Why It Matters

Raising bar for town councils

After a review that began four years ago, the Government looks set to get greater power and control over town councils.

Three days ago, Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee introduced a Bill in Parliament that will require them to adhere to higher standards of transparency and governance.

If passed, the Town Councils (Amendment) Bill will strengthen the Government's hand to act and bring to heel those that flout the rules.

It will also require town councils to be more transparent and accountable to their residents.

They will have to submit audited financial reports within six months of the end of the financial year and keep a registry of disclosures on conflicts of interest involving staff, among other things. Those that fail to comply will be fined up to $5,000.

Also, a code of governance that sets out the standards town councils need to adhere to will be drafted later this year.

Currently, the ministry has no power to compel town councils to give information on their finances, and there are no penalties for refusing to do so. But under the amendments, the ministry can appoint inspectors to investigate town councils that flout the rules, and issue an order to specify remedial action, among other things. And if key decision makers are found liable, they, too, can face fines, jail, or both.

Some may view the changes as taking unfair aim at the Workers' Party-run Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, which had a long row with the authorities over lapses in its financial accounts.

But the new rules will also affect the other 15 town councils run by the People's Action Party.

As town councils manage large sums of public money, including millions of dollars in annual government grants, the proposed changes will help residents hold to account their MPs and those the MPs appoint to run the town councils. This will drive home to MPs one of the main aims for setting up town councils in 1989 - and that is to make them more responsible and accountable to residents.

The outcome can only benefit residents.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'Raising bar for town councils'. Print Edition | Subscribe