(Delivered in Parliament on 10 March 2017)
Madam Speaker, this amendment Bill does not seek to review the original objective of the Town Councils Act. That is not on the Government’s agenda. We are debating this Bill with a view to improve the existing Act. I do not oppose that objective per se, but as an opposition MP, my experience is that Town Councils operate very differently by design in PAP and opposition wards and as such, are inevitably judged by different yardsticks.
The Workers’ Party does not oppose raising governance standards for Town Councils. But we have a specific concern on the new Part VIA of the Bill gives intrusive oversight powers to the Ministry of National Development, directed by political office holders of any incumbent Government, not only the PAP. We believe an independent entity or inspectors not appointed by the Government should resolve disputes if and when they occur between MND and the affected Town Council, a point Ms Sylvia Lim will build upon. Let me reiterate, the additional scrutiny on Town Councils is not objectionable. It is the identity of the scrutiniser that warrants scrutiny.
Objectives of Town Councils
According to then DPM Goh Chok Tong, there were two philosophical objectives behind the original Town Councils Bill. Firstly, it purported to transfer some power from the HDB to the MPs and grassroots leaders. It gives the MPs and the residents, greater power and responsibility to manage their own affairs and to participate in their estate’s development. Secondly, because MPs will have increased authority and responsibility, voters will be more likely to vote carefully and sincerely to choose honest and effective MPs.
However, the transfer of power from the HDB to the MPs and (I stress) grassroots leaders is only partial in an opposition Town Council as the grassroots are by design, not part of an opposition Town Council’s firmament. This is because the Government cannot reconcile that an opposition MP and by extension an opposition Town Council would support the Government’s plans. It is also instructive that nowhere does the word grassroots, Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC) or People’s Association appear in the Town Councils Act, yet, the grassroots were acknowledged as a conspicuous and central part of the Town Council system when the Bill was debated in 1988. This is because the Town Council Act was legislated to serve a dominant one-party state, and to that end, government sanctioned grassroots organisations do not work with the elected MPs in opposition Town Councils. This remains a fundamental omission viz-a-viz the operation of Town Councils in opposition wards.
I have spoken on how the grassroots have a significant say on estate upgrading via CIPC funding in this House previously and will not repeat those points here. The same can be said about the political control of critical Town Council Management Systems and software by politically-influenced entities. One can just compare the amount of state resources extended via the CIPC Committee through the grassroots in PAP Town Councils compared to opposition Town Councils. Certainly, lesser taxpayer funds to opposition Town Councils will inevitably lower the esteem of the opposition-run Town Councils, with attendant political ramifications. While I believe this should change and a fairer system ought to take form, as a political realist, I can see why the ruling party would rather institutionalise the status quo.
What will make for a better Singapore?
In view of some fundamental disparities between opposition and PAP Town Councils in practice, the Workers’ Party will approach this amendment Bill with the words of then DPM Mr S Dhanabalan in his round-up speech on the original Town Councils Bill some 30 years ago. He said and I quote, “The question really is not whether or not there is a political purpose. The question is: is the purpose a good one for Singapore? Will it make for a better Singapore? Will it make for a more stable and secure Singapore? Will it make for a better life for our citizens? That is the question we ought to ask.” I would like to state for the record, that the Workers’ Party is under no illusion that the purpose of the Town Councils Act is undeniably political and since 1988, PAP politicians have come out openly to say so. So that point has been settled. But the former DPM’s subsequent questions remain relevant today.
To that end, the Workers’ Party does not oppose five of the six amendments proposed in the explanatory statement to the Act, namely to promote and strengthen effective and efficient governance and accountability of Town Councils, to foster a culture of personal integrity and accountability for administrative officials of Town Councils, to ensure sound financial management, promote better governance and to clarify the role of Town Councils in emergency planning. However, the introduction of oversight mechanisms and monitoring powers over the Town Councils that are in the hands of the Government has the potential for abuse. This would not necessarily ensure good outcomes for Singapore, but rather politically good outcomes for the ruling party.
Original purpose of the Act
Central to the working of the Town Councils is the powers of the elected MPs in relation to the MND. Critical to the success of the Town Councils is the protection of the MPs’ autonomy, guaranteed as a political space for the MPs to work with local residents so that the same residents voting in the general election can judge the MPs’ performance. If we return to the speech of then DPM Goh Chok Tong during the 1988 debate, he raised three important points. First, it was not the original intention that HDB should become the management corporation for 80% of the population. Such an over-centralisation is undesirable. Second, when our people become too dependent on HDB, they will lose self-reliance and responsibility for their own surroundings. In this sense, they will expect the HDB to fix and do everything. Third, as such, to preserve the political autonomy of the MPs and self-reliance of the people, HDB should only intervene when there are hazards to public health, public safety and public order.
In principle, Clause 24 of the Bill is problematic on these three points by reversing and diminishing the political autonomy of the elected MPs in relation to MND which overseas HDB. If citizens know that MND will intervene when the town is not run effectively, then whether the candidates standing for election are honest and effective enough to run a TC potentially become irrelevant. As envisaged by the Town Councils Act originally, voters are responsible for the MPs they choose to run their towns and represent them in Parliament. If they do not like what they see, they can vote the under-performing MPs out in the next election.
MND having oversight over TC does not mean just over-centralisation, but it also leads to two political pervasions. First, it risks the politicisation of the public service, where MND risks becoming the 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.
I would suggest to the House there is a better way to move forward on this point while retaining the proposed oversight powers sought by this Bill that will at the same time preserve the central feature of Town Councils – the political autonomy of MPs. Those oversight powers should be in the hands of independent parties not linked to the Ministry or the Government in general. This is critical to preserving the Town Councils as the ballast to our democracy.
To conclude Madam Speaker, as late as 2009, a Straits Times report quoting then Senior Minister Goh noted that in spite of the Town Councils existence, residents did not seem to take a great interest in the estates they lived in. It was noteworthy that one public poll commissioned by the Straits Times in 2013 found that close to 80% of those polled wished to have the HDB replace Town Councils in the provision of services to residents. In fact, the same call was made more recently in the public consultation to this Bill. It would be helpful if the Government looked into why many Singaporeans are not as enthusiastic about Town Councils in spite of its objectives, not all of which are necessarily objectionable. I do think there is much value in getting MPs involved in the local politics and the nitty-gritty of constituency work. In spite of the different realities on the ground in the treatment between opposition and PAP Town Councils particularly as a result of the role of the grassroots and by extension losing PAP political candidates through the People’s Association, the Workers’ Party is determined to make the best of a less than equitable situation, managing it not with the cards we wished we had, but with those that are in our hands.