From The Gallery

Town councils set to be major election issue

Ms Sylvia Lim (above) rose twice to clarify that its auditors said AHPETC's latest set of accounts, except for certain specific issues, had complied with the Town Council Act.
Ms Sylvia Lim (above) rose twice to clarify that its auditors said AHPETC's latest set of accounts, except for certain specific issues, had complied with the Town Council Act.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam (far left) said in Parliament that the "whole house of AHPETC's finances is unsafe". Ms Sylvia Lim (left) rose twice to clarify that its auditors said AHPETC's latest set of accounts, except for certain specific issues, had
Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam (above) said in Parliament that the "whole house of AHPETC's finances is unsafe". ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Battle for hearts and minds as 2 ministers cross swords with 2 WP MPs over finances

His tone was measured but his words sharp as Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam took the Workers' Party (WP) to task yesterday for the state of its town council's accounts, saying "the whole house of AHPETC's finances is unsafe".

With election season in full swing and yesterday's sitting likely to be this Parliament's last before the coming polls, Mr Tharman came well prepared to hammer home the opposition party's financial failings.

Opposition members came prepared too.

WP chairman and Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim was quick to counter Mr Tharman's criticisms while her party colleague, Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang), took aim at a government weak spot - namely, lapses in financial compliance by the People's Association (PA) and its grassroots organisations.

Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam also chimed in with an Adjournment Motion in which she said that the fundamental issue was "the lack of accountability by respective ministries in exercising supervision over how taxpayer monies have been used and misused".

But the real battle for hearts and minds is between the Government and the WP and yesterday's parliamentary exchange between two ministers and two WP MPs during question time served only to confirm that the People's Action Party (PAP) plans to put town council management front and centre in the coming election campaign.

Perhaps aware that the public has found it hard to follow convoluted government statements on financial accounts, Mr Tharman - the cerebral Finance Minister - yesterday sought to boil it down to this: When it comes to finances, the government house is safe. The Auditor-General's Office (AGO) gave an unmodified audit opinion on its financial statements.

That means the accounts of all government departments are reliable and public funds are properly accounted for.

Some repairs, however, are needed in specific areas due to lapses in compliance. These include lapses by certain agencies regarding administration of grants and management of procurement contracts, among others.

By contrast, the finances of the opposition-run town council are in such a state that neither its own auditor nor the AGO could certify the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council's (AHPETC) house as structurally sound, Mr Tharman said.

"This is not just a matter of poor accounting procedures. It arose because there are so many weaknesses and omissions in the AHPETC accounts that its own auditors and the AGO were not able to determine if monies in the accounts have been safeguarded or how they have been used. That is the heart of the matter - it's the entire system of accounts. There's no remotely similar problem in government," he said.

Ms Lim, who is also AHPETC's chairman, rose twice to clarify that in the latest set of accounts submitted by the town council, its auditors' opinion was that except for certain specific issues, it had complied with the Town Council Act. As for the sums AHPETC has yet to transfer to its sinking fund, which Mr Tharman also highlighted, Ms Lim said: "I think it's public knowledge that the town council has still not received its operating S&CC (service and conservancy charges) grants for FY14 and FY15 (from the Ministry of National Development). So, is DPM not aware of that as well?"

The Government, on its part, was eager to set the record straight on the PA's accounts and those of its grassroots organisations, including lapses related to seven claims by the chairman of one Citizens Consultative Committee (CCC) totalling $114,767.

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, who is deputy chairman of the PA, made clear that the CCC chairman in question had stepped down to take responsibility for the lapses, which involved submitting claims without supporting documents.

He also addressed the lapses over 13 tenancy contracts cited by the AGO. "We have taken swift and decisive action to put things right immediately. When things go wrong, we do not shy away from taking responsibility and tough action to put things in order," Mr Lim told the House.

This is a line that PAP ministers are likely to draw between themselves and the WP as election season heats up.

As for Mrs Chiam's charge that financial lapses by grassroots organisations compromised residents' interests, Mr Lim issued a strong comeback in defence of grassroots leaders who have become an easy target for government critics, including those online.

He cited an example of grassroots leaders who sprang to the aid of a hospital in need of air purifiers during a bad episode of the haze.

Air purifiers were in short supply then and when they finally found a small store that had some, they bought them without calling for competitive bids. Yes, that was in breach of financial rules but it certainly did not compromise residents' interests, Mr Lim said.

Indeed, many of the grassroots organisations that breached financial rules were "doing their best to meet the interests of residents and the urgent needs of the community", he added.

Yesterday's sitting has set the stage for the coming campaign. Next up for Parliament? Most likely dissolution, at a time to be decided by the Prime Minister.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2015, with the headline 'Town councils set to be major election issue'. Print Edition | Subscribe