The Mayor of Northwest Community Development Council (CDC) and MP for Bukit Panjang, Dr Teo Ho Pin, appears to be developing an unfortunate penchant for attracting controversy.  After it was disclosed late last year that ruling party-controlled town councils lost money on Lehman-related financial products, Dr Teo drew flak for saying that, rather than questioning the losses, Singaporeans should have been “thankful” for the profits the town councils had made in better years.

Dr Teo recently found himself under an uncomfortable spotlight again, after rumours surfaced that two of his CDC staff might have received 8 months’ worth of bonuses this year.  The innuendo, coming during a severe recession and with simmering unhappiness over high ministerial wages, was political dynamite in the local blogosphere. When Dr Teo was first asked about the bonuses, he gave an ill-advised reply.  When the mainstream media got wind of the matter, Dr Teo told reporters that he did not know how much his staff was paid.  This remark seemed to contradict his initial answer when he reportedly said that such information was “confidential”.

Nevertheless, Dr Teo’s latter reply is probably technically correct.  The combined annual financial statement for all five CDCs (which incidentally showed an 18% rise in wages from 2007 to 2008) is signed off by the CEO of the People’s Association (the PA, a statutory body of the government and the ruling party’s de facto grassroots organisation) rather than the Mayors.  Furthermore, the CDCs’ staff is provided by the PA, though they report to the Mayor.

Even so, Dr Teo’s reply is somewhat disconcerting.  It raises the question of the responsibilities of his Mayoral office, given that he seems to be absolved from staff and wage issues.  To some extent, that is akin to saying that a Cabinet minister is not responsible for administrative matters in his ministry.  The real issue should be over the question of accountability in the CDCs rather than the embarrassing size of the bonuses doled out.

The episode also highlights how the CDCs are awkward devices.  They were launched by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1997 as a means of “democratic decentralisation”. However, it is unclear to what degree such autonomy extends to Mayoral control over the CDCs when their offices are run by the PA and most of their funding is made up of operating grants from the government.

These days, CDCs serve to dispense largesse from government programmes at the grassroots level as well as to encourage community activism.  These are useful political and social functions for the ruling party, though it is doubtful whether an Opposition MP would be made a Mayor should his party happen to win the constituencies that fall under a CDC’s ambit.

Yet these are also functions that could just as easily be replicated by town councils or administered directly by the central government.  The budgets of the five CDCs are relatively small (their combined expenditure is roughly equivalent to that of one of the larger town councils), so town councils should have little trouble absorbing a CDC’s job. It is little wonder that CDCs sometimes appear as a superfluous layer of bureaucracy.  Perhaps that is the genuine grievance that Singaporeans have over the current episode.


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