Saturday 14 February 2015

Workers' Party has betrayed residents' trust: Heng Swee Keat

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday joined the debate in Parliament on a motion that it 'notes with concern' the Auditor-General's report on the audit of Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC). The report highlighted lapses in financial management by the town council, run by the Workers' Party. Below are edited excerpts of Mr Heng's speech.
The Straits Times, 14 Feb 2015

ELECTED town councillors of AHPETC have betrayed the people's trust. For a start, residents cannot trust the Workers' Party to get them a good deal. In fact, the Workers' Party has gotten them a raw deal. Their managing agents, FMSS and FMSI, charged the highest rate in Singapore for their services. Compared to the managing agent (MA) fees paid by other town councils, residents paid more than $2 more a unit. One year, $1.6 million. And this went on for four years.

Twelve million dollars was missing from their sinking fund. It was only after the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) pointed this out, that this was put back. Even so, one year after the Financial Year had ended, they still owed a substantial sum to the sinking fund. If not for the Auditor-General, the town councillors would have kept the residents of Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East in the dark. Nothing is transparent.

This is a very serious matter. It is wrong for the town councillors to argue that as long as money was put back, nothing was wrong in the first instance.

The fact is, they put the money back only because they were caught.

Why did this happen? Either the MA is totally incompetent or they deliberately decided not to fill the sinking fund. They did not forget to pay MA fees every month. They did not forget to collect S&CC (service and conservancy charges) from the honest, hard-working residents every month. But they forgot to pay large sums that were supposed to go into the sinking fund, and repeatedly. Was it because the Finance Investment Committee chaired by Mr Chen Show Mao was not doing its work? Or was it another lapse by chairman (Sylvia Lim)? No explanation has been forthcoming.

Sinking funds are for long-term cyclical maintenance. We need to replace lifts for residents' safety, do major repairs like rewiring and re-roofing, re-paint blocks. The Town Council Act lists only three offences, and the use of sinking funds for operating expenses is one of them. It is precisely to guard against managing agents and town councils acting to meet short-term interests. Sadly, this is precisely what we are seeing, short-term opportunistic behaviour.

Residents cannot trust the elected town councillors to account honestly for where their money is.

The town council cannot even keep basic accounts properly. You saw in the AGO report: inaccurate arrears, lapses in internal controls, poor records, late accounts, missing documents. These are not technical issues. These raise fundamental questions (on) whether the accounts can be trusted. If we are not vigilant, can we be sure that down the road, somebody may not be cooking the books? Why did a surplus of $3.3 million in the operations become a deficit of $730,000 in just two years? Though it may not be obvious on the surface, beneath the surface, the town council is rotting. And the rot is serious.

The second way in which the Workers' Party betrayed the people's trust (is through) a consistent pattern of denial, deflection and protection of their managing agent. Clearly the managing agent FMSS has failed. The elected members of the town council should be held responsible. They appointed the MA. They're responsible for supervising the MA, for setting up a proper structure. You can outsource work; you cannot outsource responsibility. The responsibility lies squarely with the Members of Parliament on the council.

Elected town councillors, instead of disciplining their MA and taking corrective action, defended them strongly. In 2013, they said in Parliament: "FMSS was engaged based on its directors' experience in property management, professional skills and track record in running Hougang town council."

What we have heard in this House so far is that they're inexperienced, and these mistakes happened because people resigned. But Ms Sylvia Lim told us in this House that they are professional and experienced. So who is telling us the accurate version?

And you are talking about experience. How much experience do you need to know that you cannot be handing money to your supporters at the expense of over-charging your residents? How much experience do you need to truthfully disclose information to your auditors, including your own auditors? In fact, the AGO audit would not have been necessary if they had been honest and forthright in disclosing information to their own auditors. Where's the transparency that Mr Pritam Singh has been advocating so strongly? Elected town councillors have acted in the best interest of their friends, the well-paid managing agent. They have neglected the interest of the residents of Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East. All the Workers' Party MPs have said that they will take collective responsibility. They have said that they will support this motion. I hope the support is in substance, not just form. If they support the motion in substance, one would have expected that they will conduct a forensic audit, that they will take legal action against the managing agent FMSS, that they will file accounts immediately, on time, as required by the law, and any administrative action and that they will put in the checks and balances where there is a severe conflict of interest. And the residents deserve to know what had happened.

The Workers' Party's platform in the last general election was First World Parliament, and I quote, where the opposition will "function as a robust check and balance against the Government".

Now, over the last two days, we have seen clearly how they have created a system where there is no check, no balance. In fact, the real check in this instance came from the Government - the Auditor-General's Office.

What the House witnessed yesterday is unbelievable. Mr Pritam Singh, who had said "we will constantly press the Government for more information, especially since it is so selective with the information it releases". When asked pertinent questions on transparency and accountability by Mr Shanmugam, Mr Pritam Singh said he would not give a reply in Parliament - the First World Parliament which he claims he wants to build and which Mr Low Thia Khiang said he will account to.

Last evening, Mr Yee Jenn Jong and a group of his WP supporters dressed in blue were asked by a resident about what was going on in the AHPETC, but he didn't answer and walked away quickly. So is this the answer Mr Singh promised to residents?

So they won't answer auditors, won't answer Parliament, won't answer residents. Who is left in Singapore that the WP think is worthy of an answer?

Sadly, we saw in this House yesterday this pattern of behaviour - of saying whatever suits them for the moment - among the WP's MPs. Mr Low Thia Khiang claimed that it is difficult for the opposition to run TCs or get qualified people to run TCs, that they have to start from scratch. But the PAP TCs also started from scratch when they were first formed. The PAP MP town councillors had no experience in municipal administration but they had plenty of integrity and sense of responsibility.

Mr Low said that we must, therefore, depoliticise the transitioning process. Newly elected MPs should not be tested, implying that they should simply be elected to oppose the government in a First World Parliament and not to have to show that they can actually govern. This is the precise opposite of the philosophy of the town council scheme. Indeed, it is the opposite of what Mr Low Thia Khiang used to maintain - running Hougang TC for 20 years until the WP team messed up in AHPETC.

What is even more disturbing is what the WP MPs have been promising residents.

Let me just quote three examples. First quote: "The WP has over 20 years of experience in managing TCs well and not just small TCs but a huge GRC TC in Aljunied. We know the ins and outs of running a constituency. Even when obstacles were thrown in our path to trip us up, we still have managed to ensure residents' needs are well taken care of." This was by Mr Gerald Giam when he spoke to residents at a rally on Jan 23, 2013. Let me move on to a second quote. "If WP wins Punggol East, I am confident that we will manage the TC competently. WP has had more than 20 years of experience managing Hougang SMC. After GE 2011, we quickly adapted to take charge of Aljunied GRC under a very short timeframe. We will take over the TC functions with as little disruption as possible to the residents. I have the experience and know-how in running a TC." This was by Ms Lee Li Lian at the same rally to residents in January 2013.

So we have heard that you can take charge of a TC, and big ones too, under a very short timeframe. So all the explanations that all the WP members have given us so far, which is the correct version? That you have plenty of problems, plenty of challenges or that you can take charge within a short timeframe, overcome any obstacles and that you are experienced and you have the know-how. Let me mention the third quote: "WP MPs are committed to being politically accountable to voters for town management under the current regime. Whatever else is done in other countries, the responsibility for town management has been legislated to the MPs under the Town Councils Act. We accept this responsibility and have pledged during elections to manage towns entrusted to us to the best of our ability. We intend to continue keeping this promise." This is by Ms Sylvia Lim in a parliamentary session on May 13, 2013.

I was most astounded to hear what Mr Low Thia Khiang said yesterday in this House, that we should depoliticise the transitioning process. Mr Low, you're the secretary-general of the WP and have just said the exact opposite of what Ms Sylvia Lim, chairman of the WP, said in this House in 2013. Did you just change your mind when things went wrong in AHPETC or you never believed in what you were doing? Or were Mr Gerald Giam, Ms Lee Li Lian and Ms Sylvia Lim misleading residents?

Do you have any conviction or do you just say whatever is expedient for the moment, even if it means misleading Singaporeans?

What is most disturbing in this entire sorry episode is the way that the Workers' Party has sought to downplay the crux of the matter, sought to deflect the issue by playing victim of a challenging operating environment that the Opposition faced, and then claiming inexperience.

As Minister Khaw Boon Wan pointed out yesterday, a town council requires elected MPs to govern and not just politick. It's easy to shout campaign slogans and make all sorts of promises, but do you really believe in what you say whole-heartedly and walk the talk?

Running a town council in a clean, competent and accountable way is a test of the integrity of the MP and his sense of responsibility and accountability. In other words, can we trust him or her? This motion is not about partisan politics. I have no joy pointing out the many failings and questionable practices of the Workers' Party. This motion is important for all Singaporeans because it is about our long-term future. Unless elected Members of Parliament act with integrity and a deep sense of responsibility, and take the trust of the people seriously, we will not be able to maintain a system of good governance - clean, honest, accountable, competent - and pass this on to our future generations.

We must not betray the trust of Singaporeans. Singaporeans deserve better.

Mr Low Thia Khiang claimed that it is difficult for the opposition to run town councils or get qualified people to run town councils, that they have to start from scratch. But the PAP town councils also started from scratch when they were first formed. The PAP MP town councillors had no experience in municipal administration but they had plenty of integrity and sense of responsibility.

The Workers' Party's platform in the last GE was First World Parliament, where the opposition "will function as a robust check and balance"... We have seen so clearly how they have created a system where there is no check, no balance. In fact, the real check in this instance came from the Government.

WP must now walk the talk, take action

AHPETC paid Managing Agent estimated S$1.6m a year more than other TCs: MND

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