News analysis

AHPETC spat: A local issue or a national concern?

The longer the campaign spotlight shines on the Workers' Party-run town council in Aljunied, and its financial woes, the more damage might be done to its reputation.

That, it seems, might be the reckoning of the People's Action Party's (PAP) leaders, for it keeps the WP on the defensive so its candidates have less time to rally voters and build momentum for the opposition cause.

For the WP, it would be best if the issue could be settled politically, by framing it as an attack on it by the ruling party purely for electoral gain.

How voters respond to the arguments on AHPETC from both sides will be known on Sept 12. How the ballots add up in Aljunied GRC, and beyond, will signal which of the two narratives voters were more convinced by.

At the first WP rally on Wednesday night, its candidates devoted much time to the town council issue, citing it both as an example of double standards by the Government, and of the politicisation of municipal services to thwart opposition growth. WP chairman Sylvia Lim also sought in her speech to debunk four myths about financial mismanagement at the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC).

But it was a comment by WP chief Low Thia Khiang that PAP leaders seized on. Mr Low argued that there was no wrongdoing in AHPETC because otherwise, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau would have investigated them.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong immediately countered that Singapore would be in serious trouble if the standard of politics fell so low it could be met by any politician who did not go to jail. He reiterated this point yesterday, for good effect.

Picking up on this "catch me if you can" retort from the WP leaders, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said: "So you can do pretty much anything you like as long as you don't go to jail. That is the standard WP has set for their candidates."

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan issued a fact sheet to rebut Ms Lim's points. He stressed that after four years, the problems at AHPETC remained unresolved.

The to-ing and fro-ing continued at a rally last night, with WP candidate for East Coast GRC Leon Perera taking a dig at the AHPETC offensive.

He said the PAP would have voters think this election was about whether their estates were cleaned and well-maintained. "If this is a local election, we should ask them when the general election will be?" he said, adding that there were important national issues to discuss, such as the plight of older Singaporeans after they retire, the future size of the population and how trains are managed.

Clearly, both parties seem to be sticking to their playbook: The PAP is seeking to pin down the WP for what it sees as serious breaches of financial integrity which it wants to call the WP to account on. For the WP, it is about choosing to take the issue directly to voters and bypassing the PAP's relentless charges.

That raises the question of why the PAP is keeping its guns trained on the town council. Is this a calculated campaign for votes and if so, is it likely to work? The PAP must surely know that it risks a backlash if it is seen to be coming down too hard on the WP MPs.

Or is this a matter of principle for the PAP, whose leaders consider the character and competence of would-be MPs to be a matter of grave national importance? They have often spoken of the need to keep politics right, key to which is ensuring that those in the House are men and women of integrity.

Indeed, PAP leaders introduced town councils back in 1988 to drive home the message to voters that they need to cast their ballots with care, since those they elect will have a direct impact on how well their estates are managed.

Ever wary of freak electoral outcomes, PAP leaders have always warned voters, as PM Lee did again on Tuesday, that it is "dangerous" to vote for the opposition when what they want is a PAP government.

By focusing minds on the WP's failure to manage its town council in the one GRC it holds well, the PAP must hope that swing voters in other GRCs will hesitate to risk giving their vote to the opposition party.

As for the WP, the AHPETC issue exemplifies what it regards as some of the worst effects of a one-party dominant system. Its leaders have railed against the unfairness of the Ministry of National Development's decision to withhold grants from AHPETC, after serious financial lapses were uncovered at the town council by the Auditor-General's Office.

At a rally on Wednesday night, WP's Hougang candidate Png Eng Huat said the People's Association had similar financial management lapses. Yet, its government grants were not withheld and even went up.

The WP also accused government agencies of targeting the PAP's political opponents, a charge Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean rebutted, saying it was their duty to uncover lapses.

At the WP rally last night, Mr Low mocked the way the Government had blown up the AHPETC issue, including holding a two-day debate in Parliament on it. He also criticised several ministers for making unfounded allegations against WP town councils, including the one in Hougang.

"I have tolerated them long enough!" Mr Low declared in a speech in Teochew on Wednesday, drawing cheers from his supporters.

How voters respond to the arguments on AHPETC from both sides will be known on Sept 12. How the ballots add up in Aljunied GRC, and beyond, will signal which of the two narratives voters were more convinced by.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2015, with the headline 'AHPETC spat: A local issue or a national concern?'. Print Edition | Subscribe