Source : Google Street view.

The Ministry of National Development (MND) is inviting the public to provide feedback on the proposed amendments to the Town Councils Act (TCA), which can be sent between 18 October 2016 and 17 November 2016.

The Town Councils (TCs) were introduced in 1989 by an Act of Parliament to serve two objectives. First, TCs were set up to give elected Members of Parliament (MPs) the authority and responsibility to take charge of their constituents’ estate and allow each Town to develop its own distinctive character under the MPs’ leadership. Second, MPs were made directly accountable to their voters for the running of their estates, as the voters could then take into account the MPs’ performance in running the TC when they go to the polls.

MND said that the TCA and subsidiary legislation gave the elected MPs latitude to run the TCs within broad rules laid down to ensure proper governance and safeguard public interest. TCs otherwise had significant autonomy to manage their affairs. For example, each TC had the power to make its own by-laws, set its service and conservancy charges (S&CC) and determine its enforcement policy. In the administration of the Act, latitude has always been given to MPs, across political parties, to exercise autonomy and judgement on how best to perform their core functions and serve their residents’ needs and interests.

The review of the TCA was first mooted in May 2013 by then-Minister for National Development Mr Khaw Boon Wan.

In a Ministerial Statement on TCs, Minister Khaw said that although TCs had largely fulfilled the original objectives for which they were set up, it was timely after more than 20 years of TC operations to review and update the administrative and regulatory framework for TCs.

MND is proposing to amend the TCA to:

(a) Clarify the roles and functions of TCs;
(b) Improve TC governance;
(c) Strengthen financial management in TCs; and
(d) Enhance MND’s regulatory oversight.

The proposed amendments seek to ensure that TCs deliver essential public services in a consistent, fair, and sustainable way that serves the interest of residents, while retaining the autonomous nature of TCs. The review also recognises that the public expects transparency and accountability from TCs as they manage public funds and take responsibility for maintaining a good living environment for residents.

Details of the proposed amendments are available on the REACH portal at Members of the public can submit their comments and suggestions by 17 November 2016, via the following channels:

  • Email to: [email protected]
  • Fax to: 6325 7254
  • Post to: Ministry of National Development
    5 Maxwell Road #21-00
    Tower Block MND Complex
    Singapore 069110
    Subject: Proposed Amendments to the Town Councils Act

MND trying to change the act to fix AHPETC?

It is unclear why exactly MND is calling for the amendments at this point of time, but perhaps it is something similar to that of the amendments to the Elected Presidency. Said to be timely intervention but in reality, it is meant to suit a certain agenda.

Earlier in 2015, the High Court dismissed the application by MND to impose conditions onto grants disbursed to the town council and to have the court to appoint independent auditors to Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council  (AHPETC).

Justice Quentin Loh said in his 83-page judgement that MND failed to establish legal bases for its court application to appoint the independent accountants to the town council.

MND sought to designate and appoint independent auditors who will co-authorise and co-sign all payments in excess of S$20,000 from segregated bank accounts established by AHPETC and grants payable for financial years 2014/15 and 2015/16 from MND and to oversee the payments to ensure all proposed payments out of the special accounts are correctly made and properly authorised.

The independent auditors will also identify whether the payments made by AHPETC have been correctly made. They would also be empowered to demand and collect for the recovery of town council money which are incorrectly paid out and also take appropriate actions in the event if breach(es) of duties or unlawful conduct by individuals are found.

However, Justice Loh noted in his judgement, “…It would be strange, to say the least, for the MND to be said be the beneficial owner if the proper administration and expenditure of the aforementioned funds would directly benefit residents or the HDB.”

Justice Loh agreed with representing lawyer for AHPETC, Mr Peter Low that the conditions such as the appointment of auditors are matters left to the Minister under section 42 of the Town Council Act as the provision provides the Minister with the power to subject the grants-in-aid to such conditions as he may determine.

“No order is required from the court,” wrote Justice Loh and went on to note that it would be up to AHPETC to accept the conditions set by the Minister if he chooses. He also noted AHPETC can always choose to opt for judicial review proceeding, should they feel the conditions are unreasonable.

Justice Loh pointed that it is clear from the parliamentary speeches that the Town Council Act was to allow Town Councils latitude to operate and manage their funds, operate with the necessary powers, impose the necessary duties, obligations and requirements and to put in sufficient safeguards.

Quoting from the speech made by the then Minister for National Development, Mr Dhanabalan, Justice Loh noted that the principle of his message on the Town Council Act (TCA) is that residents must live with the choices made by their town councils.  But he cautioned that it should not be construed as an indication that a town council can breach the duties imposed on it by the TCA with impunity.

It is unknown what will be the exact changes that MND will bring upon the Town Council Act but what it is sure is that the amendments will be made solely by the ministry and will be passed in parliament even if the Members of Parliament from Workers’ Party were to voice their objections feverishly as People’s Action Party (PAP) holds the majority share of the Parliamentary seats.

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