Friday 12 December 2014

WP leaders' reputation, integrity in question: Desmond Lee

By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 12 Dec 2014

THE failure by the Workers' Party (WP) to give answers and respond adequately to questions on the financial well-being of its town council calls into question its leaders' reputation and integrity, said Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee.

It also demonstrates a lack of transparency and a failure to be accountable, Mr Lee added in a statement yesterday, the third time in four weeks that he has taken the WP to task on the issue.

* Auditor-General's audit of Workers' Party-run town council flags major lapses

He also pointed out that instead of answering important questions on their town council, WP leaders resorted to blaming others, including the Ministry of National Development (MND), Auditor-General's Office (AGO), People's Action Party (PAP) and the media, for their predicament.

"This series of excuses calls into question not only AHPETC's local competence, but also the WP leaders' integrity and national reputation," he said.

AHPETC is short for Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council, run by the WP.

Mr Lee's latest response comes a day after WP chairman Sylvia Lim issued a statement giving reasons for AHPETC's delay in submitting its service and conservancy charge (S&CC) arrears reports.

Ms Lim said the town council explained to MND its problems in producing the arrears reports in the required format. She also said the ministry rejected its offer to submit the data "as it was".

Responding, Mr Lee said the template of the monthly arrears report - a table showing how many households owe S&CC and for how long - is not new. It has been used by all town councils, including the former Hougang Town Council since 2008, when it was managed by the WP and under the same general manager who now oversees AHPETC, he noted.

It was also used by AHPETC till April last year, when it stopped after a "shocking arrears rate appeared". The non-submission of information to the MND aside, AHPETC did not send audited accounts to Parliament on time for three years in a row - since the WP took over in 2011.

"What is important is AHPETC's lack of transparency and Ms Lim's and her fellow MPs' failure to be accountable. They have yet to explain why their arrears are so high or disclose what their latest arrears rate is."

Ms Lim acknowledged that the high arrears rate - 30 per cent among residents and 50 per cent among commercial tenants - was a matter of concern, he said. And in previous responses, she said she would look into the problem.

"But her actions have not matched her words. When pressed for answers, she repeatedly says she will answer in 'due course'," he said. Ms Lim must have the information as AHPETC sends lawyers' letters to those in arrears.

Mr Lee said running a town council is the responsibility of the WP's MPs. But instead of answering questions, they blame others.

Ms Lim said AHPETC's finance team and software developers were involved in two audits in a row: that of its own auditors in mid-2013 and the AGO in March this year and these "led to a deferment of reporting requests".

Mr Lee said that in giving this reason for AHPETC's tardiness, Ms Lim was saying "it was the AGO's or their own auditors' fault because they (the finance team and software developers) were busy having to entertain them".

He said AHPETC was audited by the same auditor, Foo Kon Tan Grant Thornton, in 2012. And that did not prevent the town council from sending its monthly S&CC arrears report until April last year.

As for the media, Ms Lim said its reports may have given "a mistaken impression" of things, as she had never said focusing on the AGO's audit was the sole cause of AHPETC's submission delay.

Mr Lee noted the excuse was given three times - separately by WP chief Low Thia Khiang, AHPETC vice-chairman Png Eng Huat and Ms Lim herself.

He also said AHPETC told the Housing Board earlier this month that it could not produce the arrears report for the HDB because its financial system was terminated by PAP-owned company, Action Information Management, to whom the former Aljunied Town Council had sold the system. This reason was given in a reply to the HDB by AHPETC general manager How Weng Fan on Dec 3, one week before Ms Lim's statement on Wednesday.

But, Mr Lee noted: "AHPETC had been able to continue submitting its monthly S&CC arrears reports for 19 months after it had stopped using the AIM Town Council Management System."

Hougang Town Council also could do it from April 2008 until it merged with Aljunied, without the aid of AIM, he added.

Mr Lee concluded: "Ms Sylvia Lim, in her statement yesterday, put the responsibility on the Government and the AGO to establish AHPETC's true state of affairs.

"This is a remarkable proposition: The elected MPs of Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East, who pride themselves on checking the Government, are now relying on the Government to check them, instead of taking responsibility themselves for accounting to the public what they have done or have not done."

'Excuses from Workers' Party instead of answers'
The Straits Times, 12 Dec 2014

MINISTER of State for National Development Desmond Lee said the Workers' Party (WP) blamed others rather than respond to questions about its failure to submit data on its town council's (TC) finances and service and conservancy charge (S&CC) arrears.

In a fact sheet accompanying his statement, he listed the WP's excuses and what he said was the truth:

EXCUSE 1: It is the Auditor-General's Office's (AGO) fault
- "He reiterated that he was not sure why the TC did not submit the relevant financial information to (the Ministry of National Development), but he guessed it could be because the TC needed to handle the AGO audit, and therefore did not have time to organise the information to give to MND." - Lianhe Zaobao report quoting (WP chief) Low Thia Khiang, Nov 6.
- "From May last year, the council also stopped sending its monthly S&CC arrears report to the ministry despite reminders. Asked why, he said it had 'prioritised resources for the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) audit'." - Straits Times report quoting (WP MP for Hougang) Png Eng Huat, Nov 7.
- "The (Aljunied-Hougang- Punggol East Town Council) has not been submitting its monthly S&CC arrears report after April last year, and also did not submit its (Financial Year) 2013 financial statements and self-declared corporate governance checklist. (Town council chairman) Sylvia Lim attributed these to the Auditor-General's audit over the past few months delaying the town council's internal audit workflow." - Lianhe Zaobao report quoting (WP chairman) Sylvia Lim, Nov 11.
TRUTH: AHPETC stopped submitting the monthly S&CC arrears reports from May last year, 10 months before the AGO audit even began.

EXCUSE 2: It is the press' fault
- "When the mass media interviewed me on Nov 10 on the MND's Town Council Management Review results for FY2013, I was asked about the circumstances leading to AHPETC's non-submission of two sets of documents - the TC's audited financial statements for FY2013 as well as the arrears reports.
"I had told the media that the audit for FY2013 could not reasonably commence while the AGO special audit was still in progress; as for the arrears reports, I told them that the finance team had been tied up with audits by our commercial auditors for FY2012 and then by the AGO.

"Unfortunately, my responses to the two matters were conflated in certain media reports. At no time did I say that focusing on the AGO audit was the sole cause of the delay in submission of the arrears data to MND. In any case, MND should have known this from my earlier correspondence." - Ms Lim's media release, Dec 10.

TRUTH: WP MPs did not offer Excuse 1 only once. They offered it on three separate occasions.

EXCUSE 3: It is the MND's fault
- "Minister (for Culture, Community and Youth) Lawrence Wong may have not known that the TC had explained to MND its challenge in submitting arrears data in MND's format from mid-2013.
"I had explained that while the IT system being used at AHPETC could churn out arrears reports, manual counting and sorting was required to get the information into the format required by the MND.

"I had also informed MND that AHPETC had requested its software developers to enhance the system to churn out the reports in the required format, but this was work in progress.

"MND had been informed that AHPETC's finance team and its software developers had been involved in (two consecutive) audits, first by the TC's own auditors (starting in mid- 2013) and then by the Auditor- General (starting in March this year), and that this had led to a deferment of reporting requests, including MND's request for arrears data in its prescribed format. I had concurrently offered to submit to MND the arrears data the TC had as it was, but this was rejected by MND." - Ms Lim's media release, Dec 10.

TRUTH: The monthly S&CC arrears report template is a simple table, stating how many households owe S&CC and for how long. It has been used by all TCs - including Hougang TC since 2008 when it was managed by the WP and the same general manager, Ms How Weng Fan. It was also used by AHPETC itself till April last year, when it stopped abruptly.

Also, in addition to blaming the AGO for its own tardiness this year, Ms Lim now blames AHPETC's own auditors for its own tardiness last year.

But AHPETC was audited by the same auditor, Foo Kon Tan Grant Thornton, in 2012. That did not prevent it from submitting its monthly S&CC arrears report, until April last year.

EXCUSE 4: It is the People's Action Party's (PAP) fault
- "The TC's financial system that could generate the arrears report that the Housing Board wants was terminated by the PAP-owned company, Action Information Management (AIM), to whom the former Aljunied Town Council sold the system. The arrears report that could be generated was terminated with the termination by AIM." - AHPETC general manager How Weng Fan's reply to the HDB TC Secretariat, Dec 3, one week before Ms Lim's media statement.
TRUTH: AHPETC had been able to continue submitting its monthly S&CC arrears reports for 19 months after it had stopped using the AIM Town Council Management System.

On Dec 14, 2012, AHPETC stated publicly that it had "moved on to upscale and develop the Financial System which was in use at the former Hougang SMC". The Hougang TC was also able to submit its monthly S&CC arrears reports from April 2008 until it was merged with Aljunied, without the aid of AIM. Thereafter, AHPETC itself was able to do the same from August 2011 to April last year.

WP pledges to explain handling of S&CC arrears
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2014

THE Workers' Party (WP) has reiterated that it will account for its handling of service and conservancy charges (S&CC) arrears.

Party chairman and Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim said it would also leave the public to make their own judgment on the matter.

In a statement yesterday, she said the Government's responses to WP's explanations about its Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) were "regrettable".

"It is instructive to note the various positions taken by the PAP. When we said that we would explain to the public the S&CC arrears in due course, this was sarcastically labelled 'the sound of silence'," she said.

"When we explained to the public the circumstances why AHPETC was unable to submit the S&CC arrears report in the format demanded and that MND (Ministry of National Development) had refused to accept our S&CC arrears submission in our own data format, this was labelled as 'making excuses'."

Ms Lim's reply was the latest in a series of exchanges between her and Mr Lee.

AHPETC has been in the spotlight over a sharp rise in its S&CC arrears as at April last year - after which it stopped submitting monthly arrears reports to MND - as well as over matters of corporate governance. It earned the worst scores in these two areas in the annual report card of town councils, released last month.

Ms Lim said Mr Lee did not deny that his accusation that AHPETC and WP were not accountable and transparent on S&CC arrears was a "non-starter".

"We had pointed out that the public could expect that the PAP would be the first to hold WP to account; that the PAP government had all investigative arms at its disposal to hold WP to account for any matter under the sun, and that AHPETC was facilitating the audit of its accounts and systems by the Auditor-General's Office and that, like all other town councils, its annual audited accounts would be published.

"MOS Lee has now shifted his position to say that 'WP is relying on the Government to check them, instead of taking responsibility themselves for accounting to the public what they have done or have not done'."

The party has said it would "account to the public in due course, and we will", she said.

Desmond Lee responds

"I'm afraid I found it difficult to understand Ms Sylvia Lim's statement. For instance, why does she think I said accountability and transparency are 'non-starters'? I never said any such thing.

"On the contrary, accountability and transparency are key in this matter. And Ms Lim's failure to respond to any of the questions people have about AHPETC shows that it is precisely accountability and transparency that are missing in the Workers' Party's dealings with Aljunied residents and Singaporeans in general."

- Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee, in a statement last night

Town council seems 'untouchable'

I AM concerned by the situation at the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), which appears "untouchable" ("Worrying lack of transparency" by Mr Lau Hak Tiong"; last Saturday).

Untouchable because the town council has not submitted its monthly arrears report since May last year, and there seems to be nothing the authorities can do about it.

From past reports, there appears to be mismanagement and poor governance on the part of AHPETC.

If this is not true, surely, the town council ought to have responded by now to set the record straight, instead of promising again and again to give an explanation "in due course" ("WP pledges to explain handling of S&CC arrears"; last Saturday). This is unbecoming of AHPETC.

By its irrelevant and evasive replies so far, one cannot be faulted for thinking that there is really something amiss.

The next question would be: What can the authorities do if the non-compliance and silence continue indefinitely?

If an opposition party is unable to manage its constituencies, I dread the day when that party wins more seats or, worse, gets to govern Singapore.

There is legislation in place to penalise individuals and businesses for flouting the law. Thus, I am puzzled that there is none for town councils that handle millions of dollars.

David Poon Soon Cheong
ST Forum, 17 Dec 2014

WP town council and the sound of silence
WP Town council saga: Counting the cost
AHPETC auditors' disclaimer of opinion on financial statements
Auditor-General to study WP town council's accounts
'Red' for WP town council's report card
AHPETC does badly in S&CC arrears, corporate governance in Town Council report
AHPETC yet to explain serious financial mismanagement: Desmond Lee
AHPETC found guilty of holding fair without permit
NEA vs AHPETC: Cleaning of Hawker Centres
AHPETC Remains Steadfast to Serve the Residents of the Town -10 Dec
MOS Desmond Lee’s Statement in response to AHPETC’s 10 Dec Media Release
PAP Concedes Accountability and Transparency Accusation a Non-Starter
MOS Desmond Lee's Response to AHPETC's 12th Dec Media Release
Audit of Workers' Party-run town council flags major lapses

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