New Singapore, Old Tactics?

Opposition politicians have made gains in Singapore as the late Lee Kuan Yew’s influence has waned but one of the few elected leaders from outside the ruling party is finding it tough to battle through the paperwork, financial constraints and other impediments to governance being hurled at her.

Sylvia Lim could be a sign of a new Singapore, one that could theoretically tolerate the rising influence of the opposition, but if her experience is any guide the ruling People’s Action Party has no intention of cooperating with change. In 2011, Lim, a onetime university lecturer, led an opposition coalition to an unprecedented victory, ousting an incumbent PAP minister from office and taking over one of the city’s 16 town councils, which oversee services to residents living in Housing Development Board flats.

It could have been predicted that an opposition victory would trigger something akin to a body’s attempts to rid itself of an infection. Since the victory by Lim, the leader of the Workers Party, the administration of the clumsily named Aljunied-Hougang-East Punggol Town Council [AHEPTC] has been under an unending series of audits, roadblocks and allegations from the PAP-led government, raising questions in the minds of critics whether the government is on a hunting expedition to hamstring the town council, or whether there is real fire under the smoke the government is generating.

At the moment, the Ministry of National Development is attempting to appoint independent accountants to oversee government grants to the town council, one of the biggest in the island state, providing services to more than 150,000 residents. The government has held up two years of government operating grants to pay partly for running the town council, charging “serious and grave questions over the state of its accounts and the propriety of past payments” and is now taking the council to court.

In past celebrated cases, the government under the former prime minister and national founder Lee Kuan Yew, when it couldn’t get at its opponents in other ways, set the law on them. Lee when he was alive, repeatedly warned he would take revenge against recalcitrant voters who didn’t see it the PAP’s way.

The first was in 1981, when Joshua B. Jeyaretnam became the first opposition politician since independence in 1965 to win a seat in the Singapore parliament. Lee retaliated against Jeyaretnam and the voters of the Anson constituency by engineering Jeyaretnam’s conviction on a charge of diverting money from creditors of the party, a conviction called “a grievous miscarriage of justice” by the Privy Council – which was ignored – then simply left the Anson seat vacant.

Later, Lee abolished the district outright, moving its constituent bits into districts more friendly to the PAP and vaporizing their political clout. In 1988, when former Solicitor General Francis T. Seow, who had turned on the government, was elected to a seat on the venerable Singapore Turf Club, the republic’s horse-racing organization, the government, citing various discrepancies, abolished the club, wiped out the entire board, appointed a new one and took over the newly formed racing club.

It might be said that to some extent there is a new Singapore, since no charges have been engineered – yet – against Lim and her co-leaders of the town council. Nonetheless, the council is due to run out of money this month. When that happens, it is likely that services to council residents will be disrupted. The Ministry of National Development has called the council “technically insolvent” for failing to make payments into its sinking fund for the last two quarters of 2014.

The town council has argued that it would not be insolvent if the ministry hadn’t withheld the two years of government grants worth S$14 million [US$10.4 million] which have been customarily granted to town councils since the funds collected from residents and businesses don’t meet needs. Without the grants, the town council would need to implement heavy service taxes on their constituents.

The government responded that Lim had not told parliament the council needed the grants, which Lim said was nonsense. The ministry then said “Her latest statement still doesn’t explain clearly why AHPETC did not disclose to the court as late as March 27 that it needed these grants. Indeed, it had insisted it did not.”

The issue of the money has been intertwined with a series of charges that the opposition-led town council ignored its duties and obligations to residents and must “put its house and finances in order,” allegedly because an auditor general’s report had unearthed what it said was “serious accounting and governance lapses.” It has to be said that either through ineptitude or inexperience, the newcomers gave the government some justification, through overcharges which they say were inadvertent, and through other shortcomings. for going after them

Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, in a speech to parliament, charged that according to the auditor general the council “allowed millions of dollars to be paid to related parties in breach of their legal, fiduciary duties. The payments were unlawful…these payments were done without transparency or accountability.”

Millions of dollars, he charged, had been funneled to a management agent whose directors also held key positions in the town council government after the council severed its relationship with a company aligned with the PAP.

"I do think the Worker Party has a legitimate case to answer as to conflicts of interest by appointing a management agency controlled by the top members of the Town Council," said a top local opposition figure who declined to be named. "However I understand Low has always justified this on the basis that this was standard PAP practice."

Lim answered in parliament that the council had never hid the fact that its senior officers were also owners of the management agent, FM Solutions and Services, and that the council had put in place measures to assure that transactions involving the agent are subject to greater scrutiny.

Lim also said the media, which in Singapore is closely aligned with the government, had created erroneous impressions that "the town council secretary and its general manager... are freely being given contracts without tender and paying themselves handsomely without accountability." The managing agent, she said did not have the power to award itself contracts and was not involved in evaluating the tenders it participated in. The tenders, she added, were called by a tender and contracts committee consisting of Members of Parliament and appointed councilors.

She also said the council has since introduced measures to better manage the conflicts of interest that could arise from its dealings with the management agent.

Those explanations are unlikely to mollify a government whose mission appears to be, as when previous political infections have presented themselves, to remove them surgically or otherwise. The Ministry of National Development has appealed a judge’s ruling that said it didn’t have the power to stop the government from disbursing funds to the town council.

The matter is provisionally set to be heard on August 3. The ministry had sought an expedited appeal hearing in the week of Jul 6. But while both parties agreed to bring forward the case, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said the appeal court's July calendar was full. The council’s lawyer is also expected to be out of the country for the next three weeks.