16 July 2013

Cleaning of Food Centres vs. TCMS Sale and Leaseback — A Critical Comparison

It is timely to compare Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council's handling of the cleaning of the high areas at Blk 538 Bedok North Street 3 with the sale and leaseback of the town council management system by the 14 PAP-managed town councils with Action Information Management Pte Ltd in 2010.


Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan's dossier of evidence[1], which he presented in Parliament, was a collection of self-serving documents, including the following:

The quotation from ATL Maintenance Pte Ltd to 538 Market Association (attention Mr Ng Kok Khim).

The identity of the person who requested the quotation has not been established, although this is key.

Why was the scope of work covered by the quotation broader than the provision of scaffolding?

NEA's internal notes of meetings with the food stall holders and AHPETC representatives, one on 8 March for Blk 538 and another on 26 April for Blk 511.

Meeting notes are internal notes.  They serve as a record for the writer and his bosses.  They are recorded from the perspective of, and based on the interpretation of events by, the writer.  The other participants of the dialogue or meeting usually have no knowledge of the contents of the notes as they have no access to them.  It is unusual for the writer of any note to point to his own failing, if any, unless instructed to do so by his superior, and even in such cases, the writer may try to downplay the seriousness of his or his organisation's failing.  The notes may be amended from time to time and anytime, until they reach a certain degree of exposure e.g., by their disclosure to the public.

NEA's involvement in the discussions beyond simply instructing AHPETC to ensure that the high areas of the food centre be properly cleaned once a year is puzzling.  Whether or not AHPETC wanted to levy an additional charge for the scaffolding or cleaning of the high areas is a matter between AHPETC and the stall holders, and has nothing to do with NEA.

Email.  The email from NEA's Chin Peiyun informing AHPETC that 538 Hawkers Association would make the necessary arrangements with their contractors on the erection/dismantling of the scaffolding during the spring cleaning in March 2013 was omitted from the dossier.  It was, however, mentioned in the "Chronology of Events" in the dossier, and immediately qualified by the statement that she was referring to the scaffolding and canvas covers for the individual stalls.

The petitions by the stall holders of Blk 511 and Blk 538 to the press.

No explanations were offered as to why:
▪ Both petitions were similar in writing style.
▪ Both petitions were dated on 3 June.
▪ Neither petition was signed, or even had the names of the petitioners or the main petitioners affixed.

I cannot discern any credible motive for AHPETC to refuse to clean the high areas absolutely or unless scaffolding was provided by the hawkers' association.

Neither can I discern any credible motive for AHPETC to ask to collect any sum of money from the stall holders of Blk 538 or Blk 511, whether for the cost of the scaffolding or for the cost of cleaning the high areas, unless such cost had not been factored in the monthly conservancy fee collected from the stall holders.

I can't imagine any reason why AHPETC would want to make things difficult for the stall holders, including but not limited to collecting any sum of money (which is such a small sum for a town council).

The Workers' Party took over management of AHPETC on 1 August 2011, and would have carried out at least one annual cleaning for all the food centres within AHPE town before 2013.  Did any food centres encounter similar difficulties previously?

As NEA noted, AHTC (as it was known before Punggol East was included) fully complied with the "cleaning regime" with its previous conservancy contractor including putting up scaffolding and cleaning the ceilings at Blk 511 in June 2012.

Apart from the strangely imprecise communication among the parties, the difficulties seem to stem from the mysterious quotation from ATL Maintenance and the rather bizarre utterances of AHPETC property manager Tai Vie Shun (as recorded in NEA's notes and his email).

It is rather odd that no one from the hawkers' association sought to speak to Mr Tai's superiors.

It is rather odd that neither NEA assistant director (operations) Lim Peng Siang, who was at the meetings, nor NEA senior assistant director Alex Foo (to whom and Mr Lim one of the internal notes was specifically addressed) sought to speak to Mr Tai's superiors.

Certainly, Mr Tai's superiors would have resolved the matter speedily and without any fuss.  It's such a pity that no one seemed to have done so.

Finally, while it doesn't excuse Mr Tai's puzzling words and behaviour, it should be noted that Mr Tai is an employee of the managing agent of AHPETC; he is not an employee of AHPETC.


Minutes of meetings of the 14 PAP-managed town councils ("TCs") approving the sale and leaseback of the town council management system with PAP-owned Action Information Management Pte Ltd ("AIM")

Signed sale and leaseback contracts between the 14 PAP-managed town councils and AIM.

The sale and leaseback contracts gave AIM the right to terminate the contract with any TC by giving the TC a notice period of one month in the event of material changes to the membership, or to the scope and duties, such as changes to the boundaries, of the TC.

According to MND Town Council Review Report, "The PAP TCs felt that such a [right to terminate]clause was fair and reasonable as the vendor would have priced its bid on the basis of the existing TC and Town boundaries.  However, should this change materially, the vendor could end up providing services to a TC comprising a much larger area and a larger population of residents, but is held to do so at the same fixed price since a key feature of the contract was that there should be no price change to the TCs even for extensions.  The TCs felt that this would be unfair to the prospective vendors, and a clause explicitly addressing such changes would reduce the business risk to the vendor.  This would help fetch a better tender price for the TCs’ old software."[2]
This explanation does not stand up to examination.
The TCs said they were concerned about the situation if any TC and town boundaries were to change materially, because the lease price in the contracts was fixed.
Did the 14 TCs, each of which had different numbers of residents, pay the same monthly fee to AIM?
What would have happened if the number of residents in a town increased due to new HDB flats being completed and occupied, for example, instead of a change in boundaries?
If any town comprised a much larger area or more residents, could the price not be renegotiated?
What would have happened if town boundaries resulted in any town comprising a much smaller area or fewer residents, e.g., when Punggol East was separated from Punggol town?  Would it still pay the same fees?
Had PAP not lost (or the relevant MPs not contemplated losing) any electoral constituency in GE2011, changes in town boundaries would have been irrelevant because AIM would have continued to serve all 14 TCs.
Any changes to the number of residents within the towns would not have been significant because the lease was intended to be of a short duration and the electoral boundaries would be changed only once (for GE2011).

In MP Sylvia Lim's words:

"The terms of the sale of the most critical town management IT system had unnecessarily endangered public welfare particularly the relinquishing of ownership to AIM with the one-month termination clause.  MND fell short in not admonishing the PAP TCs for risking disruption to the public in the name of politics.  MND also did not take cognisance of the wastage of public funds incurred when such terminations required replacement systems to be set up.  In addition, the one-year sale and leaseback was clearly an under-estimate of the time needed to redevelop a new TCMS.  The fact that the one year happened to straddle GE 2011 suggests that whatever good faith the TCs had in the sale to AIM, there were political objectives in crippling any new TC leadership of a different political affiliation, hence endangering the public in the process."[3]
1. NATIONAL ENVIRONMENT AGENCY Dossier which Accompanied Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's Responses to Supplementary Questions for PQ1238 On The Role of Town Councils In The Maintenance And Cleaning Of Hawker Centres Under Their Charge, 9 July 2013.
2. MINISTRY OF NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT MND Town Council Review Report 30 Apr 2013.
3. Hansard Parliamentary Debates Singapore 13 May 2013.

This article was updated on 16 July 2013 at 7:25 pm.


  1. As they say, the PAP is caught red-handed with the smoking gun and the trousers between its legs, exposing we all know what!

  2. re exposing we all know what: errrr what would it expose? there seem to be quite a few possibilities.

    dirty underwear? hole-y underwear? no underwear at all? a medical condition of some sort? something that should be there but isn't? something that shouldn't be there but is? deformities? something that is smaller or larger than normal? bits and pieces that are functioning well, or not performing as they should be?

  3. Warts and all lah, stupid!