By Howard Lee
It would appear that the campaigning has begun in earnest even before nomination day, as the ruling People’s Action Party went all out to remind citizens on what the general elections should be about – not democratic participation, but how to run a town council.
So far, we have had two Ministers – Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean (not once but twice) and Law Minister K Shanmugam – lay out for voters why Aljunied GRC residents should have the best and brightest to manage their town.
“Basic facilities – who can run them well?” said Mr Shanmugam. “Do you trust people with your money? Do you think they are people of integrity? Can you look at them in the eye and believe that these people will deliver on their promises? I think underlying it all, it’s really a question of honesty, integrity and trust. Those are the choices for the people.”
Both Ministers seem to be harping on the fact that Worker’s Party is not fit to be elected because they have not been able to manage a town council well. The logic is that, if you are not able to tell where your money is going, you have integrity issues. Mr Teo also suggested that WP is now eyeing Fengshan SMC in order to swallow its sinking funds.
As if that wasn’t enough, the recent political dialogue at NUSS saw the People’s Action Party’s Sim Ann, who is not even standing in a ward under threat by WP, go head on with WP’s Gerald Giam over the same issue.
Say again, who’s running your town council?
Let’s just put aside the facts behind the Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council saga, and assume that WP Members of Parliament really did mismanage its town council funds. The charges brought against the party was in relation to how the sinking funds was lost because it was allegedly siphoned away by its managing agent. So let’s just assume that the managing agent was really a crook and the WP MPs were either in cahoots with them or were ignorant enough to be fooled by them since, as Mr Teo suggested, they did not have the financial and legal background.
Assuming then that we need greater accountability in town councils, what then do we do? The quickest way would be to have the MPs themselves personally accountable – in effect, cut out the middle man.
Which is actually what WP is currently doing in AHPETC. It is also worth noting that the Chaims have stuck to this model of self-managing a town council in Potong Pasir, and would likely do so again should they win any constituency. Other parties, such as the Singapore Democratic Party, have also proposed to move away from the current model of out-sourced estate management in favour of self-management.
So what exactly is PAP’s strategy in harping endlessly about town council management? If it is trying to win back Aljunied GRC by slapping some “hard truths” into its residents, then it could be missing out on the real truth, as opposition parties are showing interest in abandoning a less accountable system of management – a system which the PAP, ironically, is still using for almost all the town councils under its charge.
Integrity or trust?
Perhaps the PAP is trying to say that opposition parties as a whole are not fit to be elected, since their (or WP’s) experience with running a town council has shown them up as being questionable in integrity. If so, then such a broad sweep might just backfire.
For the greater part, citizens have very little reason to worry about how town councils funds are managed. We pay our service and conservancy charges (S&CC), hope that the charges do not increase obscenely, and just trust the town councillors to do their job. Similarly for Aljunied GRC, as an earlier report by The Straits Times notes, in stark contrast to a more recent commentary in the same paper, Aljunied citizens are just as relaxed about how WP manages the estate.
Is the PAP now introducing more doubt and scrutiny into this established system of trust? Is it that sure that its own record has stood up to the test? Citizens will not easily forget the AIM saga.
The town council “issue” is at best nothing more than an interesting side show where parties take pot shots at each other. Mud-slinging and character assassination is fun to watch, but does little to address our everyday concerns. The real and bigger issue is that the PAP has thus far not demonstrated a more compelling reason for winning back votes from the opposition other than niggling about who is best, cheapest, smartest and most honest at sweeping the streets clean.
Once again, we see the PAP intent on turning a nation-wide general election into a municipal contest. For a party of its size and much-vaunted calibre of candidates, is this the best that it can manage?
Oddly, the opposition parties seem to have a better grasp of what their role is in government. National Solidarity Party’s Hazel Poa noted that the law-making role of an MP is just as important in Parliament as what she can do on the ground for residents, if not more so.
We even see a Non-Constituency MP, Mrs Lina Chiam, speak up against the ban on alcohol and opposing the Bill in Parliament, arguing against broader issues like legislative overkill. Have PAP MPs measured up to that level of debate?
But if we are happy to go with the logic professed by the likes of Mr Teo, Mr Shanmugam and Ms Sim, then we are effectively paying S$16,000 a month for a neighbourhood care-taker. Is it really cost effective?
If anything, this non-issue of an issue only highlights what the role on an MP should be vis-a-vis what they are being elected and getting paid to do. The management of town councils would be more effectively done by a centralised agency, such as MND, or by an independently commissioned or elected body.
The key role of our Members of Parliament should be to represent us in the highest institution of democratic participation we have. By harping endlessly on town council management – which no one, not even residents of Aljunied who are supposed to have “suffered” from, bothers about – the PAP has only demonstrated how little it understands elections and democracy.
Or perhaps the biggest party of our land never really bothered about democracy.