At some point, we would expect the AHPETC town management saga to be trotted out for a political showing, if not a showdown, as we round the corner for the next General Election. But few might expect the first volley to be fired before nomination day has been announced, and by no less than Singapore’s leading national broadsheet, which the Prime Minister himself had recently called “credible, balanced and objective”.
In a commentary titled “The lose-lose political problem of AHPETC”, assistant political editor of The Straits Times Rachel Chang said that the “sullen, silent and obfuscatory” Workers’ Party is playing its “favourite victim card”. She also noted the “whiff of cronyism and opportunism around FMSS”, WP’s managing agent for its Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council, which she believes straddles “the line between questionable governance and criminality”, even while noting that cronyism and opportunism are not illegal.
She surmised that “Aljunied and Punggol East voters have got, dollar for dollar, the worst value for town management services in Singapore”, although her colleagues in another article have interviewed a resident who noted that “the void decks are still swept and the rubbish is cleared” and “the neighbourhood is being taken care of, so I don’t worry that much.”
On the other hand, Chang noted – almost towards the end of the whole “lose-lose” article – that the risk to the PAP was in being “seen to be too bullying of the WP”, and thus having to balance between “a need to uphold principles of integrity and good governance” and getting the Ministry for National Development to appear as a political actor in the whole affair.
Her final risk assessment: “All this time spent on what voters conclude is politicking could be the worst-case scenario for the PAP in what may well be an election year. As for the WP, what’s clear from the entire fiasco is that they’re barely managing to run one town as it is. It would be a foolhardy electorate that gives it another one.”
So the PAP should try not to appear like a white knight with a few scratches in his armour, while the WP should just hunker down, and make sure the black baron tidies up his castle before contemplating other conquests.
Nice one, ST, but more than a few notches away from a decent assessment. It is true that both WP and PAP face risks from the whole AHPETC saga, but the actual fallout would be very different.
WP – a lot to answer for, but not for taking out the trash
Let us not deny that the WP has a lot to answer for. The need for proper management of funds has been entrusted to it under the Town Council Act, and like any other party, it has to abide by these rules. We might not like how town councils have been politicised since Goh Chok Tong mooted the concept during his premiership, but WP stood in Aljunied GRC with its eyes wide open.
There was also the more recent hiccup where AHPETC was collecting service & conservancy charges from residents of Parkland Residence, when the estate has not yet been handed over for it to be managed, leading to unhappy residents having to maintain their own estate for a short period of time.
Clearly, WP has a lot more to learn about managing a large town council, but that this accountability is still to the residents of constituencies currently under its charge. And it appears that the trash does get taken out and there has been no major incidents where the constituency has suffered from poor management. Moreover, would residents in other constituencies not think that WP would still perform reasonably as a town council manager, if not further leverage economies of scale, should it win other wards?
What residents do need to watch out for is whether the flow of funds might affect the longer term viability of the town council, as we will get down to in a bit.
In fact, in assessing WP’s suitability to be elected, Singaporeans should pay greater attention to how the party has conducted itself in Parliament, riding in as it did with the very sexy slogan of “Towards a First World Parliament” in 2011. The premise of that slogan was centred on WP increasing the quality of debate in Parliament, and the logical conclusion must be that such debate should benefit citizen.
In this aspect, WP really came in with a mixed bag. Its position on Ministerial salaries was criticised as being little more than a discount of lavish PAP standards, while its position on the Population White Paper drew many favourable comments for its attempt to make sure Singapore manages with an indigenous workforce.
More recently, it chipped in on the attempt by the PAP to grant sole discretion of appointing board members of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies to the Education Minister, with the view of influencing academic independence. Do such interjections support WP’s call to be given more voice in Parliament?
On the other hand, the PAP has a lot more to lose should it choose to play up the AHPETC saga, beyond appearing as a playground bully in seeking “integrity and good governance”.
MND’s heavy involvement in the saga – to the extent of taking WP to court and dragging the Housing Development Board into it – has highlighted an underlying problem in politics and governance in Singapore. The civil service has often been accused of being the political tool of the PAP, and this saga has only entrenched such a view. It goes beyond saying “all’s fair in love, war and politics”. This is the people calling into question political bias in a civil service that is supposed to be impartial. As the ruling party, the PAP is implicit in such accusations.
Consequently, the influence goes beyond Aljunied GRC. What assurance do the people have that such politicking would not spread into other constituencies? The people have balked at the past practice of using public goods like precinct upgrading as electioneering carrots. Would they not view the deployment of MND and its statutory boards similarly as using public resources to “fix” the opposition?
More specifically, the MND is now inclined to withhold town council grants from AHPETC until the Ministry is satisfied that the town council’s accounts have been cleared. While it might be legislated to do so, the real effect on the ground might be that AHPETC cannot upkeep its sinking funds and hence finance estate upgrading projects.
Would residents see this as an unfair attempt by the PAP to force WP into a hard corner? How different is this from an electioneering carrot? Does it not suggest that the PAP is putting its political interest of undoing the WP above the public interest of citizens?
PAP might also be suffering from a blind corner, by assuming that it will be seen as pursuing the moral high ground in this matter. Citizens would not easily forget the earlier AIMS or Lehman Brothers sagas. Each probe into AHPETC does even less to downplay the fact these issues remain technically un-investigated and unresolved. How would the PAP reconcile these issues?
Furthermore, by dedicating two whole days in Parliament debating the AHPETC case, how well is PAP representing the interest of Singaporeans in Parliament?
A simple paper analysis would put the WP in a worse light than the PAP – they mismanaged funds, and so do not deserve another win at the polls. But elections are never about paper analysis, but understanding what the people want – fair play vs estate management, an alternative voice in Parliament vs partisan governance.
None of these human interests are right or wrong, but knowing what is at stake at each turn of play is an indication of how wise the PAP has been in pushing WP so far. You can try to push your opponent over the cliff, but also watch out for the ground crumbling beneath you.