Only fair if all town councils are held to same code of conduct

Rules cannot be applied selectively and practices cannot be reviewed in a vacuum

As the court case between an independent panel representing the Aljunied and Hougang Town Council (AHTC) and certain members of the Workers’ Party (WP) drags on, it becomes increasingly evident that there are several grey areas that regulate how town councils are run. Arguably, these issues have never come to the fore because all town councils were previously run by the dominant Peoples’ Action Party (PAP). These issues have only arisen as a result of HDB taking issue with certain decisions and payments made by the WP run AHTC.

A witness to the ongoing trial, a Mr Owen Hawkes, who is an accountant at KPMG testified in court that the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) of AHTC were “not well thought out”, “not clear” and “short”. To bolster his contention, Hawkes went on to elaborate that  “Trust is not control” and that SOPs were required to ensure control where trust fails. I find this to be a very circular line of reasoning. The whole of point of appointing an agent is that you rely on them to do what you have engaged them to do. In so doing, all the WP could have done was to appoint someone willing to do the job who also had the right experience. There is no suggestion that FMSS did not meet this criteria given that they had previously managed Hougang Town Council. If the WP had to control everything, then there is no need for an agent to be appointed. They might as well do it themselves?

Secondly, are we judging the WP’s lack of SOPs on its own merits or in comparison with the SOPs of the other PAP managed town councils? What is the industry standard? What is the market practice? WP has to be judged solely in line with prevailing market practice and not at a higher standard. Has Hawkes also reviewed the SOPs of the other town councils before coming to his conclusion? If he is speaking in a vacuum, then I am afraid that his opinion loses credibility because he has no context.

There is also an assertion that the WP should have retained the incumbent agent instead of appointing FMSS. However, it is completely normal for new management to bring in new talent. The corporate world does this all the time. I don’t understand why that is considered sinister? Besides, there is also the possibility that the WP would have had difficulty finding an agent willing to work with them in the first place. Town council management is after all a very niche and closed market. Did Hawkes consider this when drafting his report?

Without looking at industry wide practices, this court case is a little bit of a shambles because it cannot identify what standard by which to hold the WP to? Before WP can be held to account in this adversarial manner, we first have to look at the SOPs and practices utilised by the PAP run town councils to identify what market standard is. Perhaps, the general standard ought to be improved upon but the WP should not be made the scapegoat for industry wide lax practices. Surely, it is the PAP run town councils (who being the majority would have set the standard) who ought to be taken to task?

With regards to allegations that the WP had acted improperly by appointing FMSS without a tender process, it is important to note that the Town Councils Financial Rules (TCFR) “provide latitude” to town councils or their chairmen “to waive requirement to call for tender altogether”. The Ministry of National Development (MND) and its former minister Mr Khaw Boon Wah had in fact permitted this “latitude” when he defended the controversial sale of a software in a town council run by the PAP to a PAP-owned company Action Information Management. Why was the PAP run town council in that instance not censured for not calling a tender if the WP are being hung out to dry for not having had a tender process?

Town councils either have the right to waive a tender process or not. You cannot give them a right only to then call them improper for utilising the right. At the end of the day, it is only fair if all town councils are held to the same code of conduct. Rules cannot be applied selectively and practices cannot be reviewed in a vacuum. Perhaps Hawkes is not the right expert for the job.