If you thought the Workers’ Party’s Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPEC) is the first or the only town council to have ever run into a deficit, you would have to think again.
Several People’s Action Party (PAP) town councils have also run into the red over the years.
In fact, AHPETC’s deficit may not even be the biggest one either.
For example, the Straits Times reported in July 1997 that a People’s Action Party (PAP) town council had “incurred a huge deficit”.
But more of that later.
First, let’s take a little walk down memory lane, and start from whence the concept of the town council was introduced.
And here, we need to visit Ang Mo Kio – you will see why in a bit.
According to the Town Councils website:
“After pilot testing the concept of Town Councils in Ang Mo Kio Town, the first 3 Town Councils (namely Ang Mo Kio South, Ang Mo Kio West and Cheng San Town Councils) were gazetted and formed in 1989.
“Subsequently, Town Councils were introduced island-wide over 3 phases, from mid 1989 to mid 1991. Today, there are 16 Town Councils managing the HDB housing estates in Singapore.”
So the concept of the town council was tested out in Ang Mo Kio – and almost immediately, it ran into problems.
One of the town councils ended the year with – yes, you’ve guessed it – a deficit.
In 1987, the Ang Mo Kio East Town Council “ran a deficit of $15,000”, according to a Straits Times’ report in 1988 (above), because of the costs of maintaining a public garden.
[*We are not sure if this town council was Ang Mo Kio East Town Council (as reported by the paper) or Ang Mo Kio West Town Council (as indicated by the National Archives).] The town council was so upset by the lack of funds needed to maintain the garden that it was “thinking of washing their hands of this responsibility.”
But Ang Mo Kio East Town Council wasn’t the only one which ran into financial trouble.
The other pilot council – the Ang Mo Kio South Town Council – also had problems maintaining another garden – this time at Avenue 6 of the estate apparently.
The situation was so bad that the estate manager projected the council would go into a deficit of $20,000.
Fast forward to the 1990s and another two town councils, including a PAP one, ended the year in the red, according to a New Paper report titled, “Lost money”.
First there was the PAP’s Hong Kah GRC in 1995, with an “operating shortfall of $1 million”, along with Potong Pasir SMC with an “operating deficit of $584,000.”
Here is the report in full:
Strangely, the report seemed to have ignored the earlier Straits Times report of the two town councils in Ang Mo Kio which also went into deficits by referring to Potong Pasir and Hong Kah as the first town councils to go into deficits.
In 1996, the three Singapore Democratic Party’s town councils – Nee Soon Central, Bukit Gombak, and Potong Pasir – were also in the red.
In 1997, several PAP town councils were also in danger of joining the red queue. These were:
- Pasir Ris Town Council which “estimates an operating deficit of $3,824 million” [sic]
- Aljunied Town Council which “projects a shortfall of $988,000”; and
- Bukit Timah Town Council which expected to be in deficit by $964,000.
We could not get confirmation of whether Aljunied Town Council and Bukit Timah Town Council had eventually crossed into the red.
However, Pasir Ris Town Council seemed to have indeed incurred a deficit.
This seems to be confirmed by a report in the Straits Times 3 days later, on 26 July 1997, some three days after the one in The New Paper which warned that it might go into deficit.
The Straits Times’ report said it had received a “note” from a “resident” who “spring” to the defence of the town council.
The “resident” was “commenting on an ST article earlier this week showing that Pasir Ris Town Council had incurred a huge deficit.”
We have been unable to determine how big was this “huge deficit” reported by the paper. In any case, it didn’t seem to matter to a resident.
The Straits Times said the note writer, Mr Chia Wenn Teck, had “gushed” when he wrote:
“I would like non-Pasir Ris readers to be aware that the MPs here have made a tremendous effort to make the town a more pleasant place to live in and, to a large extent, they have succeeded.
“I am happy to be staying in Pasir Ris and I believe many of my neighbours feel the same.”
Mr Chia’s confidence in his MPs are a stark contrast to that of former Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Lim Boon Heng, who recently said of the AHPETC deficit:
“And if they can’t even manage a simple thing like a town council, then it begs the big question: If you put them in charge of the country, what will be the outcome?”
One must wonder if Mr Lim, who entered politics in 1980, had said or felt the same about the PAP MPs whose town councils had similarly gone into the red over the years.
Some of these MPs were or have even become ministers leading the country today.
So, a town council going into deficit is nothing new.
Apparently, at least four PAP town councils (Ang Mo Kio East, Ang Mo Kio South, Pasir Ris and Hong Kah), and three opposition town councils (Potong Pasir, Nee Soon Central and Bukit Gombak) have experienced such low points through the years.
There were also several other PAP town councils which came close and were in danger of falling into deficit – saved at times only by raising the service and conservancy fees residents had to pay.
One can only wonder then why the PAP is making such a big fuss over AHPETC’s situation, especially when all town councils, even today, run deficits which only turn into surpluses after receiving government grants. (See here: “Desmond Lee, all town councils run deficits“.)
This is especially so when one of the PAP’s former MPs was rather nonchalant about the prospect of his town council falling into deficit.
“This is not a big problem,” said Lew Syn Pau in a Straits Times report in October 1996, titled, “In danger of running into the red”, which highlighted that Mr Lew’s town council “may run into the red in the year 2002.”
And, by the way, Pasir Ris Town Council which “incurred a huge deficit” is still functioning today under the PAP and the GRC is in fact led by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who had entered politics in 1992 and became an MP in Pasir Ris after the January 1997 general election.
Mr Teo is of course, one of those “in charge of the country” today, as Mr Lim put it.