Dangerous for a minister to oversee town councils: Sylvia Lim

Nicholas Yong
Senior Correspondent
Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (Yahoo Singapore photo)

In its bid to correct potential conflicts of interest, the proposed amendments to the Town Councils Act perpetuate “the biggest conflict of all” by giving the Ministry of National Development (MND) “tremendous power” to look into the affairs of particular town councils (TCs), said Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim.

Speaking in Parliament on Friday (10 March), the Workers’ Party chair gave a sharp critique of the proposed amendments, singling out one point in Clause 24. The point empowers MND to devise strategies for compliance reviews on town councils and to order investigations into TCs.

“The scheme as proposed perpetuates the biggest conflict of all: who is the gatekeeper of this regime?” Lim pointed out that the National Development Minister himself runs a town council. His “comrades in arms”, including the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Ministers, are also responsible for running all but one of the 15 town councils in Singapore.

Calling the scheme “fundamentally flawed”, she added, “It is in our view dangerous to arrogate to a partisan minister the solemn duty of overseeing town councils, which are essentially political institutions. What amounts to ‘a reasonable suspicion of material irregularity’ (Part 6A of Clause 24) is very subjective…What would trigger such an investigation is purely up to the minister to interpret.”

Lim claimed that the new provisions were a “likely response” to the outcome of a court case brought by MND against the former Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) in 2015.  She noted that both the High Court and the Court of Appeal had ruled that MND was not the proper party to sue town councils, and also held that the National Development Minister was only entitled to intervene in very few and specific circumstances, and did not have the general power of oversight.

The Aljunied MP took further aim at MND, saying that it was far from a “politically neutral body” and had been an “active campaigner” against the WP during the campaign period for the 2015 General Election. It issued regular statements on the alleged misconduct of AHPETC and then “took a break” after Polling Day.

Lim tabled two suggestions. Firstly, that the government revive the previous scheme of town councils being audited by the Auditor General’s Office on a rotational basis. “Such a scheme of AGO audits would engender greater public confidence that the exercise is impartial and focuses on the public interest,” she said.

Secondly, that the government set up an independent housing tribunal to resolve any disputes between government agencies and town councils. Lim noted that the current dispute resolution mechanism is the courts, which is “time consuming and costly” and also adversarial in nature. To be chaired by a judge and filled with members qualified in relevant fields such as architecture and engineering, the tribunal would provide for a more considered and just resolution of disputes, Lim said.

Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh also addressed the issue earlier in Parliament, saying that the empowerment of MND would not necessarily ensure good outcomes for Singapore but rather good outcomes for any ruling party. If the specific amendments are passed, it could lead to two undesirable outcomes.

“First, it risks politicisation of the public service, where MND risks becoming a tool of the ruling party of the day to fix the opposition. Second, it causes the elected MPs to answer to the unelected bureaucracy, subordinating the elected mandate of MPs to the executive branch,” Pritam said.

“The WP is determined to make the best of a less than equitable situation managing not with the cards we wish we have but those that are in our hands,” Pritam concluded.