By Howard Lee
The spate on service and conservancy charges (S&CC) arrears between the Ministry of National Development (MND) and Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) drew to an uneasy close, with the concluding rebuttal from the Workers’ Party (WP) reiterating that the party will address the issue once the Auditor-General’s investigation of its accounts is completed.
In the waves of accusations that lasted the better of two weeks since 4 November, few might have paid attention to a remark that Mr Desmond Lee, Minister of State for National Development made on 21 November as his second accusation of WP’s account-keeping abilities.
“AHPETC has yet to explain its serious financial mismanagement, and the S&CC arrears. Instead, we have seen a coordinated online campaign to distract the public, using falsehoods, half-truths and speculations, by friends, sympathisers and proxies of the Workers’ Party (WP). The aim is to confuse the public and distract them from the real issues. MND has addressed these untruths. This is what the WP often does when caught under the spotlight – raise a flurry of red herrings in the hope that people forget that they have not come clean.”
What exactly was this “coordinated online campaign” that Mr Lee spoke of? To date, he has not elaborated nor pointed out examples of where or how this campaign took place.
Perhaps Mr Lee was referring to the articles written by various independent online media channels that refused to simply carry the media statements issued by MND, but instead opted to take a closer look at his earlier claim made on 7 November about how the supposed $3.3 million surplus from the old Aljunied Town Council was effectively not an operational surplus, but transferred into AHPETC’s sinking funds.
Or perhaps he was referring to articles that called into question how grants are allocated to town councils, and that there might be inconsistencies in how grants are allocated. Or for that matter, articles that question why MND should take issue with deficits in AHPETC’s funds, since other town councils under the People’s Action Party (PAP) have had similar faults.
Of these many issues, the only “untruth” that MND appears to have addressed seems to be the issue of inconsistencies in the allocation of grants – MND’s statement on 20 November indicated this allocation to be based on the number of Housing Development Board (HDB) flat units and the flat types.
Nevertheless, if we were to focus specifically on the “HDB flat numbers and types for grants” argument, it might become apparent that there was indeed a “coordinated online campaign”, but not necessarily by the WP or its “friends”.
Probing queries about the allocation of grants first appeared online from 17 to 18 November. MND responded officially in a statement on 20 November. However, might there have been a fair bit of groundwork laid in preparation for the announcement?
On 18 November, various arbiter on social media have begun to offer explanations about the grant allocation according the flat types.
In addition, this explanation was widely shared within the next hour or so by certain online users.
Of course, this would have been expected, assuming such information would have been readily available online for all to reference. However, an examination of MND’s website would reveal that updates to this formula for calculating grants based on HDB flat numbers and type was made on 19 November.
Purely co-incidental? Undoubtedly, there is no way that MND could have afforded, much less allowed, an information leak about updates to its website, even to known “friends, sympathisers and proxies” of the PAP.
Nevertheless, the overt emphasis on this one aspect of the matter did serve as an effective red herring that prevented clarity on other issues – transparency in the allocation of grants given that they are allocated by a committee chaired entirely by PAP members; how surpluses to sinking funds can still be counted towards operational expenditure; and why MND should take issue with WP when PAP town councils have previously also suffered deficits.
It would appear, then, that the Minister of State has made a number of rather odd claims – that MND has somehow “addressed the untruths” propagated by an unidentified “coordinated online campaign to distract the public”, when a number of these issues have barely been resolved. It is also not clear that this online campaign was as well “coordinated” by “friends, sympathisers and proxies of the WP”, as compared to that which might have been effected by friends, sympathisers and proxies of the PAP, possibly including the very Ministry at the head of the controversy.
Mr Lee would do well to remember that unsubstantiated claims might lead to a spectacular backfire.
For example, then Minister for Education Mr Lee Yock Suan, in the 1997 general election contest for the former Cheng San GRC (part of which was, incidentally, absorbed into the current Aljunied GRC), was cited by media with this broad claim: “We'll win by even bigger margin now”.
“Education Minister Lee Yock Suan said yesterday that he is confident of winning Cheng San GRC on his own steam but looks forward to a "convincing" victory now that Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has entered the fray.”
The “convincing victory” was to be wrought by then PM Goh and then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who threw allegations of Chinese chauvinism at Lee’s opponent, WP candidate Tang Liang Hong.
History, as we know it now, provided none of the “bigger margin” that Lee was so sure of. Cheng San was returned to the PAP, but at a whopping shift of 9.3% in WP’s favour.
MOS Lee, then, might do well to remember this lesson that his party might or might not have learnt in GE1997 – unsubstantiated allegations and sweeping claims, if unproven, are best not made, because the electorate is a lot less forgiving than the people you have made allegations against.