Residents' trust was 'betrayed in three ways'

WP MPs fallen short of lawmakers' standard of integrity: Heng Swee Keat

THE Workers' Party MPs have betrayed the trust of their residents in three ways, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said in Parliament yesterday.

They did so by failing to act in the best interests of their residents, by consistently evading questions and by promising one thing and doing another, he said.

Mr Heng, speaking on the second day of a heated debate on the governance and accounting lapses at Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), said that integrity must be a hallmark of all elected MPs as residents have placed their trust in them.

"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," he stressed.

The WP, which runs AHPETC, has fallen short of this standard of integrity in three ways, he said.

First, on the point of failing to act in their residents' best interests, Mr Heng said that the WP had "gotten them (the residents) a raw deal", as the fee paid to their managing agent was the highest among all town councils.

He also charged that the WP was compromising the long-term interests of its residents by not having regularly contributed to AHPETC's sinking fund, which the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) flagged in its report.

Mr Heng said this happened because the town council had cash flow problems, "and they put off paying into the sinking fund so they would have money to pay the managing agent".

Moreover, AHPETC cannot account for where the residents' money is, he said, pointing to its poor records and late accounts.

Second and worse, said Mr Heng, the WP's "consistent pattern of denial, deflection and protection of their managing agent" suggests that "beneath the surface, the town council is rotting". "And the rot is serious."

The responsibility for these failings "lies squarely with the MPs on the council", he said.

"They appointed the managing agent. They are responsible for supervising the managing agent, for setting up a proper structure (of governance)," he said.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, in his closing speech, agreed with this charge.

Mr Khaw said MPs set the standard of corporate governance in their town councils, and that "if the leader sets a bad example or condones bad behaviour by his senior staff, the other subordinates will likely follow suit".

The primary cause of the AHPETC's failings was "the dereliction of duty by the town councillors, condoning this, allowing it to happen, and making excuses for it when uncovered, instead of putting things right", he said.

Likewise, Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) said the entire episode raised questions about the accountability and integrity of those who run AHPETC.

Mr Heng, too, criticised AHPETC for repeatedly defending its managing agent instead of taking it to task.

The third way the WP had betrayed its residents' trust, said Mr Heng, was that it repeatedly did the opposite of what it promised.

For example, it had promised, during its campaign in the 2011 General Election, to provide checks and balances on the Government, said Mr Heng. "They have created a system where there is no check, no balance. You can't even check yourself. Or you are not willing to check yourself... In fact, the real check in this instance came from the Government, the AGO," said Mr Heng.

The WP's actions were not isolated lapses but "a troubling pattern of dishonest and misleading behaviour", he said.

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

Calling the WP MPs' speeches in Parliament "a big wayang" (a colloquial word for staged), Mr Heng said: "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."

The integrity of elected MPs is important as good governance is critical to Singapore's future, said Mr Heng, who warned that countries where elected officials act without integrity - by putting their cronies' interests first - fail to grow and develop properly.

In these cases, it is the man in the street, the young and future generations who suffer the most, he said. "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 and pass this on to our future generations."

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) said of the MPs' duty: "We must not let any errant practices erode the public confidence, trust and integrity of the finances of town councils."