WP has betrayed the trust of residents of Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East, says Heng

Parliament on Friday unanimously adopted a motion endorsing the Auditor-General's findings of lapses at the Workers' Party-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC). During the parliamentary debate on the motion on Friday,  Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said the motion boils down to one word: Trust. We reproduce the full text of his speech in Parliament below.

Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat speaking in parliament on Friday, Feb 2, 2015. -- PHOTO: TV SCREENGRAB
Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat speaking in parliament on Friday, Feb 2, 2015. -- PHOTO: TV SCREENGRAB

Madam Speaker, I rise to speak because I'm concerned about the well-being and interests of the residents of Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East. I'm concerned about their lives and their homes.

They have beenshort-changed by their MPs, and they have been kept in the dark.

I am concerned about the well-being and interests of all Singaporeans. Elected MPs are expected to be clean, honest and to act with integrity.

This Motion boils down to one word: Trust.

- The people's trust that MPs will keep their promises with integrity.

- The people's trust that we will always take seriously our full responsibility to serve our people, and to serve their best interests.

So I am sad to observe that the elected Town Councillors of AHPETC have betrayed the people's trust. They betrayed the people's trust in three ways:

- One, they betrayed the people's trust by failing to act in the best interests of the residents.

- Two, they betrayed the people's with a consistent pattern of evasive behaviour.

- Third, they betrayed the people's trust by promising one thing and doing another.

The WP Cannot Be Trusted

First, the WP have betrayed the trust of residents of Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East.

Residents cannot trust the WP on several counts.

For a start, residents cannot trust the WP to get them a good deal - in fact, the WP has gotten them a raw deal.

a. Their managing agents FMSS and FMSI charged the highest rate in Singapore for their services. Compared to the MA fees paid by other town councils, residents paid more than $2 more per unit. One year, $1.6 million, and this went on for 4 years!

-Till now, after all the debate in the House, the public doesn't know, none of us knows, the reasons why FMSS and FMSI's rates are higher than everywhere else.

Residents cannot trust the elected town councillors not to sacrifice their long-term needs.

- In fact, these long-term interests are being sacrificed.

- $12 million were missing from their Sinking Fund. $12 million missing.

- It was only after the AGO pointed this out that this was put back. And even so, one year after the financial year has ended, they still owe a substantial sum to the sinking fund.

- If not for the Auditor-General, the elected Town Councillors would have kept the residents of Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East in the dark. Nothing is transparent.

- This is a very serious matter. It is wrong for the Town Councillors to argue that as long as money was put back, nothing was wrong in the first instance. The fact is they put the money back only because they were caught.

- Why did this happen? Either the MA is totally incompetent or they deliberately decided not to fill the Sinking Fund, to show a better financial picture and have a large operating account to pay for expenses, the largest item being their MA fees.

- This happened because the TC was running into cash flow problems, from their profligate management, and they put off paying into the sinking fund so that they may have money to pay.

- Clearly, that is compromising the long term interests of residents, to enrich their friends.

- They did not forget to pay MA fees every month. They did not forget to collect S&CC from the honest, hard-working residents every month. But they forgot to pay large sums that were supposed to go into the sinking fund, and repeatedly. Was it because the Finance and Investment Committee chaired by Mr Chen Show Mao was not doing its work? Or was it another personal lapse by the Chairman? No explanation has been forthcoming.

- This is serious - Sinking Funds are for long-term cyclical maintenance. We need to replace lifts for residents' safety, do major repairs like re-wiring and re-roofing, repaint blocks. The safety and well-being of residents and their homes are at stake.

- Down the line, residents may find that their Sinking Fund is all depleted, with nothing left to maintain their town safety and their well-being. When this happens, who suffers? Not the Town Council, not the MA. Who suffers are the residents. Worst of all, they won't know where the money has all gone.

- This is a serious matter. In fact, the Town Council Act lists only three offences, and the use of Sinking Funds for operating expenses is one of them. It is precisely to guard against Managing Agents and Town Councils acting to meet short-term interests.

- And sadly, this is precisely what we are seeing - short-term, opportunistic behaviour.

Residents cannot trust the elected Town Councillors to account honestly for where their money is.

- The town council cannot even keep basic accounts properly. You saw in the AGO report - inaccurate arrears, lapses in internal controls, poor records, late accounts, missing documents.

- These are not technical issues - these raise fundamental questions whether the accounts can be trusted.

- All of this money comes from the people in one way or another - Whether it is S&CC that residents pay; or the Sinking Fund that was built up over the years, from money paid by residents too, or the government grants that MND provides out of taxpayers' money.

We can't even trust the books, we are in the dark on the true state of affairs. If we are not vigilant, can we be sure that down the road, somebody may not be cooking the books? Why did a surplus of $3.3m in the operations become a deficit of $730,000 in just two years? Mr Pritam Singh attributed everything to lift upgrading. We must naturally ask - Where did the money go? We have asked, but we haven't had a good answer. Though it may not be obvious on the surface, beneath the surface, the Town Council is rotting. And the rot is serious.

The WP Have a Pattern of Betraying the People's Trust

I'm also very concerned about the second way in which the WP has betrayed the people's trust. The pattern of behaviour. A consistent pattern of denial, deflection and protection of their managing agent, which suggests a serious rot is happening.

Clearly, the Managing Agent FMSS has failed. The elected members of the Town Council should be held responsible. They appointed the MA. They are responsible for supervising the MA, for setting up a proper structure. You can outsource work, you cannot outsource responsibility. The responsibility lies squarely with the MPs on the council.

Why did the elected town councillors allow such a deeply flawed structure to be set up in the very first place? We have not heard any good answer.

Yesterday, Ms Lim said an ACRA record of ownership of the FMSS was tabled. Was it discussed at any Town Council meeting? Was it debated? I think she has not given us the full truth.

Defending FMSS all the way

The elected town councillors, instead of disciplining their MA and taking corrective action, defended them strongly. In 2013, they said, in Parliament, "FMSS was engaged based on its directors' experience in property management, professional skills and track record in running Hougang Town Council."

What we have heard in this House so far, is that they're inexperienced, and these mistakes happened because people resigned.

But Ms Sylvia Lim told us in this House that they are professional and experienced! So who is telling us the accurate version? And you are talking about experience. How much experience do you need to know that you cannot be handing money to your supporters, at the expense of overcharging your residents? How much experience do you need to truthfully disclose information to your auditors - including your own auditors? In fact, the AGO audit would not have been necessary if you had been honest and forthright in disclosing information to your own auditors. Where is the transparency that Mr Pritam Singh has been advocating so strongly?

The elected town councillors have acted in the best interests of their friends, the well-paid managing agent. They have neglected the interests of the residents of Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East. Can residents trust that you are acting in their interests? Why are they so protective of their expensive managing agent that messed up the town council's work? Because they are their party supporters and friends?

Yesterday, in this House, Ms Sylvia Lim rejected the suggestion that the arrangement with FMSS was to benefit their friends. So may I ask: are they your friends, or least were they? Yes? Did they benefit? Yes, richly so. The structure that the WP set up allowed this to happen - you awarded the contracts at these exorbitant rates and allowed them to get away with it. What other conclusions can be drawn?

On the other side, we know that AHPETC's financial position, even based on your own figures, which may not be the most reliable, has deteriorated sharply. The finances are now in the red. From a surplus of $3.3m in the operations, it has become a deficit of $730,000 in just two years? It is astounding. Two short years!

The WP asserted that no money was lost. What is astounding is how they even twisted the comments of the AGO to justify their case. Mr Hri Kumar has dealt with this earlier on, but Mr Pritam Singh continued to repeat this. I urge you to read the auditor's report carefully.

At the very least, I think you would agree with me that it is not honest to twist the AGO's comments deliberately in this self-serving way?

All the WP MPs have said that they would take collective responsibility. They have said that they will support this motion. I hope the support is in substance, not just form. If they support this motion in substance, one would have expected:

- That they will conduct a forensic audit;

- That they will take legal action against the managing agent FMSS;

- That they will file accounts immediately, on time, as required by the law, and any administrative action;

- That they will put in the checks and balances where there is a severe conflict of interest.

And the residents deserve to know what had happened. Are you prepared to come clean, and explain, and answer all the questions that have been raised in this House? How exactly will you safeguard the interests of residents?

The third way that the WP had betrayed the trust of our people is they promise one thing, and do another, quite the opposite. They said something in one forum, and in another forum, they said something else.

The WP's platform in the last GE was First World Parliament. And I quote, where the opposition will "function as a robust check and balance against the Government."

- Now over the last two days, we have seen clearly how they have created a system where there is no check, no balance. You can't even check yourselves! Or you are not willing to check yourself.

- They have been entrusted with running a Town Council. Where is the First World Town Council that they should be delivering? Instead, we have a town council which cannot account where the resources go to.

In fact, the real check in this instance came from the govt, the AGO. You have a pattern of behaviour where you did not answer to your own auditors. As a result of which, the AGO had gone in. If not for the AGO, we would not have discovered, Singaporeans would not have discovered, this mess that the elected town councillors had created.

The WP also spoke vigorously about accountability - but surely you would agree that the most basic aspect of accountability is to be able to keep proper accounts of the money that have been entrusted to you. I can understand if you are keeping accounts for the first time, but you are not - you have told residents of your experience in running Hougang Town Council. So till today, we do not know the true state of the accounts of AHPETC.

The WP said one thing and did another. Have they been consistent with their statements?

- Mr Low started the debate yesterday by saying that they would be accountable, then immediately Ms Sylvia Lim tried to explain away all their failings.

- Mr Low said that he would account in Parliament, and indeed Ms Lim told the press earlier that WP will explain in Parliament, but Mr Singh says in the Chamber yesterday that he will only answer to his residents door to door.

- In fact, Pritam Singh spoke about transparency - and the WP will press the government for as much information as possible. But they do not even provide information to their own auditors. What the House witnessed yesterday is unbelievable - Mr Pritam Singh who had said "We will constantly press the government for more information especially since it is so selective with the information it releases". When asked pertinent questions on transparency and accountability by Mr Shanmugam, Mr Pritam Singh said he would not give a reply in Parliament - the first world parliament which he claims he wants to build, and which Mr Low Thia Khiang said he would account to? He refuses to answer to parliament? So why is Mr Singh so selective about where he answers his questions?

- One of my colleagues bumped into Mr Yee Jenn Jong a month ago. When he asked him about the TC, he evaded the question, and gave a non-answer: answer will be given at the right time and the right place. And when pressed that he was a WP CEC member and should have asked the Party Chairman to know what was going on, he said this is, I quote, "a matter for the elected Members".

- Just last evening, Mr Yee Jenn Jong and a group of his WP supporters dressed in blue were asked by a resident last night about what was going on in the AHPETC. But he didn't answer and walked away quickly. So is this the answer Mr Singh promised the residents? A WP CEC member and his activists met residents, and evaded the question?

- So won't answer auditors. Won't answer Parliament. Won't answer residents. Who is left in Singapore that the WP think is worthy of an answer?

Sadly, we saw in this House yesterday how this pattern of behaviour - of saying whatever suits them for the moment, among the WP MPs.

Mr Low Thia Kiang claimed that it was difficult for the opposition to run TCs, or get qualified people to run TCs. And they have to start from scratch. But the PAP TCs also started from scratch when they were first formed! The PAP MP Town Councillors had no experience in municipal administration. But they had plenty of integrity and sense of responsibility. Mr Low said that we must therefore de-politicise the transitioning process. Newly elected MPs should not be tested - meaning to say, they should simply be elected to oppose the government in a First World Parliament, and not have to show that they can actually govern.

This is the precise opposite of the philosophy of the TC scheme. Indeed it is the opposite of what Mr Low Thia Kiang used to maintain, running Hougang TC for 20 long years until the WP team messed up in AHPETC: that contrary to what the PAP thinks and claims, there is nothing to running TCs, and the opposition run them as well as any PAP TC and therefore people should vote for them. Mr Low calls for TC issue to be depoliticised, but he is politicking. How can he be disclaiming responsibility to govern locally while asserting the right to challenge the government nationally?

What is even more disturbing is what the WP MPs have been promising residents. Let me just quote 3 examples:

The Workers' Party has over 20 years of experience in managing town councils well. And not just small town councils, but a huge GRC town council in Aljunied. We know the ins and outs of running a constituency. Even when obstacles were thrown in our path to trip us up, we have still managed to ensure residents' needs are well taken care of." This was by Mr Gerald Giam when he spoke to residents at a rally on 23 Jan 2013.

Earlier on, we heard Mr Png Eng Huat spell out all the difficulties. But your fellow Party member said "we know the ins and outs of running a constituency. Even when obstacles are thrown in our path to trip us up, we managed". But why are you attributing to all the problems that you have to staff resigning, challenges in IT systems and so on. I don't understand. Let me move on to the second quote.

If WP wins Punggol East, I am confident that we will manage the Town Council competently. WP has had more than 20 years of experience managing Hougang SMC. After GE 2011, we quickly adapted to take charge of Aljunied GRC under a very short time frame.We will take over the Town Council functions with as little disruption as possible to the residents… I have the experience and the know-how in running a Town Council". This was by Ms Lee Li Lian at the same rally to residents in Jan 2013.

So we have heard that you can take charge of TC, and big ones too under a short time frame. So all the explanations that all the WP members have given us so far, which is the correct version?

That you have plenty of problems, plenty of challenges, or that you can take charge within a short time frame, overcome any obstacles, and that you are experienced, and you have the know- how. Which is the correct version if I may ask?

Let me mention the third quote.

Workers' Party MPs are committed to being politically accountable to voters for town management under the current regime. Whatever else is done in other countries, the responsibility for town management has been legislated to the MPs under the TCA. We accept this responsibility and have pledged during elections to manage towns entrusted to us to the best of our ability. We intend to continue keeping this promise. This was by Ms Sylvia Lim, in a Parliamentary session on 13 May 2013. So as you can see, these are all quite recent.

I was most astounded to hear what Mr Low Thia Kiang said yesterday in this House, that we should depoliticise, we should look at the transitioning and all that. So Mr Low, you are the Secretary General of the WP, and have just said the exact opposite of what Ms Sylvia Lim, Chairman of the WP, said in this House in 2013. Did you just change your mind when things went wrong in AHPETC? Or you never believed in what you were doing?

Or were Mr Gerald Giam, Ms Lee Li Lian and Ms Sylvia Lim misleading residents when they made those speeches, that WP had no intention whatsoever of fulfilling your promises?

So can you tell this House, and all Singaporeans, what are your real beliefs and values? Do you have any conviction, or do you just say whatever is expedient for the moment, even if it means misleading Singaporeans? Is it not dishonest to claim that you believe in something and do the opposite? And to say one thing in one forum, and a completely different thing at another occasion.

There also seems to be several versions of WP around - which one do we trust? The one that claims to be transparent and accountable, and which wants to build a first world parliament? The one that politicks and says whatever is convenient? The one that politicks like Mr Pritam Singh, to try to avoid answering in parliament, but is prepared to say whatever he wants to and to whoever he wants outside. So which WP is the true WP?

What is most disturbing in this entire sorry episode is the way WP has sought to downplay the crux of the matter, sought to deflect the issue by playing victim of a challenging operating environment that the opposition faced, and claiming inexperience.

Let me recount what happened in this House yesterday.

- Mr Low started with a clever opening to play victim - that the opposition faced a challenging operating environment, and that is why you had these lapses. You insinuated that TC are politicised, and you then took an entirely different line from what Ms Lim and the rest of your MPs have been saying.

- Ms Sylvia Lim then went through a lot of details on the various AGO observations, circulated an action plan and promised to do better. But Ms Lim said that Sinking Funds have been put back - but she never told anyone of us that they were caught, by their own auditor, and then AGO, for not putting money into the Sinking Fund. They were forced to put the money back.

- Ms Lim, nor the rest of the MPs, never answered the critical question - were all town councillors aware of the structure of ownership of FMSS, that leads to substantial over-payment?

And was there a proper discussion on how you are going to safeguard the interests of the residents.

- Ms Lim sought to show that the lapses were technical, bean- counting, and the WP would fix them, by hiring more accountants and doing more checks. That is a dodge. And we heard from the other MPs as well.

- Ms Lim also circulated a table showing various committees and formal checks. I would like to point out to this House that the AGO Report indicated that, as of 12 Dec 2014, the last Finance and Investment Committee meeting was held in April 2014. They did not meet for 8 months. But the table, that Ms Lim circulated, said that they met monthly. This is in the AGO Report. So is this another instance of saying one thing and doing another.

Today, we heard Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Png Eng Huat explained all the technical details and they sought to deflect, but they never got to the heart of the issue. They never got to answer questions that need to be answered. I was hoping that Mr Pritam Singh would change his mind and tell us today, but he did not.

We saw a big wayang in this house. Ordinarily, such a wayang would have seemed comical. But in the context of how important integrity and trust is in how we govern our little red dot, I am so disappointed and so saddened by this entire sorry saga.

What we are seeing are not isolated lapses or behaviours. What we are seeing is a troubling pattern of dishonest and misleading behaviour - to say one thing but to do the opposite, to say one thing that suits them to residents, but to say a different thing in Parliament or elsewhere when it suits them better.

This is wrong. This is a serious problem of integrity.

It costs the WP nothing to promise the world. But there is a real cost to Singaporeans - real lives are affected - when they break their promises.

This Motion is Important for All Singaporeans

Let me conclude with why this motion is important for all Singaporeans.

At the Ministry of Education and in our schools, tens of thousands of teachers spend many, many hours striving to provide the best possible education for our children, so that they may have a better future. Hundreds of thousands of parents are concerned about their children's future. We spend day and night thinking about our children's future. But our children can only have a better future if Singapore as a nation succeeds, and remains relevant to the world. That we retain the values and the qualities that are essential for our success.

We have seen how, in many countries, when elected officials engage in self-serving practices, when they put their own interests ahead of the public interest, when they do not act with integrity and when they put the interests of their cronies first, the country fails. And it is the man in the street, the young, and the future generation who suffer the most.

As a little red dot, good governance is critical to Singapore's future. Elected public officials must act with integrity and a deep sense of responsibility, and serve our people whole-heartedly. In the many decisions we take, there may be errors - human or system, but what matters most is that elected officials act with integrity and do our very best to serve the public interest.

As Minister Khaw pointed out yesterday, a Town Council requires elected MPs to govern, and not just politick. It is easy to shout campaign slogans and make all sorts of promises. But do you really believe in what you say wholeheartedly, and walk the talk? Running a Town Council in a clean, competent and accountable way is a test of the integrity of the MP and his sense of responsibility and accountability. In other words, can we trust him or her?

This motion is not about partisan politics - I have no joy pointing out the many failings and questionable practices of the WP. This motion is important for all Singaporeans because it is about our long-term future. Unless elected MPs act with integrity and a deep sense of responsibility, and take the trust of the people seriously, we will not be able to maintain a system of good governance - clean, honest, accountable, competent, and pass this on to our future generations. We must not betray the trust of Singaporeans. Singaporean deserve better. Let us all honour the trust that Singaporeans have placed in us.

Mdm Speaker, I support the motion.

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