By Bertha Henson and Daryl Choo
SINGAPORE — Funds disbursed through the Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC) amounted to $25 million last year, distributed among the 15 People’s Action Party town councils. The year before, CIPC grants totalled close to $42 million, checks with the financial reports of town councils showed.
In those two years, the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC), led by Workers’ Party MPs, did not get any CIPC funding. The year before, in 2016, it received $316,000. It is unclear if that amount was for the ramp that is now the bone of contention between the WP and grassroots leaders.
These figures were obtained from the reports of all 16 town councils which listed the funding under “payment from Citizens’ Consultative Committee” or “CIPC Grant”.
Unlike Government grants which are disbursed directly to all town councils based on the number of lifts, HDB flat units and flat types in each estate, CIPC funds must be sought through the constituency’s Citizens’ Consultative Committee (CCC). This top-tier community body under the People’s Association (PA) will vet applications from the ward’s elected MPs, and decide which project should be proposed to the CIPC for funding. The 2019 Budget statement showed that $45 million has been set aside for CIPC funds this year.
Over the years, opposition politicians have complained that the CIPC process is biased in favour of PAP MPs, as they are invariably appointed as advisers to the CCCs. In non-PAP wards, they are often the losing PAP candidates. The PA adviser to Aljunied, Mr Chua Eng Leong, for example, was part of the PAP’s Aljunied GRC team in the 2015 general election and currently serves as the party’s branch chairman for the Eunos ward.
The main CIPC body also consists of 10 PAP MPs, as well as former PAP candidate Mr Victor Lye, also a member of the losing PAP Aljunied GRC team.
CIPC allocations differ among town councils with Nee Soon Town Council receiving the most since 2015, followed by Ang Mo Kio Town Council and Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council. One reason could be the high density of HDB flats in these wards, necessitating more funds for improvement projects.
AHTC received the least. Its chief Pritam Singh said in Parliament in 2015 that while Aljunied was in the PAP’s hands prior to the 2011 elections, its town council had received about $12 million in grants through the CCC from 2009. He contrasted this with the zero CIPC funds AHTC got in 2014 and 2013. The town council’s financial statement showed it received $363,000 in 2012.
CIPC projects have ranged from $445,000 worth of covered walkways in Sembawang to $29,000 worth of landscaping in East Coast-Fengshan, as well as the barrier-free access ramp in Eunos that is the subject of an online dispute between Mr Singh and Mr Chua.
From 2015 to 2018, the 16 town councils received a total of $146.3 million from the CCC according to a tabulation of the town councils’ financial reports. The sum of CIPC funds received in each financial year, which closes in end-March, was $25.2 million in 2018, $41.8 million in 2017, $40.8 million in 2016 and $38.4 million in 2015.
The CIPC issue is part of the opposition’s bigger complaint made over the years that CCCs are usurping the powers of MPs by, for example, presenting government bursaries to students or denying the opposition the use of community centres.
The Government’s stock reply has been to point out that these grassroots leaders are best able to explain the nature of government policies to the people, which opposition MPs cannot be expected to perform.
As for the CIPC issue, various replies have been given, ranging from allowing improvements to areas outside HDB estates and community bonding priorities.
In the 2015 budget debate, Senior Minister of State Mohamad Maliki Osman, who was formerly with the National Development Ministry, defended the role of grassroots leaders in securing CIPC funds. “We started CIPC with the intended objective of getting residents together, getting residents to come up and work with their community leaders – who amongst themselves are fellow residents – and bring about the cohesion in the community,” he said.
A parallel issue concerning CIPC funds had also been used by WP as political ammunition in the campaign run-up to the 2015 general elections. Then-WP chief Low Thia Khiang claimed that the previously PAP-run Punggol East Town Council was in deficit before it came under WP’s charge at the ward’s 2013 by-election.
The argument was over a stated deficit of more than $280,000 in the town council’s financial statements when the council funds were handed over to WP. The PAP refuted that claim, saying that the same report also showed an amount of $303,372 claimable as reimbursement from the CCC, which would have put the town council in net surplus.
WP’s Pritam Singh put the CIPC issue back in the spotlight again on 15 Oct when he complained about the CCC’s tardiness over the town council’s proposal that CIPC funds be used to build a ramp in Bedok Reservoir Road. He said that it took seven years before the project was completed last month, and released a series of correspondence between the town council, the CCC, former Aljunied GRC MP Zainal Abidin and various project consultants over the matter.
The grassroots adviser Mr Chua described Mr Singh’s complaint as a “red herring” to distract the public from the court case involving the WP members and the Aljunied-Hougang town council entity.
WP MPs Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim had been found by the High Court to have breached their fiduciary duties, and Mr Singh to have breached his “duties of skill and care” when appointing the managing agent for the town council in 2011. The case will return to court to determine the amount that should be recovered from the parties involved in the suit.
The CIPC funds are an additional buffer for town councils as they supplement the two other main sources of income: HDB residents’ service and conservancy charges and other government grants. Checks showed that for almost all town councils, what they collect in charges would not be enough to cover operating expenses. Government grants are given to all town councils for their use while CIPC grants have to be applied for on a project basis.
However, the CIPC only partially funds town improvement projects, and the CCC is responsible for raising 10 per cent of the cost of the project.
The lack of CIPC funding means that opposition town councils will have to use more of their own surpluses to fund improvement projects, Mr Singh wrote in a subsequent Facebook post: “Doing so invariably eats into (town council) surpluses that can be used for other needs/purposes, while PAP Town Councils can rely on CIPC funding and/or keep their surpluses intact or tap on a lesser amount compared to opposition wards.”
Whether a red herring or not, the CIPC issue is not about to go away. Various political commentators have asked for more transparency in the allocation of funds by the CIPC or to remove the appointment of MPs as advisers to grassroots group to ensure non-partisanship.
A motion to call on AHTC to require WP MPs Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang to “recuse themselves” from all financial matters related to AHTC has been tabled in Parliament for Tuesday (5 Nov). The motion would reportedly “affirm the vital importance of MPs maintaining high standards of integrity and accountability”.
Bertha lectures at NUS Communications and New Media department and Daryl is a final-year NUS Communications and New Media undergraduate.