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Parliament

A whiff of sulphur

parliament
Singapore Parliament (Image - Terry Xu)

By Masked Crusader

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” says Marcellus in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In coffee shops around Singapore and online forums the sentiment is similar even if the phraseology used is somewhat more colloquial.

The proceedings in Parliament last week during the motion to discuss the Auditor-General’s findings of lapses in the Workers’ Party-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council, if anything, confirmed suspicions that the People’s Action Party is concerned mainly with two things—high salaries for themselves and partisanship so that they can hold onto their highly-paid positions. The interests of Singaporeans ranks third at best although some would consider this a kind assessment.

Law Minister, K. Shanmugam, presented a chart in parliament to show that AHPETC pays significantly more to its Managing Agent, FM Services & Solutions, than MAs in PAP-run town councils are paid. The WP is accused of paying double the rate for commercial units within AHPETC and of overpaying FMSS by approximately $1.6m per year compared to PAP town councils. As FMSS has close affiliations to WP, one of the suggestions is that cronyism is at play.

Chart by K Shanmugam

The irony is lost on the PAP that cronyism is exactly what it has been accused of for years and, by creating a climate where everything it touches is politicised, it is PAP's own warped standards of corporate governance that is on trial here.

It now seems that the MA rate comparisons which were presented in Parliament were for 2014 and that if similar comparisons had been made for previous years, it would have told a different story. A conspiracy theory, now going viral, postulates that MA rates in PAP town councils had been significantly reduced in 2014 possibly to demonstrate that the PAP is able to get better deals for its constituents and that the reason WP is paying more for management services must be that it is lining the pockets of its cronies.

If the theory is true, it is convenient indeed that the PAP town councils were able to secure far better rates from their existing MAs a year before general elections are expected when they had paid more the previous three years.

Again, if true, then—to borrow the words of PAP MP Hri Kumar— “this entire episode raises questions about the competence, accountability and integrity” of the PAP and related entities.

These questions of the PAP are not new. In 2010, PAP sold off its town council management software, which had cost taxpayers over $23m, to a $2 company named Action Information Management run by two former PAP MPs. This disclosure in 2013 forced PAP to admit that it owned private companies though it provided no details relating to the number and nature of these businesses. It is claimed that this curious business deal was done to deprive the WP, which won the Aljunied Group Representation Constituency in the historic 2011 General Elections, of vital infrastructure it needed to run its town council effectively.

To allay suggestions of impropriety, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ordered the Ministry of National Development to review the transaction dubbed "AIM-gate" by netizens. Predictably, MND reported that the sale of software to AIM complied with regulations and there was no conflict of interest. But few were persuaded by these findings. If anything, the MND report exposed Singapore's brand of corporate governance as falling woefully short of international standards.

To the public—which PAP seems to take for fools—the party’s actions since 2011, in particular, reflect a consistent and obvious pattern. It seems obsessed with scoring political points by derailing WP’s running of AHPETC in the vain hope of correcting the ignominy of losing a GRC. The WP’s claim that large, established companies providing services to the PAP are reluctant to take on additional business if it means working with the opposition is entirely believable. If the PAP is responsible for this, then its methods are underhanded and it is sad that the party is willing to use Singaporeans as collateral damage, even those who voted for the party in Aljunied GRC.

This pattern of behaviour goes further back. In 2006, PM Lee had spoken about the possible need to “fix” the opposition. In fact, prior to that, Lee’s father and mentor, Lee Kuan Yew—who had also used words such as  “fix” and “knuckle-dusters” in relation to his political opponents—had famously spoken about the need to rig the system so that, in the event of a freak election, the party taking over would not survive its first term.

On the matter of the PAP town councils' MA rates, the party would do well to explain if it was paying higher rates prior to 2014. If so, how were the town councils suddenly able to negotiate significantly lower rates using the same vendors? Had PAP town councils been over-paying prior to 2014? Are the lower rates due to a reduction of services from the MAs?

Since the town councils use different MAs—each with its own unique corporate structure and overheads—it would be most suspicious indeed if the PAP town councils were able to negotiate lower rates with all of them.

As MA rates, in part, determine the Services and Conservancy Charges to be charged to residents and businesses, will there be a consequent reduction in S&CC rates?

For a party accustomed to tooting its horns, it is rather unlike the PAP to not have publicly announced the awesome deals it got from their MAs last year and reductions in S&CC rates as a pre-election sweetener. So perhaps all this is nothing more than theories by conspiracists bored with the lack of intrigue in local politics.

If, on the other hand, there is some truth to the allegations, the PAP would do well to provide compelling explanations. Because MA-gate in an election year could prove to be bigger than AIM-gate.

This article was first published at maskedcrusader.blogspot.sg