Vivian Balakrishnan, Politics

Hawker centre cleaning controversy: Low urged to set things right in council

Minister says WP chief held off on defending his MPs, calls on him to act

After the parliamentary exchange on hawker centre cleaning between the Government and the Workers' Party yesterday, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan flagged what he saw as a half-hearted defence by WP chief Low Thia Khiang of his party comrades Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh.

During the exchange, the Minister for Environment and Water Resources had accused Ms Lim and Mr Singh of "false and untruthful" public statements to cover up mistakes by the WP-run town council in Aljunied GRC.

The minister said on his Facebook page, after the session: "Interestingly, (Mr Low) did not strongly defend the town council's actions, or Ms Lim and Mr Singh's public denials."

He added that "Mr Pritam Singh sat conspicuously silent throughout the proceedings".

Mr Low and Mr Singh did not respond to queries by press time.

The Facebook posting rounded off a day in which Dr Balakrishnan went on the offensive, accusing a property manager from the WP town council, Mr Tai Vie Shun, of attempting to impose cleaning costs on hawkers, when these should be paid by town councils.

He then said public denials from Ms Lim and Mr Singh that Mr Tai had done so were false and were contradicted by a dossier of evidence he provided to MPs.

Ms Lim, who is chairman of both the party and the town council, led her party's defence.

She argued that there was no incentive for the WP town council to get hawkers to pay for the cleaning of high areas, since conservancy contracts of town councils contained a clause "requiring our conservancy contractors to conduct cleaning of high areas".

She said the misunderstanding arose from a misleading e-mail sent to the town council by the National Environment Agency on Feb 7, and from general confusion over whether discussions were about annual or quarterly cleanings, since high areas did not have to be cleaned under the latter.

Dr Balakrishnan also brought up a quotation for $7,200 sent by the town council's contractor to hawkers at Block 538 Bedok North Street 3.

He said that as the hawkers never asked for a quotation, this was yet another piece of evidence showing that the town council was shirking responsibilities.

Ms Lim said the contractor that issued the quotation was a commercial company, and that "nowhere is the town council implicated in this quotation".

Mr Low, who is WP secretary-general, stood up once to speak. He said the whole episode was a misunderstanding on whether discussions were referring to annual or quarterly cleaning.

He also backed the town council up on the quotation from the cleaning contractor, saying that somebody must have asked for the quotation: "I am very certain the quotation has nothing to do with the cost of the cleaning of the high areas of the market."

However, Mr Low admitted he had not spoken to Mr Tai.

He also did not issue an explicit denial - which Ms Lim did - that Mr Tai had attempted to impose extra charges.

As the exchange drew to a close, Dr Balakrishnan turned to Mr Low, called on him to investigate the issue and said there were no issues when Mr Low was heading the Hougang Town Council.

Noting that he had known Mr Low "as an honourable man for 12 years", he added: "We had no problems working with you. But now, I don't know whether it's lack of supervision or people somewhere in your organisation... someone is trying to cover up."