Friday, 22 September 2023

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The fallout from AIM – in the people’s interest?

By Howard Lee

An absolute mess that benefits no citizen – in seven words, that is how I would characterise and summarise the entire AIM saga, following the expose, investigation, report by the Ministry of National Development, and the latest round of Parliamentary debate.

At the base of it all is the key question of whether the MND, the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party have ever considered the interest of citizens in the way town councils are run and the entire way in which their tenders are administered.

Despite all the hot air from all parties about how they have served the best interest of residents, I personally see no way of how this can be the case.

For a start, the PAP-AIM issue and the WP-FMSS issue were founded on different circumstances and challenges. Hence, it is of annoying concern that our Members of Parliament would choose to squabble over who is more culpable of conflict of interest.

Indeed, the fact that both tenders were awarded to parties that have relationships with the political parties that the MPs involved belong to is a clear indicator that both the PAP and WP should be just as culpable – it is only a matter of how you define conflict of interest. Splitting hairs is not going to remove the elephant in the room, even if it is the Minister of National Development himself splitting the hairs.

More annoying, however, is that some of our most senior Parliamentarians, including a full Minister, would choose to waste precious time in Parliament, the highest institution of the State, in this tit-for-tat exchange. This is as politicised as a body of public service can get, and the error lies with both PAP and WP. Parliament is for serious discussion of national issues, not about which political party first played favourites with their associated companies.

Meanwhile, a serious issue of national concern managed to slip by: The key tenets of the MND review. Should companies owned by political parties be allowed to bid for contracts awarded by members of the same political party? Should there be higher standards in how town councils are run? Is it now time to centralise the management, or at least the governance, of town councils?

I am not for excessively regulation, and we do need to acknowledge that there are companies out that that can benefit from the service contracts that town councils implement. But it has clearly come to a point where the rather open nature of how town councils are allowed to call and award tenders have been taken unfair advantage of, and this can only be of detriment to citizens, who are after all paying for the services and have a stake in how their estates are run.

The case of AIM was a clear example. How it is possible that the contract for the upkeep of what was described as an outdated IT system can be awarded without a clear line of progress on how AIM plans to implement a replacement as soon as possible, remains a nagging point that I find impossible to understand. In the years between AIM taking over and the new system kicking in (mind, the new tender has just been awarded and it will take some time to develop and test the new system), are citizens not exposed to this decrepit system that is used to run their estates?

In addition, the entire saga has uncovered what seems to be a prevalent practice – at least what we now know of for PAP and WP wards – of MPs seeing no issues with potential conflicts of interests, even if the loose rules of the town council play book allows them that much leeway.

We see a potential for town councils to become an MP’s own fiefdom, and the current painful lacks in the governance of town councils only aggravate this risk, no matter that some Nominated MP might choose to couch it as a means for estates to establish their own unique character. These lacks have allowed MPs and their political parties to manage contracts in overtly political ways. This practice must stop, and the buck needs to stop with MND, no matter what its Minister says.

If MND does plan for an honest review of town councils, the more pressing issue should be about the governance principles behind town councils, particularly how they call tenders and award contracts. The MND investigation has effectively absolved the PAP and AIM of any wrong doing, but there is clearly a significant lack in how the AIM contract was managed. This now needs to be better refined, and a revised process made transparent and given time to be scrutinised by citizens.

We might not care about the political undertones of the entire AIM saga, and this side of the debate has clearly been played up by traditional media’s continuing coverage of the bickering over agent rates. But it is more important that town councils remain a body of public interest, dedicated to serving the needs of citizens, rather than be managed like a private entity with apparently no consideration for how citizens can actively contribute as stakeholders, beyond voting in their MPs every five years or so.

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