Even established organisations slip up occasionally, as is evident when issues are raised from time to time by consumers, investors, regulators or the Auditor-General. But when "systemic difficulties" are identified by independent auditors, as was the case when KPMG reviewed the books of the Workers' Party-run Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC), these call for an overhaul, not just targeted remedies. KPMG found "pervasive control failures" in the town council's accounts and work processes. The weaknesses it identified cover key areas of governance, financial control, financial reporting, procurement and records management. Despite the significance of these, the town council had in past years shrugged off similar criticism as "old issues" and made little progress in addressing the problems.
The question that arises is how far the law should go to compel town councils to implement a management regime that emphasises competence and accountability. A review of the Town Councils Act, which is now being undertaken, has to weigh this against the primary intent of granting elected Members of Parliament sufficient autonomy to work with residents to make a difference in HDB estates within their constituencies. Making a distinction between isolated lapses and systemic deficiencies might be useful in order to avoid tying up town councils with excessive red tape. Nor should the rules be so arduous that councils in effect become a division of a government agency and smaller parties that lack experience and support find they are doomed to fail.
Many would agree, however, that baseline standards are necessary to ensure citizens' needs are met and public funds are safeguarded, without having to hold councils to account in an agonising manner. Town councils should not be allowed to go entirely their own way with little regard for acceptable standards. After all, councils lie at the heart of a grassroots administrative process that feeds into the larger national objective of clean and efficient governance. Whichever the political party running a council, functional capability must constitute the basis of legitimacy in Singapore.
Amendments to the Town Councils Act should focus on shortcomings in existing legislation that permit a council to drag its feet despite forthright comments from independent sources, including the courts. If key requirements are spelt out, town councils of all political stripes will have less scope to turn issues of competence, governance and effectiveness into political disputes, with residents' interests caught up in seemingly interminable partisan wrangling.
While granting town councils sufficient leeway, it must be made clear they are ultimately subordinate to the authority of public law, like companies and charities operating in different contexts.