By Howard Lee
In the wake of the never-ending battle between the Workers’ Party Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council and the Ministry of National Development over the management of town council funds, the Singapore Democratic Party today announced its Town Council Management Plan which includes proposals for new ways to run the town council.
Right off the bat, the plan made various promises to residents of the constituencies the party hopes to win at the next general election – Members of Parliament who would dedicate themselves full-time to running an efficient town council, cutting out unnecessary costs and passing on the savings to residents, and a transparent and accountable system for residents to track developments and actions of the town council.
The plan also proposes various well-being and development programmes to enhance community bonding and offer needed assistance to residents.
“We will strive to set new standards in town council management by adopting best practices in transparency and accountability,” the write-up for the plan indicated. “It is only through confidence in the SDP working for the people at the constituency level will Singaporeans gain trust in our party to eventually take over as government.”
Financial hand over, in particular, seems to be fairly detailed, where the SDP Town Council (SDPTC) will hire a qualified and highly skilled Certified Public Accountant to ensure the previous town council diligently hands over past years’ audited financial statements, management accounts and budgets; details on all assets and liabilities, income & expenditure, bank accounts; breakdown of government grants; and existing contracts for estate management.
SDP’s plan seems to have picked up a few learning points from the current woes of AHPETC, although Dr Chee downplayed its significance.
“We have enumerated all the possible duties and tasks that each department and oversight committee would have to undertake,” he said. “There is no special attention paid to the finance duties. If there is more content there, it is because these are clearly spelt out in the Town Council Act and its related Financial Rules.”
The paper noted that the formation of town councils under the Town Council Act “was widely seen as a political measure introduced by the PAP to discourage voters from electing opposition MPs.”
An interesting departure from regular practice was the SDP’s intent not to hire a managing agent, but instead run the town council on its own by employing qualified professionals who would be managed by full-time MPs.
Self-run town councils are not a new concept –Bishan-Toa Payoh Town Council and Potong Pasir Town Council, when it was managed by Singapore People’s Party’s Mr Chiam See Tong, also use self-management. SDP noted that this would help to keep costs low, and savings would be passed back to residents.
SDPTC also proposes to establish five departments – finance, estate management, residents’ relations, information technology, and procurement – to be staffed with qualified professional employees, who will in turn be supervised by the MPs, and appoint committees to oversee the work of the departments.
But a departure from usual practice – and quite likely a first in Singapore – is the proposal to get residents involved in the running of the town council, including voting in their town councillors, in which the SDPTC will reserve a portion of the town council board for representatives who will be elected through a constituency level election.
“Any form of democratic process, be it at the constituency or national level, always helps with transparent and accountable governance,” said Dr Chee. “What we hope to achieve is that the town council board will not comprise only appointed members – which can be used in arguing that the appointed are beholden to the appointers – but also residents who will be elected by the fellow residents regardless of party affiliation.”
“We also anticipate that town council board members will be involved in our budgetary planning, a large part of which will include estate maintenance and enhancement projects,” he added.
Beyond getting active grassroot support, SDP also proposes to extend needy residents a helping hand with service and conservancy charges, child development initiative and social assistance programmes funded by contributions from their MPs’ allowances. These programmes will be aligned with current government assistance.
“Where they exist and dovetail into our plans, existing government projects will be supplemented and enhanced by our social programmes,” said Dr Chee.
While some might view the SDPTC Management Plan as the party’s attempt to recover from the Punggol East by-election, when SDP’s offer to let the WP run the town council was criticised as the party’s inability to do so, Dr Chee disagreed.
“We announced The SDP Promise before the 2011 general elections, which contained ideas on how we would run a town council, albeit in a brief format. This current Management Plan is a full development of those ideas,” he said. “So the idea of this document was mooted way before the by-election in Punggol East.”
“Also, in the cooperation proposal with the WP during the by-election, we are on record saying that we would have been just as happy to assume the work of the town council and let the WP MP do the work in Parliament. Our intention was to foster opposition cooperation.”