Workers' Party 'needs to clear air over AGO's report'

Observers seek answers; some will wait and see, and hear WP out

The reputation of the Workers' Party (WP) in managing a town council has been dealt a blow by the Auditor-General's report this week, but it remains to be seen if its political fortunes will be affected, observers and residents said.

They added that the ball is now in the WP's court to account for and explain in Parliament the lapses that the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) found in its audit of the financial statements of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) for financial year 2012/13.

The House will debate the report when it sits tomorrow.

Observers interviewed yesterday said the AGO's report, which found five major areas of governance and compliance lapses, had serious consequences for the town council.

National University of Singapore real estate associate professor Lim Lan Yuan noted that a lapse in managing arrears of service and conservancy charges "affects the financial capability of the town council in the long run".

"I would say if these lapses occurred in a town council run by a PAP MP, this MP is likely to go, and never be forgiven," he said.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin said the reasons AHPETC had given for its lapses, like its limited resources - the town council is the biggest ever run by an opposition party - and its inexperience, are unconvincing.

He said: "It shouldn't be that if you're from a smaller party, your standards are lower. If someone votes for the opposition, it's because he thinks they can do a better job. You can't join politics and say that you're inexperienced."

But some observers noted that the AGO's discovery of AHPETC's lapses is not the same as a discovery of loss of public money or criminal wrongdoing.

This could be why several voters interviewed said they are adopting a wait-and-see approach.

Aljunied GRC resident Rachel Singaram, 46, a teacher, said that while the lapses are "a big deal, if there's a proper explanation, I might still vote for them".

Fellow GRC resident K.G. Sin, 72 and a retiree, felt the town council needed time to gain experience, adding: "There might be some mismanagement, but it's not cheating."

But long-time Hougang resident Ramlee Ahmat, 62, a retiree, disagreed: "We are paying all this money in service and conservancy charges and it's not being managed in a way that it should be.

"If the AGO didn't do this audit and it didn't appear in the press, we as residents wouldn't even know. I don't agree this is not a big issue just because there is no money missing.

"If you give them a chance, you are condoning it and it can get out of control. This is public money you are talking about."

Mr Zulkifli noted that even if AHPETC had not run afoul of the law, "then it is up to the residents to decide if the WP is doing a good job for the wards as a whole, not just in areas like cleanliness".

Parliament is expected to discuss the oversight powers the Government has over town councils.

Mr Sidney Lim of business consulting and internal audit firm Protiviti said the episode shows the need for a thorough framework governing town councils.

But Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan, a former NMP, cautioned against either the WP or the People's Action Party over-politicising the report.

"As much as the focus (at tomorrow's parliamentary sitting) is going to be on the WP, it will also be on MND (Ministry of National Development) and the actions it will take," he said. "If it looks like either the WP or the ruling party is trying to extract political mileage from this, it could backfire."

rachelay@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Rachel Chang