Town councils 'used to trip up opposition'

Sylvia Lim alleges that residents may become pawns for political gain

Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim charged last night that town council management has become a political avenue to "trip up" the opposition, even at the expense of residents.

"It has gotten to the point that residents may become pawns for political gain or simply collateral damage," she said.

Speaking at the WP's second rally, she said she had encountered a few town council contracts that could be terminated if the composition of the council changed.

"Is the clause there - in case constituencies are lost by the PAP - to trip up the incoming opposition MPs?" asked Ms Lim, who chairs the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC).

"And do they want to trip us up so much that they do not consider the possible disruptions and suffering inflicted on the residents?" she asked.

She raised as an example the termination of AHTC's computer software contract by IT company Action Information Management (Aim) after the 2011 General Election. Pulling the plug on AHTC's computer system was like "sending soldiers to battle but removing the ammo when they're in the field".

Operations would have ground to a halt if the WP had not drawn on its old Hougang Town Council system, she said. Aim, owned by the People's Action Party (PAP), bought the rights to the 14 PAP-run town councils' computer software in 2010.

The WP had raised the issue of the Aim sale last month to explain why it did not get a banding for corporate governance in a government report card on town councils. AHTC did not submit an auditor's report in time because it needed to change its computer system, said Ms Lim then.

She has since locked horns with Aim and the PAP town councils. They argued that extensions were readily granted to the WP who had asked for the termination in the first place - a point Ms Lim has disputed.

The saga has led to a government review of the Aim transaction as well as the "fundamental nature" of town councils.

Yesterday, Ms Lim argued the episode illustrated the importance of political competition in furthering public interest.

The Aim sale, for instance, surfaced only when AHTC took over from the PAP-run Aljunied Town Council after the WP won the GRC in 2011, she said.

Calling her AHTC experience "eye-opening", she noted that it was the first time an opposition party had been able to dig into documents showing how the PAP town councils have been managing Housing Board estates.

"While many of the systems and processes were sensible, there were other aspects that show how political town management had become," she said, adding that residents could become political pawns.

Ms Lim filed an adjournment motion to present the issue in Parliament but withdrew it after the review was announced. The WP felt it was in the public interest to wait for the review's outcome before taking up the matter further, she said, adding: "This episode illustrates the way WP works."

She also addressed criticism that the WP used the Aim issue as an excuse for its report card performance. Ms Lim said the WP had been "simply obsessed" with taking over the town council with minimal disruption since 2011, but felt it owed residents an explanation for the audit delay.