berthahenson

Fire crackers and poppers in Parliament

In News Reports, Politics on February 12, 2015 at 3:40 pm

When I was growing up in a kampong, every household would have a long bamboo pole or galah with a string of gigantic fire crackers which we would let off at midnight on CNY. They would go BANG! BANG! BANG!!!!! BANG!!!!!!!!!

That was the sound that Law Minister K Shanmugam made in Parliament earlier today. Workers Party Low Thia Kiang, on his part, did what the little girl who was me did. He lit a cracker, threw it on the floor and it went POP!

Yep, there were fireworks today in Parliament. Plenty of noise and smoke. But was there light?

I think the G ministers who spoke managed to cut through the Auditor-General’s report on the finances on the Workers’ Party town council to get to some key points. Of course, as politicians, they used some pretty choice words in layman’s language rather than the bean counting bureaucratese of an auditor.

So the WP was incompetent – yes, that can’t be denied. The town council was in a shambles as Mr Shanmugam described it. Even the WP did not deny that it wasn’t up to scratch managing one of Singapore’s biggest town councils. Of course, it was left to the PAP to point out that it had made big promises during the general election, of being able to run an operation as well as any team of People’s Action Party MPs. Those promises have now turned out empty.

The Big Question: Would those who had voted the party believing in its competence ask themselves if they had been deceived? Or would they be willing to give the party a second shot?

Then again, Mr Low’s reasons (or excuses) for the incompetence were beguiling. Nobody, at least no professional body of estate managers, wanted to work for the opposition, he lamented. He cited the times the WP put out tenders but got no bidders. It is an argument which would be met with some nods. Why would a business want to associate itself with an opposition party with one town council when the other side had more business to give? At the back of the minds would be this fear that the all-powerful PAP G would seek some kind of retribution…

You would have expected Mr Low to reject the motion which calls for stiffer penalties in a tighter framework. But he didn’t. He said that the framework review should protect residents’ interests even when town management changes hands from one party to another. Implicit in Mr Low’s statement is that there is deliberate hobbling by the State or previous town council and obstacles put in the way of a smooth handover. “If an opposition aspires to be the next government, perhaps, it may need to build an army of civil servants first. This is a strange political situation for any democracy,” he added.

Mr Shanmugam described the argument as playing the “victim card’’.

The thing is, Singaporeans, by and large, quite like victims. They are small, powerless and easily bullied. Turning victims into villains would take some doing. It would take, errm, falling resale prices, uncleaned corridors and extremely high service and conservancy charges.

The Big Question: Would people want to wait for that to happen or is there enough evidence to show that the WP is capable of digging itself out of the hole it is in? Or would they agree that the WP was unnecessarily hobbled by a thicket of rules and bureaucratic inertia?

Plenty of big figures were bandied around today, of overpayment and cosy relationships between WP partisans who worked in the town council. Mr Shanmugam went to great lengths to show that money “lost’’ isn’t money lost in the normal sense of the word. Here are two ways he cited:

FIRST, the lost money could be found, in the pockets of the managing agent who approved, verified, certified payments – to itself. There were 84 cheques in just the period of audit for FY2012/13, amounting to $6.6million. Yes, there was a counter-signing party, who is Ms Sylvia Lim, chairman of the council. She was aware of the double-hats the managing agent was wearing but did she do more to ensure no conflict of interest? There was no transparency, no clear processes in place, Mr Shanmugam fired. The point, of course, is whether the managing agent was making more money than it should…

Ms Lim acknowledged one case of overcharging for lift service and maintenance and claimed it was not intentional as             the agent had used  the wrong unit multiplier” to compute prices. “There was absolutely no intention on the part of the committee nor the contractor to approve higher payment rates,” she said, adding that some of the money had been clawed back.

Said Ms Lim: “The town council has no issue with disclosing the value of related party transactions. Moving forward, we have suggested that the Ministry make it clear which parties are considered related in the town council context.”

In other words, you never said what was needed to be disclosed. So how would anyone know? Hmm. I wonder how what she said squares with fiduciary duties and compliance with Financial Reporting Standards…

SECOND, the money was lost through “inflation’’ of the managing agent’s fees. The total fees paid by the town council to the managing was nearly $22 million over four years, way more than what other managing agents charged. Tampines town council, for example, paid its agent $16.85 million, for over five (not four) years.

This meant that every residential and commercial unit under the WP’s charge was paying way more than what those in other town councils were. Like, how a shop in Aljunied would be paying $14.92  compared with between $4.80 and $6.65 elsewhere. In July last year, even as noises were made about its finances, this sum was raised to $15.82.

Mr Shanmugam had an interesting way of putting it: “Maybe there was no one taking money, through the backdoor in the dark of the night. Because the money was going out in broad day light, through the front door.’’

I can’t help but think that if a PAP MP had been on the receiving end of the firing squad, there would be plenty of calls for heads to roll. In fact, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan talked of how CEOs in Japanese companies would have committed hara kiri. (Methinks he’s put a step wrong.  Surely, he realized that this is not something that should have been said by the Bigger player? )

The pity is that attention would be diverted to his choice of words rather than the painstaking attempt made by Mr Shanmugam to show that there was some deliberate mischief (or pattern of non-disclosure) going on. Like, why should the managing agent set up FM Solutions & Services when they could have been employees of the town council? Why wasn’t it made clear to all town councilors and in documents that the managing agents who doubled as key officers of the town council actually owned the company? Why doesn’t the town council ask the agents to produce bank accounts so that it’s clear what sort of money they had made from the TC? (I wonder if there is any law which can compel the managing agent to disclose its bank accounts. ..)

The Big Question: Mr Shanmugam dropped plenty of ominous words such “unacceptable’’ and “unlawful’’ which seemed to presage some kind of legal action although I’m not sure undertaken by whom? He also kept on about how the town council seemed reluctant to answer questions on the managing agent’s work and finances, and how the AGO was only auditing a segment of the TC’s work and not a “forensic audit’’ of everything. What is this all leading up to?

Obviously, the G and the PAP wants the WP to eat humble pie and prove it is not beyond taking action even against its own partisans. Mr Khaw even asked if it would sue the managing agent for return of money lost. (This was in reference to how the agent was being paid 20 per cent more than the previous managing agent that ran Aljunied)

He added this: “MND is studying what other legal recourse the aggrieved parties may have.” Intriguing. Who are the aggrieved parties? The residents? The G will sue on its behalf? Or will some resident take up the cause?

Then comes the threat: Until the town council “cleans up its mess”, the Government will also withhold from it an annual service and conservancy charges grant of several million that MND gives to every town council. ST reports that for the WP, it amounts to about $7 million each year.

You know what? I keep wondering what the various grassroots bodies in Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East are up to. Where are the citizens’ consultative committtees? The residents’ committees? The hawker associations? They purport to represent the residents. Why hide behind the G? They can’t be happy about the grants being withheld. Why not come out to attack or defend your elected representatives?

Anyway, the fireworks continue tomorrow. Maybe instead of fire crackers, some dynamite will be exploded…

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  1. I have to agree that the WP’s efforts in managing the town council funds do leave a lot to be desired. The thing is however, as I read through the speeches by the PAP ministers I just can’t help but think of stones and glass houses – specifically with what happened over AIM (WP gets told to be transparent yet the findings of the AIM investigation are never made public?) and the $12m loss by PAP town councils back in 2008 because of high risk investments. It doesn’t excuse WP, but to me it just makes PAP look kind of hypocritical at best. I find it hard to vote for a party that has so easily forgotten it’s own mistakes.

    Also, at least Sylvia Lim bothered to come say hello. We have lived in the Serangoon area for nearly 20 years and she is the first MP we have ever met despite having always been under PAP control until GE2011.

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