MND won't step in over how town councils are run unless situation is dire

Senior Minister of State Desmond Lee said the Ministry of National Development will adopt a light-touch approach.
Senior Minister of State Desmond Lee said the Ministry of National Development will adopt a light-touch approach.PHOTO: ST FILE

The Ministry of National Development (MND) will intervene in how town councils are run only when the safety or health of residents is at risk, Senior Minister of State Desmond Lee said yesterday.

He gave this assurance after opposition MPs expressed concern that new rules in the Town Councils Act could threaten the autonomy of town councils.

Amendments to the law allow the Government to investigate a town council over suspected irregularities, issue rectification orders or step in to manage it in severe cases, among other things.

Previously, MND had powers to step in only as a last resort, and in limited circumstances.

Mr Lee told members that the ministry will adopt a light-touch approach to such infractions, saying: "MND's rectification order can only reflect what the town council ought to have done in the first place.

"It will not require the town council to take any action over and above what is necessary to comply with the Act and its subsidiary legislation."

All nine Workers' Party MPs opposed the changes as they objected to the oversight provision.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) said the WP did not oppose five of the six amendments proposed in the explanatory statement to the Act - "however, the introduction of oversight mechanisms and monitoring powers... has the potential for abuse".

He said this amendment was "overly intrusive" and runs counter to the idea of using town councils as a way to evaluate the effectiveness of an MP.

But Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) said: "If the WP is able to manage the town council well, and with proper governance... the Government would not come in." He added: "If my town council is badly managed, I would expect the Government to look after the interests of residents and interfere."

However, Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) argued that there could be potential conflicts of interest, as such interventions would be directed by the minister, who is "supposed to be running a town council too". "His bosses... are all also running town councils... Is the minister a suitable gatekeeper with these massive conflicts of interest?"

In reply, Mr Lee said these are "serious allegations, quite unwarranted and perhaps are indicative of the world view from which the WP comes".

He pointed to the WP's conduct in the saga over Aljunied-Hougang Town Council's (AHTC) troubling accounts, citing how when the HDB sought court intervention in 2015 to appoint an independent auditor to look into problems and take necessary action, AHTC fought the application and tried to stop an independent auditor from being appointed.

"Is it a willingness for appropriate independent, fair, justifiable regulatory oversight or is there a preference for no oversight whatsoever?" he said.

Ms Lim replied that AHTC took that position in court based on legal advice, and said it was not tenable to give political office-holders decision-making power over political institutions like town councils.

Mr Lee responded: "The key point I would like this House to take away was that while Ms Lim talked aspirationally about the need for independent oversight, what the town council was arguing in court was that where there was mismanagement of funds, nothing could be done beyond the ballot box."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2017, with the headline 'MND won't step in unless situation is dire'. Print Edition | Subscribe