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PAP, AIM and the big fat white elephant in the room

PAP still has many questions to answer, says our blogger. (Yahoo! photo)PAP still has many questions to answer, says our blogger. (Yahoo! photo)

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Just a day after his party won Aljunied GRC in 2011’s general election, Low Thia Khiang said he hoped “he will get the People's Action Party's (PAP) cooperation” in taking over the town council in the constituency.

“Mr Low also hopes that there won't be 'any sabotage' like what he encountered in 1991 when he was first elected in the Hougang single-seat ward,” the Straits Times reported.

Low, who is the Workers’ Party’s secretary general, had had to vacate the Hougang Town Council in Hougang Central and had to turn to his own business contacts to build a new town council at Block 701, Hougang Avenue 2, within 45 days.

Four days after losing Aljunied GRC, one of the PAP’s losing MPs there, Cynthia Phua, gave assurance that there will be a smooth transition of the town council. “We will do a proper handover,” she said. “We will ensure that all the existing contracts that we have are handed over to the new management properly.”

Dismissing concerns that the PAP may sabotage the incoming WP team, Ms Phua said: “The PAP is not that way. It has always been a fair and responsible party. We are direct and transparent in our actions.”

In politics, as they say, sometimes things aren’t what they seem.

The ongoing saga involving the PAP-owned company, Action Information Management Pte Ltd (AIM), and its dealings with the WP’s Aljunied Hougang Town Council, has raised numerous questions of propriety, transparency and accountability. Several writers have written about and raised very pertinent questions about the matter. [Read them here and here.]

In a nutshell, the PAP’s decision to sell the computer system developed by the 14 town councils under its wings to a PAP-owned company is seen as a deliberate attempt to scuttle the efforts of the WP in taking over the running of the town council.

Explanations fall short

The coordinating chairman of the 14 PAP town councils, Teo Ho Pin, has been trying to explain the decision to sell the system to the PAP-owned AIM. His latest 26-paragraph statement, however, obfuscates more than it enlightens, and more questions are raised as Teo seems to have avoided addressing some of the main questions which members of the public have been asking.

Questions such as:

1.    Why leave residents at the mercy of a private entity?
2.    How much was spent to develop the software?
3.    What were, specifically, the tender conditions or requirements laid out in the original tender advertisement?
4.    How much, exactly, did AIM pay to purchase the software? There has been no unequivocal statement on how much AIM paid. News reports and Teo’s statement are vague, saying only that AIM “offered to purchase the software for $140,000”.

An offer to purchase is not the same as the actual amount paid for the purchase.
While all these questions are important and Teo and the PAP should address them immediately, they are not what perhaps are what the most important issues here.

The big fat white elephant in the room – which the PAP and Teo seem to have missed – is the issue of a conflict of interest in selling the intellectual property (IP) of software developed by the 14 PAP town councils and paid for, presumably, by residents or taxpayers, to a PAP-owned company run by three former PAP MPs.

As Alex Au wrote in his blog article: “The most troubling thing is that Teo sees no conflict of interest when putting state assets into partisan hands. It does not matter how it is done, whether through a tender or negotiated sale. The result is plain unacceptable.”

In the process, the PAP town councils have given what is a private entity – and owned by the PAP, no less – much power over the running by elected MPs of town councils through a termination clause in the contract. This was exactly what happened to the WP town council in Aljunied, in fact, after it took over the town council there.

The PAP town councils should not even have considered AIM’s bid, given the obvious conflict of interests here.

Track record

Some have suggested, and not without some reasonableness, that the decision to even put the system – one which Teo himself says was of depreciating value – up for sale is a political one. Given the experiences of opposition MPs in the past, it is not unreasonable to entertain such a possibility.

Low’s experience with the Hougang town council in 1991 is one example. The threat by the PAP to pull out its kindergartens in opposition wards is another. The discrimination of opposition wards in the HDB upgrading programme is yet another example.

Then there is, after the 2011 elections, the transference, by the HDB, of 6 plots of land in Hougang and 26 sites in Aljunied GRC from the purview of the town councils – which had fallen into WP’s hands – to the People’s Association which is the umbrella organisation for all the grassroots organisations (GROs) where PAP MPs or losing PAP candidates are the “advisers”, and they invariably make use of these public spaces and sites for their community activities.

In short, opposition MPs no longer can use these sites, unless they have the permission of the PA or the “grassroots advisers”. This is, in effect, transferring the authority and power from MPs to “grassroots advisers”.

There have also been other instances of such unfair practices by the PAP and its affiliated organisations.

This latest episode with AIM is seen by many as another of these unfair or less than gentlemanly practices, even as PAP MPs promised civility. It is made even worse because it goes beyond the pale of what is ethical. To be sure, no one is expecting political parties or politicians to be angels. In this instance, however, it is the use of taxpayers’ funds for the seemingly political self-interests of the PAP which is grating.

More expected

However Teo or the PAP try to explain away the entire episode, or justify what they have done, they would have missed the real reason for the public’s unhappiness if they do not also understand that Singaporeans expect more from their leaders.

What the public wants and deserves are politicians who have the ability to recognize that while some things may technically be legal, at times it is the better and the more ethical thing to do to not participate in such endeavours at all. In short, leaders must have the gumption to rise above the pettiness of partisan politics and not ingratiate themselves with dubious undertakings for selfish interests.

In this instance, what is disconcerting is that the PAP may have been aware of this conflict of interest (as indeed it must have) but decided to go ahead with the deal anyway. Why it did so would be anyone’s guess.

But to give it the benefit of the doubt, and as AIM is a “fully owned” entity of the PAP, the PAP can address the fundamental issue of how its actions have left residents at the mercy of this private entity and take the necessary steps to address this.

After all, isn’t the interest of the residents one which Teo is concerned about? Or is he more bent on insulting them through explanations and statements which are utterly unconvincing and which raise even more doubts?

“I believe that 20 years on, Singapore has become a more civilised country,” Low said on 8 May after winning Aljunied GRC, expressing his hope that the PAP will not sabotage the handing over of the town council in the ward.

The PAP’s behavior, unfortunately, tells a different tale.

Andrew helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011.


Related stories:

PAP reform: A checklist for change (Part 1)
PAP reform: A checklist for change (Part 2)
Council spat puts PAP in the spotlight

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