PARLIAMENT

WP 'backs move to boost oversight of town councils'

The Workers' Party (WP) supports the Government's move to strengthen oversight of town councils, its chief Low Thia Khiang said in Parliament yesterday.

The party, he added, also takes seriously the Auditor-General's report released earlier this week.

It showed major lapses in governance and compliance with financial rules by the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC).

Mr Low's words of support follow National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan's announcement in Parliament that the Town Councils Act is to be amended to address weaknesses.

In his first response since the report's release, the opposition politician also urged the Government to look into the "depoliticisation of the transition process", when town councils change hands, to protect residents' interests.

He said AHPETC's problems stemmed from difficulties it faced in attracting managing agents after the WP won Aljunied GRC in May 2011.

"It would seem that managing agents serving PAP (People's Action Party) 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," he said.

To illustrate his point, he said that although three companies collected documents in a public tender in 2012, only one made a bid.

In another tender last year, only one company - the largest managing agent of PAP town councils - collected the documents. No one submitted a bid.

"It looks like the only option for any opposition party to take over the town council will be direct management," he said.

Another hurdle was the abrupt termination of services by contractors of Aljunied GRC after the WP win, Mr Low said.

The WP had to scale up the system at single-seat Hougang for a GRC many times its size, and it had to do so within the 90-day transition period, he said.

Then, with his characteristic dry humour, he added: "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 a hundred staff officers first, (then) 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."

Pointing to the report, he said the Auditor-General did not find AHPETC to be engaged in any corrupt practices, or that any money was lost. He said the party has taken concrete steps to address and remedy the issues raised.

The episode should also be put into the proper perspective, he said, pointing out that AHPETC's performance in the annual town council grading exercise was "comparable to other town councils" in all aspects except in two areas: Management of arrears in service and conservancy charges, and corporate governance.

What the WP will do in future, "if such a privilege should happen", is appoint a consultant to look at internal controls in compliance with the Town Councils Act, while the MPs focus on taking over the town council to prevent disruption to major services, he said.

Mr Low and the WP MPs who spoke yesterday made it a point to thank voters for their support.

He also said the WP welcomes the PAP's scrutiny of its town council as this is what happens in a "First World Parliament", a reference to his party's campaign slogan in the 2011 General Election.

waltsim@sph.com.sg