr Tai, in meetings with hawkers, tried to impose high-area cleaning charges on them, he said.

At two of these meetings, a National Environment Agency (NEA) officer was present and made notes on what Mr Tai said. The notes were in the dossier.

In her rebuttal, Ms Lim said the documents did not prove her statements false. She said Mr Tai "at no point in time asked for extra money to be paid to the town council for high-area cleaning".

The confusion, she added, came from two sources: a misleading e-mail from NEA to the town council on Feb 7; and miscommunication over whether the discussions were about the annual cleaning - for which high areas had to be cleaned - or the quarterly cleaning, for which they did not.

Dr Balakrishnan said the five day closure at one hawker centre clearly showed that the WP town council knew it was an annual cleaning. Quarterly cleanings need only a day's closure. In any case, the point was that higher cleaning fees had been demanded.

Rising to speak, WP chief Low Thia Khiang said he agreed with Ms Lim that the episode arose from a misunderstanding over annual versus quarterly cleanings.

As the 36-minute exchange came to a close, the minister urged Mr Low:

There were no further comebacks from Ms Lim. Mr Singh did not speak during the exchange.

Low urged to set things right in council
Minister says WP chief held off on defending his MPs, calls on him to act
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2013

AFTER the parliamentary exchange on hawker centre cleaning between the Government and the Workers' Party yesterday, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan flagged what he saw as a half-hearted defence by WP chief Low Thia Khiang of his party comrades Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh.

During the exchange, the Minister for Environment and Water Resources had accused Ms Lim and Mr Singh of "false and untruthful" public statements to cover up mistakes by the WP-run town council in Aljunied GRC.

He added that "Mr Pritam Singh sat conspicuously silent throughout the proceedings".

Mr Low and Mr Singh did not respond to queries by press time.

The Facebook posting rounded off a day in which Dr Balakrishnan went on the offensive, accusing a property manager from the WP town council, Mr Tai Vie Shun, of attempting to impose cleaning costs on hawkers, when these should be paid by town councils.

He then said public denials from Ms Lim and Mr Singh that Mr Tai had done so were false and were contradicted by a dossier of evidence he provided to MPs.

Ms Lim, who is chairman of both the party and the town council, led her party's defence.

She argued that there was no incentive for the WP town council to get hawkers to pay for the cleaning of high areas, since conservancy contracts of town councils contained a clause "requiring our conservancy contractors to conduct cleaning of high areas".

She said the misunderstanding arose from a misleading e-mail sent to the town council by the National Environment Agency on Feb 7, and from general confusion over whether discussions were about annual or quarterly cleanings, since high areas did not have to be cleaned under the latter.

Dr Balakrishnan also brought up a quotation for $7,200 sent by the town council's contractor to hawkers at Block 538 Bedok North Street 3.

He said that as the hawkers never asked for a quotation, this was yet another piece of evidence showing that the town council was shirking responsibilities.

Ms Lim said the contractor that issued the quotation was a commercial company, and that "nowhere is the town council implicated in this quotation".

Mr Low, who is WP secretary-general, stood up once to speak. He said the whole episode was a misunderstanding on whether discussions were referring to annual or quarterly cleaning.

He also backed the town council up on the quotation from the cleaning contractor, saying that somebody must have asked for the quotation: "I am very certain the quotation has nothing to do with the cost of the cleaning of the high areas of the market."

However, Mr Low admitted he had not spoken to Mr Tai.

He also did not issue an explicit denial - which Ms Lim did - that Mr Tai had attempted to impose extra charges.

As the exchange drew to a close, Dr Balakrishnan turned to Mr Low, called on him to investigate the issue and said there were no issues when Mr Low was heading the Hougang Town Council.

Noting that he had known Mr Low "as an honourable man for 12 years", he added: "We had no problems working with you. But now, I don't know whether it's lack of supervision or people somewhere in your organisation... someone is trying to cover up."

Party political battle or question of integrity?
By Lydia Lim, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2013

MINISTER Vivian Balakrishnan used the phrase "honourable man" twice in the House yesterday to describe not a People's Action Party (PAP) colleague but Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang.

He had far harsher words for WP chairman Sylvia Lim and her fellow Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh, who are also chairman and vice-chairman of Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council Council (AHPETC) respectively.

The Environment and Water Resources Minister criticised their conduct in a long drawn-out dispute among AHPETC, hawkers and the National Environment Agency (NEA), over the cleaning of food centres in Bedok North.

The hawkers involved said AHPETC property manager Tai Vie Shun demanded extra payment for the cleaning of the food centres' high areas, even though the NEA requires town councils to carry out and pay for such cleaning.

Ms Lim and Mr Singh's public denials of town council wrongdoing were "false and untruthful", Dr Balakrishnan charged yesterday, adding that the real issue was one of "integrity".

The exchange between the minister, Ms Lim and Mr Low took place during Question Time, thanks to a question filed by Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC).

The exchange was significant in two ways.

First, it was a display of the PAP going on the attack. That was also in evidence on Monday when Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim took aim at "prominent bloggers" for contributing to confusion during the recent haze crisis.

Yesterday was also not the first time the WP came up against a PAP offensive in Parliament.

Back in May, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan came down hard on AHPETC's ties to its managing agent and the fees it paid.

Yet the WP seemed decidedly unprepared yesterday, while the PAP side came all set for a robust exchange.

Dr Balakrishnan not only marshalled arguments but also produced a dossier of documentary evidence against AHPETC.

The Prime Minister, two Deputy Prime Ministers and the Law and Foreign Minister were also present, listening intently to the exchange.

Throughout, the WP remained on the defensive, lacking fresh arguments to rebut the PAP charges.

Ms Lim and Mr Low's main defence was that it was all a misunderstanding between the town council, hawkers and NEA over quarterly spring cleaning versus annual cleaning.

Town councils are required to clean food centres' high areas only during the latter.

Ms Lim stuck to her guns, saying "it is still the consistent position of our town council that Mr Tai at no time said that the hawkers had to pay extra to fulfil the town council's annual obligation to clean the high areas.

"At no time was this said, I don't think these documents show it either," she said, of the Government's dossier.

The minister, though, would have none of that. Whatever the case, the crux of the issue was that the WP's official had sought higher payments from hawkers, contrary to what the two MPs had asserted, he insisted.

Yesterday's exchange was also significant for the way Dr Balakrishnan attempted to divide and conquer - by casting Mr Low as an honourable politician who does right by those he represents, including hawkers; and contrasting that with the approach of Ms Lim and Mr Singh, whose integrity he called into question repeatedly.

He pressed his point, with some no-holds-barred rhetoric: "Politics is a contest for power. But you know, the key principle when you have power is - don't take advantage of people under your charge, and always be honest and upfront with your people... When a mistake is made, just come clean and say so. But don't cover up. That's why I have not let this go. Because it is not about cleanliness of the ceiling, it is about clean politics."

Turning to Mr Low, he added: "I appeal to you, because I know you to be an honourable man, I appeal to you, go back, do a thorough investigation of what's gone on and what's gone wrong in your town council and put it right."

Whether Mr Low takes up his suggestion remains to be seen. There was no word from him on this last night. But given the WP's internal discipline, its leaders may well close ranks under fire from the PAP, which could also win it some sympathy. Personal attacks on opposition politicians have rarely gone down well with the Singaporean public.

How the public responds will also depend on whether they buy the minister's argument that at the crux of the whole sorry episode is a question of "clean politics" and integrity.

Low: No need for further probe into hawker-centre cleaning row
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 11 Jul 2013

WORKERS' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang has rejected suggestions that he was not fully behind his Members of Parliament, and said there was no need for further investigations into complaints related to hawker-centre cleaning in Aljunied GRC.

He was rebutting Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who said in a Facebook post on Tuesday night that Mr Low had not strongly defended Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Pritam Singh in Parliament.

Last night, Mr Low told reporters that the minister "might have missed my opening statement in Parliament", which was "I agree with what Ms Sylvia Lim said".

"The chairman had responded robustly to the minister. And I didn't think I needed to belabour (the points) by repeating what she had to say," he added, referring to Ms Lim, who is the chairman of both WP and the WP-run town council in Aljunied GRC.

Mr Low also disagreed with the minister that this issue was about integrity and clean politics. "It is not a problem of integrity. It is market cleaning. Let's put it right and into proper perspective."

The secretary-general of WP was speaking to reporters a day after a parliamentary exchange in which Dr Balakrishnan accused Ms Lim and Mr Singh of "false and untruthful" statements to cover up the town council's demand to hawkers for extra money to clean the high areas of two hawker centres in Bedok.

The minister also waived his parliamentary privilege, a move that was read widely as a challenge to the WP MPs to sue him if he was defaming them.

Yesterday, Mr Low declined to say if WP leaders would or would not sue. But he referred to a recent call by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for Singapore to get its politics right.

"I'm not sure making personal attacks and asking people to sue is good politics. I'm puzzled by that," he said, laughing.

The dispute, over the cleaning of hawker centres at Blocks 538 and 511 in Bedok North Street 3, began in March. The parties came to agreement last month over when they should be cleaned.

On Dr Balakrishnan's calls for fresh investigations into the saga, Mr Low said there was no need for this, since an earlier WP investigation had already proven "baseless" the claim that there were improper demands for more money.

Mr Low also restated his belief that at the March and April meetings cited by the minister between town council officers, hawkers and National Environment Agency (NEA) officers, there was misunderstanding over whether the talks were about annual-cleaning sessions or quarterly ones.

The evidence put forward by the minister on Tuesday, he said, did not show otherwise.

If they had been referring to quarterly cleaning, the town council would not be obliged to clean the high areas - unlike during the annual cleaning, and hawkers would have to bear some costs if they wanted those areas cleaned.

He added that if NEA had wanted an annual-cleaning session to be carried out, it should have communicated this clearly.

"But that was not made clear in the correspondence, from what I know," he said, before adding there was, in any case, no basis for NEA to make such a request since town councils have the prerogative to decide on annual- cleaning schedules for markets.

But both the town council and NEA had "room for improvement" when it came to communication, he added.

Mr Low repeated his call for all sides to move on. Enough had been said, and all evidence was now before the public. "Singaporeans are a mature lot. Many Singaporeans are very well-educated. I'm sure they are able to make their own judgment," he said.

Hawkers of the two markets at the centre of the dispute were divided yesterday in their views of Dr Balakrishnan's strongly worded attack on WP.

Some, such as Madam Yong Heng Ran, 54, pointed out that the minister acted on principle. "I don't side with any political party on this, but Dr Balakrishnan going to the extent of withdrawing his parliamentary rights shows how much he wants to set things straight," she said.

Others felt a communication breakdown was the reason and wanted to move on. A 48-year- old curry rice seller who wanted to be known only as Mr Bai said: "I believe all parties were aware of the cleaning problem at an early stage, but nobody wanted to deal with it."


No comments:

Post a Comment