Sharp questions, half-answers and what's truly at stake

Serious concerns raised about 'Gang of Four' AHPETC officers

THE debate in the House over the Auditor-General's Office's (AGO) report on the troubled accounts of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) may seem municipal to some and, to others, a politically calculated move by the ruling People's Action Party.

But it took almost seven hours of intense exchanges over two days before Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday set out the broad context of what was really at stake in the motion on the deficiencies in the Workers' Party (WP)-run town council's systems and accounts.

He cited the issue of integrity on the part of elected MPs - to underline how critical this was for Singapore.

"We have seen how in many countries, when elected officials engage in self-serving practices, when they put their 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 and the young, and the future generations, who suffer the most," he said. "As a little red dot, good governance is critical to Singapore's future."

For this, elected officials must act with integrity and responsibility.

The shambolic state of AHPETC's accounts, PAP backbenchers Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) and Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) said, calls these very values into question on the part of the WP and its MPs.

One major area the AGO flagged in its audit was the conflict of interest in related party transactions.

The questions that PAP MPs had for the WP were simple: Why did they allow millions to be paid to related parties? Why they did not fully disclose and discuss this conflict of interest? Did the town council incur losses?

Mr Liang had serious concerns about the "Gang of Four" key AHPETC officers - who were owners and directors of FMSS and FMSI which the town council hired as managing agent and contractor respectively - and who approved payments to their own companies.

WP MPs did not engage these questions. They instead provided a slew of often technical responses to points the AGO had made in its audit. Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang), an AHPETC vice-chairman, said payment cheques had to be co-signed by AHPETC chairman Sylvia Lim or one of the vice-chairmen, and oversight committees ensured that proper work was done before payments were made.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), the other AHPETC vice-chairman, said no FMSS staffer was involved when tenders by the company were evaluated. The AGO also did not flag criminal wrongdoing on the part of any town council staffer. He added that AHPETC would use the findings to improve things.

Mr Nair took issue with such half-answers. There was still no explanation why FMSS was formed seven days after the 2011 General Election results and before then managing agent CPG discontinued its services.

He also refuted claims by Mr Singh and Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) a day earlier that the AGO report found no monies missing, and uncovered no criminal or dishonest activity.

This was blatantly misleading, as the AGO had said such a broad conclusion could not be derived from its audit.

Mr Heng sought to draw WP leaders out on key questions at the heart of the AHPETC audit: Why did elected MPs allow a structure involving FMSS to be set up in the first place?

"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."

There were feisty responses from Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) and Ms Lim, which left the House no more enlightened.

Mr Low said the WP had explained how only FMSS responded to the tender, and the due diligence the MPs had taken.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong interjected from across the aisle, Mr Low, with raised voice, snapped: "Nobody wants to work for me. That is the problem, Prime Minister."

When it was clear that little more would emerge from grilling the WP, Mr Heng said the House had heard many technical explanations, but the issue was not a technical one.

"It is about integrity, trust, our conviction that as elected MPs, we are here to serve the people of Singapore, not our friends," he said.

The WP did not give a clear statement on the allegations cast upon its integrity in Parliament these two days, but people are likely to press its MPs for their position on the issue in person. Hopefully they can get clearer answers beyond a replay of the technicalities the House heard.