SINGAPORE - The town council saga refuses to go away, but Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim believes that confronting such challenges has taken her party to the next level.
While she has refuted the Ministry of National Development's (MND) assertion about hugely overpaying the town council's managing agent, Ms Lim told The Straits Times that the WP would emerge stronger for the experience.
"These are necessary pains that have to be gone through. If you do not take on the challenge and do your best to overcome it, you will be stuck in a situation where there's only one ruling party that can manage town councils of this scale, and that will set our political development back," she said last Friday (Aug 28), a day before the MND issued its statement.
Managing the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) has not been easy, she admitted, but the challenges have prepared her party to take on another town council of the same size, should the chance arise.
And any new town council the party runs will be kept separate, she said, adding that the law does not allow more than three constituencies to be run as one town.
"Assuming Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East remain with the WP, there is no possibility for us to expand the town council further anyway," she said.
WP is contesting five group representation constituencies and five single-member constituencies at the coming elections. She said the WP is also not one "to do (the) big bang kind of expansion" and prefers to grow incrementally.
Expansion is not just about party interests, but also national interests, she explains, letting on that the performance of the ruling party is a factor too. "People need to assess whether the PAP is still able to meet the aspiration of voters and to what extent other parties may have to up their game and the pace (of change)."
During the wide-ranging interview at her Toh Tuck Road apartment, Ms Lim defended her town council's performance, and its decision not to dig into the books of its managing agent, FM Solutions and Services (FMSS).
"I do not think that we have let the voters down," she said. "The town council has done more than enough to account for whatever lapses that the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) has pointed out."
In February, the AGO pointed out that the town council's senior officers had approved payments to their own company, FMSS.
On Saturday, the MND released findings by the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, which showed the owners of FMSS had made over $4.7 million in just two financial years managing the town council. Pointing to this as an "abnormal" profit margin, the ministry asked Ms Lim if she was aware of the "profiteering".
Ms Lim, AHPETC's chairman, said FMSS had been paid according to contractual terms. While her town council did not "investigate" FMSS, the WP MPs "know what our managing agent has been doing because we work with them and also check their work". Ms Lim further said that no money was lost, "based on what we know".
When WP took over from the People's Action Party (PAP) in 2011, she said, it was not able to get information needed about arrears. Her town council also had to prioritise issues that would affect residents more directly, which is why "back office matters" took a back seat, she said.
AHPETC had also been busy making improvements to the estates, such as catching up on works the previous PAP team had neglected, she said. "Of course I'm not saying that financial management is not important. It is important. But it's just to underscore the point that... we had to prioritise certain matters first."
Also, the town council's project spending from its sinking fund had been significant, she added. With more repairs and renewals to catch up on, she expects the balance, around the region of $100 million now, to go down further, but said: "I don't think there's any reason for us to be worried."
She said her party has learnt from the experience, which is why its MPs have unanimously decided to manage the town council on their own since last month.
While she refused to evaluate her town council's performance, she called on Singaporeans to speak to those living in WP-managed estates so they would know that the residents' lives are "not much different from the lives of people living in other towns".
Ms Lim also did not want to comment on how her party has done as "co-driver" to the Government. But she said the presence of another party in Parliament would ensure that at least someone can register objection to Bills.
"The ruling party MPs may talk and talk, but in the end, when it comes to voting, they have no choice," she said, referring to the party whip that compels MPs to vote based on a party's position.
While the WP too has a party whip in its leader, Mr Low Thia Khiang, it is at least a different party from the PAP, she said.
Ms Lim said a 92-year-old Aljunied GRC resident had encouraged her to plug on, saying residents were happy to know "we have a party who's always trying to do better".
The WP may not be perfect, she said, but it is committed to being better.