Town councils are neutral training grounds for political parties to show whether they have what it takes to run an estate and, by extension, the government, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said yesterday.
By managing a town council well, a party can build up its credentials. But the reverse is also true, he said, and it is up to a party to prove itself.
"The town council is meant to be neutral. If you win, you take over the town council; do a good job, you build on your credentials," said Mr Goh, who was deputy prime minister when Parliament passed the Town Councils Act in 1988.
"If you run it well, you can prove yourself and expand, and people will give you more town councils to run. But if you don't do a good job, people will not want you to run their town councils."
Speaking to the media after a walkabout in Braddell Heights in Marine Parade GRC, where he is contesting, he explained why the People's Action Party (PAP) government started the town council system in 1988.
The Town Councils Act gives MPs direct control over their town council and makes them directly accountable to their constituents.
"If I take over - which I did - in Marine Parade Town Council, we did a good job, people say, 'You have done the job very well, we'll elect you'. If you do a lousy job, you are out," he said.
The town council issue - the Workers' Party-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) in particular - has been the dominant issue of the hustings so far.
Politicians from the ruling PAP have raised questions about lapses in AHPETC, while the opposition party's leaders have defended their actions and their position.
Mr Goh was asked about the town council issue, and whether it would affect the Workers' Party's prospects in its contest for Marine Parade.
He said he thought that it had taken the shine off the WP's appeal to residents.
Mr Goh also said voters should look beyond the immediate excitement of the hustings and recognise what the Sept 11 elections are all about. The underlying point is that the stability of Singapore in the longer term is at stake.
Explaining his focus on the longer term, Mr Goh said that he learnt from the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who always considered what Singapore would be like 50 years ahead.
"I'm not concerned with this coming election. I think we'll do all right," he said, though he was quick to add that the PAP must still fight for every vote and can take nothing for granted.
Mr Goh said his concern was for the next two elections.
"I'm concerned at our longer-term stability beginning with this election because I look at the region," he said, pointing out that Singapore is small and surrounded by larger neighbours whose political future is uncertain.
"I do not want for Singapore to be classified as a politically unstable country five years, 10 years down the road. We are too small."
As such, he urged voters to consider this: "After Polling Day, what kind of Singapore will we have?
"(Do) we want to have a very exciting Singapore, which means that politically, it's not so stable, or you want life to resume like before the elections - you go to work, we take our MRT, we make a living and settle into orderly Singapore?
"It's not in the PAP's hands. It's in the people's hands. You have to decide how to have a stable Singapore - five, 10, 50 years down the road - for yourself."