Workers' Party town council episode shows need to strengthen laws: Heng Swee Keat

SINGAPORE - The episode with the Workers' Party (WP) town council shows the need to strengthen the governance of town councils, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat on Saturday.

His comments come a day after Parliament unanimously endorsed the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) findings of serious lapses at the opposition-run town council and called for stiffening the law regulating town councils.

"We need to ensure that the interests of residents are well served and that there is sufficient safeguards for the use of public funds," he said at the sidelines of a community event.

He added that details about how the Town Council Act will be amended will be revealed later.

The AGO had found major lapses in governance and compliance with financial rules after a year-long audit of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council's (AHPETC) accounts.

WP chief Low Thia Khiang said his party's MPs took collective responsibility for the lapses and has moved to fix the problems identified.

Over two days of tense parliamentary debate that ended on Friday, People's Action Party Ministers and Members of Parliament (MP) took the WP to task for misleading residents and mismanaging public funds.

On Saturday, Mr Heng said the debate was necessary as there has been a "pattern of denial and deflection of these very serious lapses" by the WP.

He added that many of the problems at AHPETC would not have come to light, if not for the AGO audit.

Reiterating a point and other MPs made in Parliament, he said the issue was not one about partisan politics.

"It is a broader issue of how elected MPs must act with integrity and act to serve the interests of residents so it is of greater interest than just a town council issue," he said.

Mr Heng had said in Parliament that the WP had betrayed the trust of AHPETC residents, by paying its managing agent company, FM Solution & Services (FMSS), fees that were about twice as much as what other town councils pay.

The company was set up by WP supporters and friends, who also hold key positions in AHPETC.

The AGO flagged in its report conflicts of interest in $25.9 million worth of transactions between the two entities.

But Mr Low countered that the contract was awarded to FMSS in a public tender exercise, and the company was the only one that had put in a bid.

Mr Heng rejected this explanation on Saturday, saying: "I do not accept that there were no options and they therefore had to go by the single bid."

He listed other options, such as extending the contract of the managing agent that was serving the former Aljunied Town Council, before the WP took over, and the WP running its own town council directly. He said AHPETC could have hired the team that was running Hougang Town Council, which had been under Mr Low.

Even if AHPETC had only gotten one bid, he said, it should have checked if the rate offered was acceptable.

Referring to the links between the town council and its managing agent, he added: "What we have is a structure that is quite convoluted. There were other options that could have been pursued."

Mr Heng added that merely acknowledging the lapses was not enough.

"What needs to be done going forward is for the WP to show that they are indeed sincere about making the changes...Quite a number of areas have been highlighted and (these are) what residents would expect the elected members of the town council to do," he said.