Take politics out of town council transfers: WP's Low

Parliament yesterday debated 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. The audit came after the town council, run by the opposition Workers' Party, was late in submitting its financial accounts and in reporting its cyclical maintenance works. Its auditors had for two years running issued a disclaimer of opinion, which means they were unable to state that the financial statements provide a true and fair account of the financial position. Below are excerpts of Workers' Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang's speech on the issue.

The Workers' Party (WP) supports the motion. We treated the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) audit seriously.

We take the findings of the AGO seriously and have responded to details of the finding in writing to AGO.

The fact remains that it has been a challenge for the Workers' Party, being an opposition party, to attract managing agents. When the public tender was called in 2012, three companies collected the tender document and only one company submitted the tender.

In a more recent tender, only one company, the largest managing agent managing People's Action Party (PAP) town councils, collected the tender document but no one submitted any tender.

What we learnt from this AGO audit is that we should have appointed a consultant to look at internal controls in compliance with the Town Councils Act, while the elected MPs focus on taking over the management of the town to ensure that major services are not interrupted and residents' routine lives are not affected. This is something we will do if such a privilege should happen in future elections.

But the problems of professional town management and compliance with financial rules will remain a real challenge if there are no established managing agents who are prepared to do the job.

It would seem that managing agents serving PAP town councils are unwilling to serve as managing agents in non-PAP town councils, and that the reason appears to be political rather than professional. It looks like the only option for any opposition party is to take over the direct management.

I did this in Hougang SMC (Single Member Constituency) when I took over the town council in 1991. However, at the time, the HDB provided computer and EMSU (Essential Maintenance Service Unit) services and town councils pay a fee per month for the services. The council recruited staff directly to manage the town. Hougang SMC is a compact town. Currently, the only alternative town council financial accounting system was developed by Hougang SMC which has proven to be inadequate for a GRC town.

Direct management means newly elected MPs will have to start from scratch to recruit and train staff to be familiar with HDB estate management to start taking over management of the town within 90 days as required under the Town Councils Act and, at the same time, to look for accounting software to transfer the account into the new system and pray that the system will work.

If you're not able to do all these at the same time, you'll be labelled as incompetent.

Hence, under our current system, it seems to me that any opposition party which aspires to be elected in a GRC will have to build a town management team to train hundred staff officers first, then taking the advice of the Minister for National Development start shopping for an off-the-shelf accounting software.

If an opposition party aspires to be the next government, perhaps it may need to build an army of civil servants first. This is a strange political situation for any functioning democracy to be in.

The Workers' Party was fortunate to have a managing agent at least with the experience in managing the town of Hougang SMC and who was prepared to take the challenge of managing a much larger town to enable us to take over the management of the Aljunied GRC town without major disruption to the services affecting the lives of thousands of residents. We did also have a financial accounting system in place, although it fell short of features and functions that managing a larger town requires.

I think this is not the way forward for the good of the nation.

If we consider residents' interests as most important, then the Government must also protect residents' interests in the transition of town management from one party to another party.

We are for transparency and accountability, we are not shy to support the motion that is critical of us. We are fully aware that if we overlook certain matters, the PAP Government would be the first to take us to account. We are not bothered by that as this is what a First World Parliament should be - keep whoever is in charge on their toes to do the job properly and be accountable to the people.

AGO has taken a year to check the accounts of AHPETC for the FY2012/2013 and found lapses in several areas. It has not found the town council to be engaged in corrupt practices nor that any money has been lost or misappropriated after thousands of transactions were examined. We should put this episode in the proper perspective.

We support the motion to strengthen the legislative framework for town councils. As we relook the legislative framework, we need to look at the depoliticisation of the transitioning process and the professionalising of town management, so the incoming town councils can work to achieve good management and not be left stranded. Newly elected MPs should not be tested on whether they can build up a town management system from scratch putting residents' interests at risk in the process.