03 September 2015

The Irrelevance Of AHPETC In GE 2015

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had this to say about The Workers' Party and its management of Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council ("AHPETC"):

"The way we've designed the system to make town councils the responsibility of elected MPs, so that people who want think they can form the next government can prove they're capable of administering a town council.

That's what some other countries do, too. For example in France, where those elected are simultaneously local and national politicians.

I think AHPETC has got serious issues. Questions of governance, viability, propriety. More facts have come out over last few days that The Workers’ Party will have to address and explain. It's regrettable that they haven't been addressed satisfactorily up to now. I think it's something voters will notice."

Managing A Town Council

Managing a town council is quite different from managing a municipality.

Under the Town Councils Act, which is legislation conceived by the PAP Government, HDB properties in an electoral constituency that comprise a town is managed by a town council. The elected Members of Parliament of that electoral constituency automatically become the town council's elected members, one of whom has to be the chairman.

The town council may manage the town by either recruiting its own staff or appointing a third-party managing agent to undertake most of the work.

When GE 2011 came along, almost all the towns — Aljunied being one of them — were run by third-party managing agents under the supervision of their elected MPs.

After The Workers' Party defeated the PAP in the electoral contest in Aljunied GRC in GE 2011, the incumbent managing agent for Aljunied Town Council requested to be released prematurely from its contract. The Workers' Party agreed because it considered that it was pointless to retain a reluctant managing agent.

The Workers' Party arranged with FM Solutions and Services Pte Ltd ("FMSS") to be the managing agent of Aljunied-Hougang Town Council ("AHTC", as it was known, after Hougang Town Council was merged into Aljunied Town Council). FMSS was a then a newly formed company with key staff previously employed by Hougang Town Council, and it had to rapidly grow its staff strength several times over for the much larger AHTC.

When FMSS's contract with AHTC expired, none of the managing agents serving the PAP-managed town councils wanted the job and the contract was given to FMSS.

In contrast, municipalities or towns in other countries are structured differently. They employ full-time public servants, much like a country does.

Full-time public servants do not resign en masse nor refuse to work following a change of government. Otherwise, the municipality would become ungovernable and chaos would reign.

If The Workers' Party or another opposition party wins another electoral constituency in GE 2015, we can expect history to repeat itself with the incumbent managing agent likely requesting to be released from its contract.

This distracts the opposition MPs from their primary duty as MPs and greatly inconveniences the people.

Towns should revert to being run by HDB officers, instead of third-party managing agents, under the supervision of the elected MPs of the electoral constituency, if the objective is for each town to develop its own character or for the MPs to prove that they can run a town.

Alternatively and better still, elected MPs should not be involved in managing HDB estates, just as they are not involved in managing the non-HDB properties or the roads or drains in their electoral constituency; they can work with the relevant authorities to improve their electoral constituencies. MPs are the citizens' representatives in Parliament and their primary duty is to discuss government policy, proposed legislation and current issues, and to examine and challenge the work of the government.

Town Council Management System

The town council management system ("TCMS") is central to the effective management of a town council. Without it, a town council will find it difficult, if not almost impossible, to keep track of its payments, receipts, payables, receivables etc.

When the 14 PAP-managed town councils sold the TCMS that was jointly owned by the 14 towns to PAP-owned Action Information Management Pte Ltd ("AIM") in 2010 and immediately leased it back, the lease contracts contained a provision allowing AIM to terminate the contract with any town council by giving that town council 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 that town.

When The Workers' Party took over AHTC after GE 2011, it found that it could lose its TCMS at short notice. While it could leverage and expand on the TCMS used by Hougang Town Council, AHTC still faced enormous problems getting the TCMS up and running as soon as possible.

Conclusion

The events at AHPETC do not show that The Workers' Party is incapable of managing a town or, by extension, the country.

On the contrary, they show that The Workers' Party overcame many of the extraordinary challenges thrown at its MPs and AHPETC.

Finally, a structure in which an incumbent third-party managing agent to a PAP-managed town council may become unwilling to continue providing its services after an opposition party is victorious in the electoral constituency places the opposition party at an immense disadvantage and causes unnecessary inconvenience and financial setbacks to the residents. There is no sensible justification for continuing with town councils, at least in their current form, unless the objective is to handicap the opposition.

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