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Ministers slam WP MPs for 'dereliction of duties'
IT was one parliamentary speech that National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, in his own words, said he did not relish making.
For nearly an hour on Thursday, he took an opposition-run town council to task for its repeated failure to properly manage its finances and comply with the laws.
He harked back to the recent Auditor-General's Office (AGO) report on the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), which painted a picture of "financial mismanagement, incompetence and negligence in corporate governance".
The report, made public earlier this week, confirms that "something is seriously wrong" with the Workers' Party (WP)-run town council, and Mr Khaw made it clear that the government will step in and take action.
On the cards is a plan to amend the existing laws to give the government greater overseeing and enforcement powers over Singapore's town councils.
Apart from imploring AHPETC to get its house in order, he said that his ministry would also withhold the service and consultancy charges grants for Financial Year 2014 - worth about S$7 million a year - until the problems are fixed.
Mr Khaw made these points at the start of a two-day debate on the AGO report that lasted well over three-and-a-half hours and featured eight different speakers.
The move to amend the existing Town Councils Act will address the weaknesses in the current regulatory framework for Singapore's town councils, said Mr Khaw, adding that it was no longer possible to "take the light touch" and assume that all MPs running town councils would be responsible.
As things stand, Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan will soon table a Bill to amend the Act in order to tighten the legislative framework for town councils.
With AHPETC still yet to submit its financial reports for the last two financial years, Mr Khaw gave the WP until June 30 this year to present an unqualified set of the reports for FY2013, and Aug 31 for the FY2014 reports.
"There has been over-payment and public funds have been affected. Will the town council be suing FMSS (FM Solutions and Services, its managing agent) for the return of money lost?" asked Mr Khaw.
He added that FMSS - owned by the town council's secretary and general manager, a husband-and-wife team - was paid 20 per cent more than the previous agent that ran Aljunied, and 50 per cent more than a comparable town council.
He called on AHPETC to "deal decisively with the gross incompetence" of FMSS, and said that his ministry was already studying if there was any other legal recourse that the aggrieved parties may have.
Both Mr Khaw and Law Minister K Shanmugam, who also spoke during the debate, emphasised that AHPETC would be in big trouble if it were a listed company.
"If you were a listed company, by now your shareholders would have sued you. You collect public funds every month and you have a duty to account to your residents. Basically, the town council is in a shambles," said Mr Shanmugam.
In a fiery, 45-minute speech, Mr Shanmugam, a lawyer by training, rebuked the WP MPs one by one, chastising them for what he deemed as a "complete dereliction" of their duties.
"You made a conscious decision to appoint your close supporters . . . to run the town council. You allowed a setup which allowed monies to be paid to them, unlawfully. What does this say of your integrity?" he said.
In closing, Mr Shanmugam addressed four of the WP MPs and Town Councillors, asking Chen Show Mao how much he knew about the conflict of interest, and pressing Pritam Singh on the WP's apparent lack of transparency in this case.
He also asked town council chairman Sylvia Lim why she had approved the system of payments, and demanded that party chief Low Thia Khiang to "take responsibility" for the issue.
Ms Lim, an MP for Aljunied, pointed out that there were many internal processes to ensure that the town council's money is paid out properly. There are committees that award contracts and there are procedures to look after commissioned projects, she said.
When it was his turn to speak, WP chief Low wanted to correct the "misconception" that the town council's managing agent was given the contract without a tender.
He bemoaned the fact that it was difficult to find a suitable managing agent. Many that are already serving town councils run by the ruling People's Action Party did not seem willing to bid for the AHPETC contract, and he suggested that the reason appeared to be a politically motivated one.
"The problems of professional town management will remain a real challenge if there are no established managing agents that are prepared to do the job," said Mr Low, the WP's current secretary-general and an MP since 1991.
He asked the government to do more to protect the interests of residents during the transition of a town council's management from one political party to another, adding that this transition process should be depoliticised.
Earlier, Mr Khaw told the House that, despite the problems of AHPETC, the government did not intend to take back the powers of town councils and have the Housing and Development Board (HDB) run things, as it used to in the past.
"Instead, we will strengthen the town council framework to remedy the weaknesses in it, so that elected MPs have to perform and be held more tightly to account in running their town councils and towns," he said.
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