Thursday, 11 December 2014

WP town council and the sound of silence

By Lawrence Wong, Published The Straits Times, 10 Dec 2014

ONE of my responsibilities in the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth is to regulate charities.

One thing I have learnt about charities is that wanting to do good is not enough.

When you are responsible for public monies, whether donations or fees, good intentions are not enough to prevent bad outcomes.

From time to time, some charities get into trouble because of the mismanagement of funds and poor governance. The dishonest ones would choose to stay silent, hoping that it would go unnoticed. But, eventually, questions grow too loud, and the issues burst into the open, as they rightly should.

In recent weeks, the centre of attention has not been a charity, but a town council, specifically, the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC).

Every year that the Workers' Party (WP) has run AHPETC, the town council has been consistently flagged "red", both for its service and conservancy charge (S&CC) arrears management and its corporate governance.

In fact, since 2012, AHPETC has faced repeated questions - from its own auditor, from the Ministry of National Development (MND), and from residents of Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East.

The situation worsened sharply in April last year. AHPETC reported a spike in its S&CC arrears - nearly 30 per cent of its HDB residents and 50 per cent of its commercial units owed S&CC for three months or more. This was more than 10 times the national average for HDB residents; and more than 34 times for the commercial units.

The spike came suddenly, without warning. After that, silence. No more S&CC arrears reports at all, for 18 months now.

Something is seriously wrong.

MND is naturally concerned. It has queried AHPETC several times.

But so far, all we have got from AHPETC are prevarications, non-answers, and sweeping assurances that things will be all right.

It reminds me of an erratic TV set that works initially. After a while, the image starts to flicker, and then with an almighty bang, the screen goes black. Eventually, a message appears on the screen: Please don't adjust your controls. Your TV is working fine; the picture will return shortly.

But nothing more happens.

Recently, WP chairman Sylvia Lim, the AHPETC chairman, explained that the delay in submitting the arrears figures was because of an audit by the Auditor-General's Office (AGO).

But AHPETC had stopped submitting monthly arrears reports 10 months before the AGO audit began.

Anyway, why should an audit prevent Ms Lim from immediately investigating the figures, establishing the facts, and informing the public?

Perhaps, there is a good explanation for all this.

Perhaps, the April 2013 arrears figure was just an aberration.

But maybe, just maybe, there are bigger problems lurking behind the tangled web?

AHPETC recently put out a tender for a new managing agent. Not a single company bid, not even the current managing agent. Clearly, I am not the only one queasy about goings-on in AHPETC.

In fact, the issue is not just the S&CC arrears, but the governance and supervision of the town council, and what the WP MPs are doing (or not) to resolve the matter.

Nobody knows - which is precisely the problem.

Every month, AHPETC collects $3 million in S&CC from residents and shopkeepers. This is $36 million a year.

Residents and shopkeepers deserve to know that their money is being properly managed and spent by the town council, and that everyone who is supposed to pay is, indeed, paying.

But unless AHPETC starts being transparent and accountable and answers questions, the residents may never know the truth.

When pressed recently, Ms Lim said that she was looking into the matter and would release her findings in "due time".

That was the same answer she gave two years ago, when the arrears issue was first flagged.

There is a disturbingly familiar pattern in how the WP responds whenever questions are raised about its conduct.

It has happened again and again - cleaning hawker centres, running illegal trade fairs and, now, managing S&CC arrears.

First, its leaders say it is not a big deal. Then, when they can no longer pretend it is not a big deal, they blame someone else - the National Environment Agency, the People's Action Party, even the AGO. Then, when their excuses are exposed one by one, they say "we are looking into the matter", or that things will be explained - in "due time". And then, more silence.

Perhaps, the WP hopes that by lying low and keeping its head down, the matter will go away. The public may forget, or even better, not notice.

But it will not, and the public will not. Instead, the WP's credibility and integrity are slowly but surely draining away.

After my colleague Desmond Lee, as well as many residents and commentators in the media, raised questions, I was expecting the WP to issue a prompt and full reply, and end its long and damaging silence.

Sadly, nothing of the sort has happened.

Instead, there is silence - one that is growing more deafening by the day.

The writer is the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth.





WP silence on arrears issue 'could suggest bigger problems'
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 10 Dec 2014

THE Workers' Party's (WP) continuing silence on its town council's poor performance rating and finances suggests there may be bigger problems lurking, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong has said.

In an opinion article in The Straits Times today, he said there has been "a disturbingly familiar pattern" in the WP's response when questions are raised about its conduct. He wrote: "It's happened again and again - cleaning hawker centres, running illegal trade fairs and, now, managing service and conservancy charge (S&CC) arrears.

"First, its leaders say it is not a big deal. Then, when they can no longer pretend it is not a big deal, they blame someone else - the National Environment Agency, the People's Action Party, even the Auditor-General's Office (AGO). Then, when their excuses are exposed one by one, they say 'we are looking into the matter', or things will be explained - in 'due time'. And then, more silence."

The WP-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) had stopped sending monthly S&CC arrears reports since May last year. It did not fare well in an annual town council management report released last month, scoring "red" for S&CC arrears and corporate governance.

Mr Wong, whose ministry's responsibilities include regulating charities, said he has learnt that wanting to do good is not enough.

"When you are responsible for public monies, whether donations or fees, good intentions are not enough to prevent bad outcomes. From time to time, some charities get into trouble because of the mismanagement of funds and poor governance.

"The dishonest ones would choose to stay silent, hoping that it would go unnoticed. But, eventually, questions grow too loud, and the issues burst into the open, as they rightly should."

Noting the spike in S&CC arrears reported by AHPETC in its April report last year and the absence of monthly reports since then, he wrote: "Something is seriously wrong."

WP chairman and Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim, the town council chairman, said there was a delay because the finance team was busy with the AGO audit. But Mr Wong said the town council stopped sending S&CC reports 10 months before the audit began.

AHPETC collects $3 million in S&CC a month, he said, and residents and shopkeepers "deserve to know that their money is being properly managed and spent by the town council... But unless AHPETC starts being transparent and accountable and answers questions, the residents may never know the truth".





Workers' Party responds to charges of 'silence' over town council
By Fiona Chan, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 11 Dec 2014

WORKERS' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim has responded to an article written by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, which suggested that the opposition party's silence on its town council's finances and delay in submitting financial reports may hint at "bigger problems".

In a statement yesterday, Ms Lim said Mr Wong may not have known that the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) had already explained to the Ministry of National Development (MND) its problems in churning out reports on service and conservancy charge (S&CC) arrears in the required format.

Giving assurances that AHPETC has been helping the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) with its special audit of the town council's finances, Ms Lim said the audit findings and the town council's audited accounts will be made public when the audit is finished. Once that happens, "more productive discussions can be entered into", she said.

"In the meantime, I urge Minister Wong not to confuse or alarm the public by speculating on whether the S&CC arrears situation has worsened or whether AHPETC is facing 'bigger problems'," she added.

Ms Lim also thanked "the People's Action Party (PAP) ministers for repeatedly reminding Singaporeans of the issues that are close to our heart".

She noted that "the public can expect that the PAP will be the first to hold WP to account", and that "the PAP Government has all the investigative arms within its disposal to hold WP to account on any matter under the sun".

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 its monthly arrears reports - as well as matters of corporate governance. It earned the worst scores islandwide in these two areas in the latest annual report card of town councils, released last month.

In his article, which was published in The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao yesterday, Mr Wong accused the WP of "lying low and keeping its head down" in the face of "repeated questions", and of failing to be transparent and accountable to its residents.

His remarks came weeks after Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee levelled similar accusations at the WP.

In her statement, Ms Lim also said AHPETC had informed MND that its software developers were working to enhance the system to produce the required arrears data. The town council was using manual sorting methods in the meantime, she added.

In addition, she refuted Mr Wong's charge that she had blamed the arrears data delay on the AGO audit. "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," she said.

Ms Lim added that AHPETC has been issuing payment reminders to households that are late with their S&CC fees, and has also proceeded with court action where necessary. Residents in financial difficulty have been placed on instalment plans.




Post by TODAY.





WP’s ‘excuses’ cast doubt on its leaders’ integrity: Desmond Lee
AHPETC MPs have failed to be accountable in not submitting information on arrears, he says
By Joy Fang, TODAY, 12 Dec 2014

Firing the latest salvo in what has become a prolonged dispute between the Government and the opposition party, Minister of State (National Development) Desmond Lee said in a statement issued yesterday that the series of excuses the Workers’ Party (WP) has been doling out has cast doubt not only on the competence of its Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), but also on the integrity of its leaders.

Responding to Ms Lim’s lengthy statement published on Wednesday evening, in which she refuted several charges made in an opinion piece by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, Mr Lee pointed out that Ms Lim, who is also the WP’s chairman, had put the responsibility on the Government and the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO) to establish the town council’s true state of affairs, something he described as “a remarkable proposition”.

In her statement, Ms Lim had noted that the People’s Action Party would be the first to hold the WP to account in the event of any issues and said the Government had “all the investigative arms within its disposal to hold the WP to account on any matter under the sun”.

AHPETC has been under the spotlight since early last month for its mounting service and conservancy charges (S&CC) arrears, which led government leaders to press them for answers.

Said Mr Lee: “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.”

He added that just last week, the Ministry of National Development (MND) had again reminded the AHPETC to submit its latest arrears report. However, he said its general manager How Weng Fan replied that it had not been able to submit its arrears report because it was no longer on the Action Information Management (AIM) Town Council Management System.

However, the AIM system had already been terminated 19 months before the WP stopped submitting its monthly reports, wrote Mr Lee.

The WP had also been able to submit its reports in Hougang for years since 2008, and for two years in AHPETC, even without the system, he pointed out.

“What is important here is not just AHPETC’s failure to submit required information on S&CC arrears ... 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,” he added.


For instance, although the WP leaders gave the excuse that its town council was delayed in submitting its monthly S&CC arrears reports as it was busy with the AGO audit, the MND said the AHPETC had already stopped submitting them from May last year, 10 months before the AGO audit had even begun.

Ms Lim also “blames” the AHPETC’s own auditors for its delay in submitting its reports, said Mr Lee.

But the town council was audited by the same auditor, Foo Kon Tan Grant Thornton, in 2012 and the AHPETC was able to submit its monthly S&CC arrears report on time until April last year, he said.





MND’s Lee rebuts AHPETC’s comments
TODAY, 12 Dec 2014

Citing comments attributed to Workers’ Party (WP) leaders in earlier media reports and a town council employee, Minister of State (National Development) Desmond Lee rebutted what he said were excuses given by the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) for not submitting arrears reports.


Excuse 1: “It is AGO’s fault.” WP MPs Low Thia Khiang, Sylvia Lim and Png Eng Huat had suggested that the town council had to handle the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO) audit, which took up time and resources.

Desmond Lee: “AHPETC stopped submitting the monthly Service and Conservancy Charges (S&CC) arrears reports from May 2013, 10 months before the AGO audit even began.”


Excuse 2: “It is the press’ fault.” Ms Lim had said her responses to the town council’s (TC) non-submission of its audited financial statements for FY2013 and the arrears reports 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 the MND,’ Ms Lim said.

Lee: “Workers’ Party MPs didn’t offer Excuse 1 only once. They offered it on three separate occasions.”


Excuse 3: “It is the MND’s fault”. Ms Lim had said in a statement issued on Wednesday that the town council had explained to the MND its challenge in submitting arrears data according to the MND’s format from the middle of last year.

Lee: “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 Workers’ Party and the same general manager, Ms How Weng Fan. It was also used by AHPETC itself till April 2013, when it stopped abruptly.

Also, in addition to blaming the AGO for its own tardiness in 2014, Ms Lim now also blames AHPETC’s own auditors for its own tardiness in 2013. However, AHPETC was audited by the same auditor, Foo Kon Tan Grant Thornton, in 2012. That did not prevent the TC from submitting its monthly S&CC arrears report until April 2013.”


Excuse 4: “It is the PAP’s fault.” Ms How had told the Housing and Development Board (HDB) Town Council Secretariat on Dec 3 that the system that could generate the arrears report that the HDB wants had been terminated by the PAP-owned company Action Information Management.

Lee: “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 Town Council 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 2013.”





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".

The AHPETC chairman was responding to a statement on Thursday from the Minister of State (MOS) for National Development, Mr Desmond Lee, and an earlier comment by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong.

"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."






Worrying lack of transparency

THE public streets in the vicinity of the Hougang-Kovan Melody area, where I have lived for the past 30 years, used to be swept daily under the former Ajunied Town Council - until the changing of hands after the last general election more than three years ago.

These days, I hardly see any estate cleaners sweeping or doing maintenance work on public streets. Most of the streets are littered with fallen leaves and rubbish. Often, outdated event banners can be found strung on the road railings.

Many of us living in the Workers' Party-held wards have been keeping quiet in the hope of seeing improvements, but it has been disappointing so far.

Now, it comes as a great shock to us to be told by WP chairman Sylvia Lim that the town council has been facing problems with its IT system and accounting, and that it has switched to manual sorting methods ("Workers' Party responds to charges of 'silence' over town council"; Thursday).

Ms Lim acknowledges there were mistakes and now urges Minister Lawrence Wong "not to confuse or alarm the public".

It is now obvious that the town council has chosen not to be transparent.

It inherited a comfortable surplus when it took over from the previous management. If there was proper corporate governance, then there should be no issues with its accounting and audits.

What has happened to the surplus, and what was the cause of the "sudden spike" in its service and conservancy charge arrears?

My biggest concern would be the day when the town council stops cleaning all public areas in its charge and further cuts corners in its maintenance schedule.

Lau Hak Tiong
ST Forum, 13 Dec 2014





WP's track record speaks for itself

WHILE some parts of Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong's article ("WP town council and the sound of silence"; Wednesday) are well-written and persuasive, they do not represent a ground-level view of what is really happening in a Workers' Party-held ward.

I am a new resident of Aljunied GRC and my estate is well-maintained and clean despite being about 20 years old.

The town council is efficient and responded quickly to a weekend appeal for a late-charge waiver not long after I moved in.

Contrast this to the GRC I used to live in, where hunting down the town council's contact details alone was a fairly challenging task, and where the MP would show up only before or after a general election.

I have not had the chance to meet my new MP, but to his credit, he is easily accessible via e-mail and responds quickly to feedback and queries.

The spectre of Aljunied GRC turning into a slum, which had been raised by certain quarters of the ruling party before the last general election, has not materialised.

Local issues matter, and the WP's track record speaks for itself.

Hong Chou Hui
ST Forum, 13 Dec 2014





Becoming 'First World Parliament' despite WP?

IT IS timely to review whether the Workers' Party has lived up to its promise of a "First World Parliament" ("WP town council and the sound of silence"; Wednesday).

In the 2011 General Election, voters supported and rewarded the party largely because it promised to move Singapore towards a "First World Parliament".

Such a promise entailed the Workers' Party holding the ruling party to a higher degree of accountability.

If that is the case, then its lack of accountability to the electorate is disconcerting.

How can Singaporeans entrust the Workers' Party to keep the ruling party accountable to Singaporeans when it does not hold itself accountable?

Unlike the Workers' Party, the People's Action Party has taken steps to improve since the last GE. For example, it has made progress in addressing critical issues such as housing and transport.

Ironically, it appears that Singapore is moving towards a "First World Parliament" in spite of the Workers' Party.

Clifton Lee Ci-en
ST Forum, 13 Dec 2014





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



Related
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
WP leaders' reputation, integrity in question: Desmond Lee
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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