Residents care most about town councils' estate maintenance

Most of those polled not concerned about politics of running a council

WHILE politicians debating in Parliament on Monday focused mainly on the link between town council management and electoral fortunes, ordinary Singaporeans said they knew and cared little about the politics of town councils.

What was important to them were swept corridors, working lifts and clean void decks.

The 50 Housing Board residents polled yesterday said unanimously that estate maintenance was their top concern when it comes to town councils.

Most had little knowledge of how exactly their town councils were run, how their money was managed, and which companies were being awarded town council contracts. Yet, only six residents said they wanted more transparency about how councils are run, arguing that it is important to know how public money is spent.

The others, like Aljunied resident Angelia Liu, 57, an executive, zeroed in on the outcomes.

"As long as the council does its job, I don't care whether it's doing business with a company linked to a political party. We expect the town council to upkeep the estate and maintain cleanliness," she said.

Few, whether in People's Action Party (PAP) or opposition wards, had complaints about the performance of their own town councils. Those in Aljunied GRC and Punggol East, which were recently taken over by the Workers' Party, said they did not notice any difference in how their estates were run.

There were also no complaints about service and conservancy charges as hikes have tended to be small. Mr Vincent Ang, 67, a senior logistics executive living in a three-room flat in Queenstown, said he does not bother to query his council on how it spends fees as he is satisfied with its service. "I find the amount I pay is quite worth the services it provides."

The results serve to reinforce the importance of MPs ensuring the estates under their care are managed carefully, even as they contend with the political pressures of running a town council.

Those familiar with the running of town councils yesterday spoke about the impact of political aspects on maintenance.

Corporate governance expert Mak Yuen Teen said the present town council model means "political considerations interfere with proper management of the town councils, leading to rules not being enforced or not collecting service and conservancy charges to score political points, and this is not sustainable".

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharuddin, who used to be general manager of Tanjong Pagar Town Council, said the competitive political landscape has increased pressure. "When the PAP is dominant, you can make a long-term decision and raise charges. People live with it. Now with a stronger opposition, people will want short-term (benefits)."

This could lead some politicians to be less concerned with ensuring the town council's longterm financial sustainability, a policy that causes problems when major cyclical works are due.

Residents in Potong Pasir, for instance, said they have noticed a change in the town under MP Sitoh Yih Pin. Customer service officer Sam Pang, 29, who has lived there for 16 years, said there has been a flurry of refurbishments: "It used to be slightly dull, and some of the street lights were out of order. After the elections, (the estate) became brighter."

Mr Sitoh, who won the long-time opposition seat in 2011, said he had to raise "hundreds of thousands of dollars" from personal contacts to fund small estate improvement projects such as revamping of community gardens and covering open drains.

"We have had to be mindful of the town council's funding constraints," he said.

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