COMMENT: Aljunied-Hougang Town Council saga: What is the end game?

Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (Yahoo photo)
Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (Yahoo photo)

The last chapters of the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council magnum opus are being written with the end game still anybody’s guess.

If it is dragged till the very bitter end, the long-running saga is likely to end with three MPs of the Workers’ Party (WP) losing their seats in Parliament. Should the scenario pan out, Singapore would be poorer for it while opposition politics would take a long time to recover after a short burst of optimism when the ruling party was ejected out of a GRC for the first time in the 2011 general elections.

The civil lawsuit filed by an independent panel alleging financial lapses, mismanagement and governance slip-ups are serious enough to make one wonder if the political career of WP’s chief Low Thia Khiang, chairman Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh is finished. A lot will depend on how they will fight their case and if the authorities will press criminal charges against the group.

There were some indications of how the three will fight their case in court in interviews they gave last week. We acted in good faith, we will leave it to the residents and voters, we did nothing unlawful, we will explain why we made certain decisions at the point of time, we acted in the best interests of the town council based on information we had at that time, they said.

Embedded in these answers are reasons why Low and Lim allegedly asked two of the party’s long-time supporters to set up an estate management company and why it was appointed as the management agent of the town council without calling for a tender. Also, the answers point to clues on why this company, FM Solutions and Services, was allowed to charge 10 per cent, or $515,733, more than what the previous company had charged for the People’s Action Party-run Aljunied Town Council.

What is clear about what WP had said since the scandal broke five years ago is that it had no choice but to get up and running in appointing the managing agent despite obvious conflict of interest issues. A source close to what had happened then said: “It was chaotic. They had to start everything from scratch, from setting up a computer system to appointing a management agent to making sure the estate was cleaned to answering residents’ calls.

“It would have helped if the previous managing agent, CPG Facilities Management, had decided to continue to serve as the managing agent. In the meantime, residents’ fees were flowing in and the WP found itself in a mighty battle to do its political and administrative roles.”

A year after the 2011 GE, only FMSS tendered for the project even though three companies had collected the tender documents. Another argument that WP might use, as Sylvia Lim said in a letter in 2015 to Aljunied and Hougang residents, is that PAP-run Tanjong Pagar, Nee Soon and Sembawang were overpaying their managing agents. So how can WP be the only party accused of overcharging, the argument can go.

Judging the case on a purely technical point of view, without considering the mitigating factors, the WP seems to have failed in not being holier than thou or whiter than white in how it managed the business of its town council.

Low is no spring chicken in Singapore politics. The weather-beaten politician should have realised that he and his team had done something no other party had done when it had made that audacious move to fight the Aljunied GRC and win it. In the process, they kicked out Foreign Minister George Yeo, Senior Minister of State Zainul Abidin Rasheed and Minister of State Lim Hwee Hua.

WP miscalculated big time that the government had moved away from the knuckle-duster approach of the Lee Kuan Yew era providing an important marker for those who want to challenge the government: Make sure your dealings are beyond reproach.

The WP’s troubles are likely to mean that the opposition party and Singapore will pay a heavy price if the end game is to punish the party severely.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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