From The Gallery

Accountability wins the day after back-and-forth

Twice during the four-hour debate on changes to the Town Councils Act, Speaker Halimah Yacob had to remind MPs that the purpose of the Bill's passage through the House was not to debate specific issues, but the general principles of the proposed legislation.

She said so about 80 minutes into the debate, and again about an hour later, after several MPs began to get caught up in details and events that, arguably, served as the cause for why the Act needed to be refreshed with tighter or new measures.

These included what occurred when the single-seat Punggol East changed hands - first after the Workers' Party (WP) won it in a 2013 by-election, and then when the People's Action Party (PAP) won it back in the 2015 General Election.

Granted, the details and recollections of what transpired in the aftermath of these changes - the need to account for and transfer assets, the pace at which these took place and so on - are useful for illustrating broad points such as the need for efficiency, transparency and accountability.

Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council (PRPTC) chairman Zainal Sapari, in recalling aspects of the handover after Punggol East came under his town council, said the inclusion of unaudited financial statements - from when the WP held the constituency - compromised PRPTC's accounts as a whole, for FY2015/2016.

He suggested allowing town councils to keep two separate financial accounts, pending the submission of "unqualified audited financial statements" of the constituency being taken over.

While such details add useful context to the debate and some of the proposed changes, others were, perhaps, less necessary.

When Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) and Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) rose separately to respond to Mr Zainal's remarks, the exchange got mired in minutiae, such as the data that the WP originally gave the PAP being in the wrong file format.

There was also a back-and-forth over a comment which Mr Zainal cited from an academic, which saw Ms Lim and WP chief and fellow Aljunied GRC MP Low Thia Khiang challenge Mr Zainal on the question of whether independent auditors KPMG had uncovered anything criminal in their audits.

That parts of the debate yesterday on the Town Councils (Amendment) Bill drifted away and became, at times, a finger-pointing exercise, distracted from what was an important piece of legislation - some four years in the making, and which involved several rounds of public consultations, including with town councils.

Indeed, Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee pointed out that the debate had gone off course - an observation that Madam Halimah agreed with.

The danger of debates veering off course is that more pertinent questions are missed.

But with the intervention and steady direction provided by Madam Halimah, the debate thankfully stayed on track.

And in doing so, the House was able to address other practical and no less important aspects, such as how to handle disputes between statutory boards and town councils.

There was broad agreement on the Bill's intent - even if the WP opposed the provision on oversight.

But it was heartening in the end that MPs on both sides of the House affirmed the ideals behind the Bill, such as the need for accountability and dealing with issues of conflicts of interest. Given how the changes will affect most Singaporeans, it was important that the debate concentrated on worthwhile and concrete outcomes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2017, with the headline 'Accountability wins the day after back-and-forth'. Print Edition | Subscribe