Whiter than White?

by Ngiam Shin-Tung

Alex Yam was appointed Mayor of the North West Community Development Council (CDC) in July 2020. However, he appears to still hold the position of Executive Director of the People’s Action Party (PAP) headquarters.

As the job of PAP HQ Executive Director is historically a full-time, paid position, this implies that the Government is subsidising the operating cost of the PAP by paying for Mr Yam’s salary while he continues to serve as a Party administrator.

At the time of his election to Parliament in 2011, Alex Yam was Head (Strategies & Planning/Youth Lab) of Young NTUC but left that job for the the position of Executive Director of PAP HQ. The role of Executive Director has been described as “full-time” in the PAP newsletter, Petir, and Yam has not been reported as holding any other job since leaving NTUC, so we can infer that Executive Director of PAP HQ was a paid full-time position and that Yam was an employee of the PAP between 2013 and 2020.

Is Yam still serving as Executive Director of PAP HQ after his appointment as Mayor? If so, how is that different from a political office-holder working for a private company while holding political office? As of 30 December 2020, Yam still lists “Executive Director” of PAP HQ as his occupation on his Facebook page. Admittedly, this could just be a sign that he did not update his web presence after getting re-elected so I wrote o him twice at his PA email address but did not receive any response.

When Yam was appointed as Deputy Executive Director in 2012, the PAP issued a press statement announcing his appointment and published a feature in its Party organ, Petir, when Yam succeeded Pearce Lau Ping Sum as Executive Director in 2013.

Given that the PAP has not made any announcements on replacing Yam as Executive Director, we can infer that he continues to serve in that capacity. The significance of that is that I am quite sure the PAP would not continue to pay Yam his Executive Director salary, and the Government would not allow him to be paid by the PAP in addition to the $660,000/yr he receives as Mayor. But this means that the taxpayer is subsidising the PAP by paying for the salary of its Executive Director.

Mayors who multi-task

Over the last five years, three Mayors – Low Yen Ling, Teo Ser Luck and Maliki Osman – have held other political appointments as Parliamentary Secretaries or Ministers of State at the same time that they served as Mayors. Political appointment holders often hold multiple portfolios in Singapore so this is not unusual.

The case of Desmond Choo is more interesting because he is Assistant Secretary General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) in addition to being Mayor of the North-East District. This would raise eyebrows in many other democracies because of the risks of a conflict of interest when a political office-holder also holds office in a trade union at the same time.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the Ministerial Code states that Ministers “should take no active part in the conduct of union affairs, should give up any office they may hold in a union and should receive no remuneration from a union.” Notwithstanding the close relationship between the Labour Party and trade unions, the separation of union and government appointments has been respected even when the Labour Party was in power.

By contrast, every Secretary-General of the NTUC in the last forty years has been a Government Minister though current Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng had to leave Cabinet after losing his seat in Parliament. Despite Ng’s loss and questions that are now being raised publicly about the relationship between the Government, PAP and NTUC, two Senior Ministers of State, Koh Poh Koon and Heng Chee How remain in the NTUC as Deputy Secretaries-General.

There is a big difference between a political office-holder working for the NTUC and one working directly for the PAP, however. It can be argued that Koh Poh Koon’s, Heng Chee How’s and Desmond Choo’s work for NTUC is for the benefit of all Singaporean workers but Alex Yam’s work as Executive Director of PAP HQ can only be for the Party’s benefit.

To be clear, I am not making any aspersions as to Alex Yam’s personal integrity. I am very sure he is only taking one salary, that of Mayor. The problem is that by paying Yam, the Government is subsidising the PAP by paying for the cost of its Executive Director. In the same way that it would not be acceptable for the Government to send civil servants to work for a private company without charging the company, it is not acceptable for the Government to be paying the salary of a political party administrator.

The PAP has never been shy about using State resources for political purposes – estate upgrading and even the People’s Association itself are just two examples that come to mind. In both those examples, however, the government can argue that public funds are being used to benefit the community as a whole. But by paying Alex Yam’s salary even as he continues to serve as a PAP administrator, the Government is indirectly paying for the PAP’s running costs. That represents an unacceptable blurring of the line between Party and State reminiscent of the dramatic failure of governance that allowed PAP Town Councils to sell their IT system to a shell company owned by the Party.

As I mentioned earlier, Alex Yam did not respond to my emails raising these concerns directly with him. It’s possible that my inferences are incorrect and that he no longer holds the position of Executive Director, or that the position of Executive Director was an unpaid position. If any of these assumptions are incorrect, my concerns are unfounded and there is nothing wrong with him continuing to volunteer his services as Executive Director even as he serves as Mayor.

The PAP needs to find another Executive Director

If Yam had been paid by the PAP as Executive Director between 2013 and 2020, however, then the PAP cannot retain him in that position now that he has been appointed as Mayor. Six months has been plenty of time for the Party to find another administrator and the earlier they hire and announce a new Executive Director, the better.

This post was first published on Mr Ngiam’s blog and reproduced with permission

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