Workers' Party leaders' reputation, integrity in question over town council: Minister of State Desmond Lee

This is the third time in four weeks that Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee has taken the WP to task on its town councils' lack of transparency. -- ST PHOTO: TED CHEN
This is the third time in four weeks that Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee has taken the WP to task on its town councils' lack of transparency. -- ST PHOTO: TED CHEN

SINGAPORE - The failure by the Workers' Party (WP) to give answers and respond adequately to questions on the financial well-being of its town council calls into question its leaders' reputation and integrity, Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee said yesterday.

It also demonstrates a lack of transparency and a failure to be accountable, Mr Lee added. His comments come a day after WP chairman Sylvia Lim issued a statement giving reasons for AHPETC's delay in submitting reports on its service and conservancy charge (S&CC) arrears.

Mr Lee also pointed out that instead of answering important questions on their town council, WP's leaders resorted to blaming others - including the Ministry of National Development (MND), Auditor-General's Office (AGO), People's Action Party (PAP) and the media - for their predicament.

"This series of excuses calls into question not only AHPETC's local competence, but also the WP leaders' integrity and national reputation," he said.

AHPETC is short for Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council, run by the WP. This is the third time in four weeks that Mr Lee has taken the WP to task on this issue.

In her statement, Ms Lim said the town council had explained to MND its problems in producing the arrears reports in the required format. She also said the ministry rejected its offer to submit the data "as it was".

Responding, Mr Lee said the template of the monthly arrears report - a table showing how many households owe S&CC and for how long - is not new. It has been used by all town councils, including the former Hougang Town Council since 2008, when it was managed by the WP and under the same general manager who now oversees AHPETC, he noted.

The arrears report format was also used by AHPETC till April last year, when it stopped after a "shocking arrears rate appeared". Aside from the non-submission of information to the MND, AHPETC also did not send audited accounts to Parliament on time for three years in a row - since the WP took over in 2011.

"What is important is AHPETC's lack of transparency and Ms Lim's and her fellow MPs' failure to be accountable. They have yet to explain why their arrears are so high or disclose what their latest arrears rate is."

Ms Lim had acknowledged that the high arrears rate - 30 per cent among residents and 50 per cent among commercial tenants - was a matter of concern, he said. And in previous responses, she said she would look into the problem.

"But her actions have not matched her words. When pressed for answers, she repeatedly says she will answer in "due course"," he said.

He said Ms Lim must have the information as AHPETC sends lawyers' letters to those in arrears.

Mr Lee said running a town council is the responsibility of the WP's MPs. But instead of answering questions, they blame others.

Ms Lim said AHPETC's finance team and software developers were involved in two audits in a row: that of its own auditors in mid-2013 and the AGO in March this year. These "led to a deferment of reporting requests".

Mr Lee said in giving this reason for AHPETC's tardiness, Ms Lim was saying "it was the AGO's or their own Auditors' fault because they (the finance team and software developers) were busy having to entertain them".

He said AHPETC was audited by the same auditor, Foo Kon Tan Grant Thornton, in 2012. And that did not prevent the town council from sending its monthly S&CC arrears report until April 2013.

As for the media, Ms Lim said its reports may have given "a mistaken impression" of things, as she had never said focusing on the AGO's audit was the sole cause of AHPETC's submission delay.

Mr Lee noted the excuse was given three times - separately by WP chief Low Thia Khiang, AHPETC's vice-chairman Png Eng Huat and Ms Lim herself.

He also said AHPETC told HDB earlier this month that it could not produce the arrears report for HDB because its financial system was terminated by PAP-owned company, Action Information Management, to whom the former Aljunied Town Council had sold the system. This reason was given in a reply to HDB by AHPETC general manager How Weng Fan on Dec 3, one week before Ms Lim's statement on Wednesday.

But, Mr Lee noted: "AHPETC had been able to continue submitting its monthly S&CC arrears reports for 19 months after it had stopped using the AIM Town Council Management System."

Hougang Town Council also could do it from April 2008 until it merged with Aljunied, without the aid of AIM, he added.

Mr Lee concluded: "Ms Sylvia Lim in her statement yesterday put the responsibility on the Government and the AGO to establish AHPETC's true state of affairs.

"This is a remarkable proposition: The elected MPs of Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East, who pride themselves on checking the Government, are now relying on the Government to check them, instead of taking responsibility themselves for accounting to the public what they have done or have not done."