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It’s not about ranking, stupid

Andrew Loh

In June 2009, when the idea for an appraisal report for town councils was first mooted, Senior Minister of State for National Development, Ms Grace Fu, said the government’s “move to assess town councils should not be seen as a ranking exercise.”

Instead, she said, “the whole purpose of (the report) is to allow residents and town councils to have an objective set of numbers to talk about.”

One year on, her ministry has released the Town Council Management Report (TCMR).

The report grades the 16 town councils using six indicators under four key areas – estate cleanliness, estate maintenance, lift performance and management of arrears in service & conservancy charges (S&CC). Gradings between “Level 1” (the best in performance) to “Level 5” (the worst) are given.

From the results, it would seem that the two opposition-run town councils, Potong Pasir and Hougang, are judged to have performed the worst overall. Potong Pasir scored four “Level 5” in the six categories while Hougang scored two “Level 5” and one “Level 4”.

Among the 14 town councils run by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), none scored lower than a “Level 3” in any category.

The best-scoring town councils appear to be Tanjong Pagar, where Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is an MP, and Ang Mo Kio, the Prime Minister’s constituency.

Is it a coincidence that the two lowest-scoring wards are opposition-run ones and the two best-scoring are helmed by the PM and the MM?

When the idea to assess town councils was first put forward last year, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong “[warned] that any bias in the report would be damaging to the Government.”

“Even the perception that it's politically biased will be very bad for us,” SM Goh said.

Indeed, it would seem that the results of the report are being seen as politically-motivated and suspicions and questions are being raised about its timing as well. The next General Elections are expected to be called soon and such a report, at this time, casts doubts on its objectivity. This is especially so when one considers that it is also the Housing and Development Board (HDB), under the Ministry of National Development (MND), which is responsible for the evaluation of the town councils, although the “expert panel” is made “up of government officials, realtors and academics,” as Channelnewsasia reported.

The HDB has been known to “play politics” when it comes to public housing. An example is its refusal, for the longest time, to implement upgrading programmes in opposition-held wards.

The Minister of the MND is Mr Mah Bow Tan, who is also a member of the PAP’s Central Executive Committee and its treasurer. Together with the Senior Minister of State at the MND, the minister and his second-in-command are parties with vested interest in the results – both being senior members of the PAP.

Would a report conducted by the HDB, which is under the MND's purview, score the MND minister's ward (Tampines GRC) lowly, if it deserved to be? Indeed, Tampines GRC has scored the highest "Level 1" in four categories out of the six.

Clearly, the question of bias needs to be addressed.

Incidentally, the report groups the PAP-run Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) together with their neighbouring Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) while the two opposition-managed SMCs are evaluated on their own, separate from any GRCs.

What about the purpose of such a report?

According to Grace Fu in 2009, “the whole purpose of (the report) is to allow residents and town councils to have an objective set of numbers to talk about.”

However, when the results were released, the details of the TCMR report were not made public. What was released was a set of vague numbers on the MND’s website.

No one knows exactly what a “Level 5” means, or what a “Level 1” includes, how frequently the HDB officials conducted the checks on the ground, when this was done, which areas were scoured, or how many officers did the inspections. This is important as there are 900,000 HDB flats in Singapore spread out all over the island.

How did the “expert panel” of a few people manage to assess 16 town councils and the areas where these 900,000 flats are laid out in a matter of months?

Also, it is unknown who the members of the “expert panel” which conducted the evaluation are.

In short, a vague set of numbers put forth as “objective” assessment runs contrary to Ms Fu’s aim of providing residents with “the facts that will help them engage better with their town councils on estate management issues.”

Ms Fu also urged Singaporeans not to see the report as a “ranking exercise”.  How one should not see it as such is quite puzzling. Indeed, SM Goh himself expressed views which showed that even he took it as a ranking of sorts. “The opposition may in future decide that they want to match PAP town councils in cleanliness,” SM Goh said in 2009. “When that happens, then some PAP town councils will say, 'My god, we're now at the bottom, we're going to make sure we're not at the bottom'."

Also, is one of the aims of the TCMR to justify the raising of charges (such as service and conservancy) in future? Mr Lim Boon Heng, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and who was the one who first mooted the idea of town councils in 1984, said last year:

“When they [residents] are not involved in running the estate, they expect high standards, but are not willing to fork out more.”

Perhaps the TCMR is to let residents see that their towns are efficiently-run and thus would justify an increase in maintenance fees?

At the end of the day, there are many questions left unanswered - the way inspections were carried out, the composition of the panel, why the TCMR panel reports to the MND, the real purpose of the report itself, what was the methodology used, etc.

It would have been better if the TCMR was the responsibility of an independent panel of adjudicators, with more transparency in its actions, the most important being its perceived political objectives.

As of now, the TCMR is highly questionable – and deservedly so.

When the TCMR panel releases its next report, in six months, it is hoped that such questions and doubts will be addressed.

If not, the perceived political motivation behind the entire process and its results renders such a report redundant.

For did not SM Goh himself warn of this?