Give town councils back to the HDB?

One thing that is clear from the proposed amendments to the Town Councils Act is that town councils are here to stay. But there is an alternative way in which they can be run properly.

And that is to get the Housing Board to manage them again, say experts - a reverse of the current model which started in 1989.

Then, town councils were formed to give MPs autonomy and latitude to govern their estates, and the proposed amendments to the law do not change this.

Corporate governance expert Mak Yuen Teen prefers reverting to the old system for several reasons.

The current model has MPs as town councillors responsible for town councils that are overseen by the Ministry of National Development (MND). But the MND is also accountable to the same people, who are ministers or MPs.

 

Associate Professor Mak says: "I think this creates, at least, perception issues... that the system might be unfair or lenient to town councils because the PAP dominates the Government."

He adds that if town councils are "depoliticised", they can be run by the HDB or a committee of government-appointed professionals with expertise to oversee the estate, similar to a condominium's MCST (Management Corporation Strata Title).

With such a move, MPs could "devote their time to national issues", he says, pointing out that now many MPs, saddled with many duties, end up delegating key functions to their general managers.

But the Government has consistently ruled this out. Then National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in 2013 that Singapore should not revert to such a system "where HDB administers estates all over Singapore". In such a situation, "MPs have no authority or responsibility over what is done or how well things work", he said.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin says it is important for MPs to bear the ultimate responsibility of running estates. "This is political accountability - you choose the local leadership and they must be able to run the estate," he says.

National University of Singapore real estate professor Yu Shi Ming notes that when the councils were set up, there were three main objectives. The first was for MPs to take charge of governing their estates so they could be directly accountable to their constituents for their decisions. The second was to encourage residents to have a say in their estate's matters. This, in turn, would allow each town to develop its own identity - the third objective.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline 'Give town councils back to the HDB?'. Print Edition | Subscribe