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The Straits Times says

Balance autonomy with accountability

Better governance of town councils is an objective that all Singaporeans support, including, avowedly, the Workers' Party. Yet it was symbolic of this decade's chafing town council politics that the party voted against the recent amendments to the Town Councils Act despite their undoubted practical value. The WP opposed the move on political grounds, as a clause on ministerial powers to order investigations was said to be "prone to abuse" by a ruling party acting against its rivals.

Since the Act was passed in 1988, the driving logic of the amendments seen over the years was the better management of these essential bodies. For example, in the 1990s, the representation of residents in the council was increased, and the transfer of surpluses to the sinking fund was required at the end of a term of office. But such is the intrusion of politics that allegations of bias surfaced repeatedly, notably after the first Town Council Management Report was produced by the National Development Ministry in 2010. The friction has been pronounced over the last six years. The sale of town council software to a People's Action Party-owned company led to a review, which found no wrongdoing. And the Opposition-run council was probed for administrative lapses by the Auditor-General and an independent auditor.

As a Singapore experiment to transfer estate management from public professionals to elected representatives, the focus should be on elevating standards so key objectives can be fulfilled. The autonomy to run estates offers an opportunity for MPs to engage residents widely, demonstrate leadership and permit towns to evolve their own character. By drawing from the best practices elsewhere, there's no reason why town councils here cannot become models of good governance.

Though councils' performances have been rated well generally, there have been some instances of conflict of interest, weak financial controls and poor compliance with rules that have led to even court action against the WP-run council. As for PAP councils, some were once associated with toxic investments and, exceptionally, a general manager is being investigated for corruption.

Given the daily need for efficient services relating to common areas of HDB housing blocks and commercial property, observers have asked if these functions should be returned to HDB. That would put paid to the Act's political rationale of making MPs directly accountable to their voters. However, MPs' exercise of discretion must operate within a proper framework as specified by the Act, and reflect a principled approach as public funds are involved. This does not mean complex rules are needed as these could overwhelm smaller councils and turn all into de facto bureaucratic units. Autonomy should not be in name only, but it must be balanced with sound governance that is evident in intentions, words and deeds.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'Balance autonomy with accountability'. Print Edition | Subscribe