MND Review of the Town Councils: What This Really Means and the Implications

According to Today, “Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has issued a statement announcing that he has asked the Ministry of National Development (MND) to review the PAP town councils’ transaction with Action Information Management “in the interest of transparency and maintaining trust in the system”.

It is very interesting to analyse the statements that had been issued. To be very sure, you have to understand who the intended target audience of PAP is. After the PAP-Aim-AHTC episode, there are broadly 3 camps that have emerged. Two of the camps have existed for a while now, and has become more entrenched during the last elections – one camp is aligned to PAP’s policies while the other camp is the camp which disagrees with PAP’s current direction. There’s a third camp which has emerged from this episode – the fence sitters, or the undecided.

From the long drawn-out episode which has lasted weeks and where there were very clear and specific questions and raised and unanswered, there is a growing awareness among a group of Singaporeans that something isn’t right – why isn’t the PAP answering any of the questions posed by Singaporeans directly, or even at all? And so, there were some Singaporeans who had previously aligned themselves to PAP who are beginning to start questioning. To be sure, this group has always existed, as a varied mix – a group who does not have significant political opinion and are middle income somewhat and who therefore do not care much about the political ongoings of Singapore. They also comprise Singaporeans who disagree with PAP’s policies somewhat but who are not terribly unsettled as they continue to believe in the non-corruptability of PAP.

After this episode, this group has grown – they have come mainly from within those who align themselves to PAP’s policies. This group of people had believed in PAP’s direction and had never felt the need to question PAP’s integrity. This episode has left them with certain doubts, and they are moving towards a middle-ground, who haven’t been convinced that PAP should be severely criticized yet, but have decided to at least break away, in order to be able to see a bit more clearly. These group of people are awaiting the next step that PAP will take, to convince them of their allegiance to PAP’s policies again, or not. This is the precise group that the statements are intended to target.

PAP does not need to convince those who are firmly aligned with their policies. They wouldn’t yet need to care about those who aren’t, as they have calculated that this group of people hasn’t formed a big enough threat that will threaten their power base at this moment – it should stand at around 40 odd per cent, for now. But this group of potential cross overs who are still undecided – they can represent a significant proportion – perhaps even 5% to 15%, which when crossed over, can give the opposition the edge against PAP, and so this is the group that PAP has to convince to come back to the fold, and the statement is positioned to convince them of PAP’s integrity, as well as to continue to assure those who are aligned to their policies.

*****

Let’s take a look at PM Lee’s statement to understand how it’s carefully structured to frame the mindsets of people.

In his statement, PM Lee has said that, “Last week, Mayor Teo Ho Pin explained the circumstances of the sale of Town Council (TC) management software belonging to PAP TCs in an open tender to Action Information Management Pte Ltd (AIM) in 2010. The transaction was not raised as an issue by any of the external auditors who audited the FY2010 accounts of these TCs.”

  • This paragraph aims to do two things.
  • First, PAP wants to say that they are accountable. By framing that an open discussion was done, where PM Lee would thus had seemingly been informed of all the facts by Teo, it is to show that there is honesty and transparency within PAP, and that the people ‘should’ trust them.
  • Second, because there seems to be an ‘open discussion’ now, it is to suggest that no ‘investigation’ needs to be conducted – this is suggested by how the ‘external’ auditors have not ‘raised … an issue.’ And that’s why a review would be sufficient.
  • So, on both accounts, because there is an ‘external’ audit, the TCs would have passed the first test of transparency. The ‘honest’ discussion would suggest that Teo has passed the second test of transparency. Now, hear all – accordingly, the framing is that everything is transparent, there will be no investigation, BUT we will review what has transpired.
  • I had read how commenters would have preferred CPIB to investigate the case. But this will not happen – because of the framing of the first paragraph which is intended to take any wrongdoing away.
  • So then, why would a review be done? The review, or the ‘process’ of the review, however it will be done, needs to be done to ‘show’ accountability. This group of newly-formed fence-sitters, as mentioned, are awaiting PAP’s next step, so that they can formulate their thoughts as to whether to continue to align with PAP or not. A statement by itself won’t convince them just yet. We need to show them evidence that it looks like we’ve done something, and it needs to be done through a process of ‘review’, so that it looks like we’ve at least ‘systematically’ looked through the issue.

In the next paragraph, “In the interest of transparency and maintaining trust in the system, I have asked the Ministry of National Development (MND) to review this transaction fully, and satisfy itself that public funds were safeguarded and residents’ interests were not compromised.

  • Note the use of the words, “maintaining”, “satisfy” and “not compromised”. The statement itself has already clearly make known what PAP’s stance is in this episode – can you read between the lines?
  • Note also that this review is aimed at “maintaining trust in the system” – so you can see where the ultimate objective of this review is aimed at, no pun intended!
  • This paragraph says a lot about what they really want to say. Note the passive aggressive way that this paragraph is asserted – do you know why it’s done?

In the third and final paragraph, the statement says, “With a view to ensuring high overall standards of corporate governance in TCs, MND will take a broad-based approach, including re-examining the fundamental nature of TCs. MND has begun the review, which is expected to take a month or two.”

  • This is the only statement that promises change, if any, but not the change that you would have hoped for – that a “re-examining (of) the fundamental nature of TCs will occur.” Though I find it strange that this is even suggested. Why do I say this? This is because this was not a demand or query that Singaporeans had requested answers for. We did not question the role of town councils and their relevance. But why did PAP want to relook the roles of the TCs? The PAP-dominated government was the one who had decided and pass through on the roles of the TCs in 1989, yet they’ve decided the roles of the TCs have become questionable. Why, especially when we didn’t query their roles?
  • Let me venture a thought – it would have seemed that this episode has exposed what the TCs were truly meant for, even as the government has said then that their role was to “empower local elected Members of Parliament (MPs) and residents to run their own estates and to create the type of environment they would like to live in.” But if this episode has exposed the fundamental political and ‘other’ uses of the TCs, then could the TCs continue to serve their function for what their true intention was, now that things are more exposed? The TCs might not and might become empty shells and a waste of resources if they could not be used for their full truly intended purpose. If so and if their intended purpose has been exposed, how then should they need to “re-examine the fundamental nature of TCs,” to make it relevant to their needs?
  • This third paragraph is really to set the tone as to their agenda. The MND team who will be reviewing the TCs would not yet have made any recommendations on the next steps. But this paragraphs gives a very clear idea as to what we should expect. And as I’ve proposed, there’s a reason why this could be so.

Finally, in a statement by MND, it says:

“Town Councils are autonomous bodies managed by elected Members of Parliament and governed by the Town Councils Act which MND administers. The MND Town Council Review Team is led by Mr Tay Kim Poh, MND’s Deputy Secretary. The team will report to Permanent Secretary, MND. Planning began last week and field activities should start soon. The team looks forward to the cooperation of all TCs.”

  • Very clearly, this statement is intended to delink the MND from the TCs. This statement is aimed at not having to have them take responsibility, if it comes to that at all. MND’s role is framed only as an administrator of the TCs – nothing more, as this statement is intended to suggest. If anything happens, the TCs could even be dissolved because of bad managed and the MNDs would be able to resolve any responsibility. Note that I had said ‘bad’ management and not ‘mis’-management. Nowhere in both these statements are they trying to suggest that there is any mis-management, and they wouldn’t want that – they ‘want’ to establish that things have been above-board and transparent.

*****

You don’t have to wait for the outcome of the review to know what’s going to happen. These statements already give a very clear clue as to how the review will develop and head towards – the review will suggest that the management of the town councils can be revised to prevent further similar occurrences to happen. No wrongdoing, but perhaps mistakes, would have been declared to have been made, so we might need to relook the management. A new financial structure will most likely be put in place, to replace the existing one which has been ‘exposed’. Whether the management and change in financial structure is due to this review, Singaporeans will do well to probe into this new management and financial structure.

On a final note, because PM Lee’s name is now being carried along the mention of the Aim episode, it has thus made discussion on this issue more contained for the PAP because an Alex Au incident could be allowed to arise once again, if the discussion veers away from the more acceptable discourse. It doesn’t mean we cannot air our views about the issue. What this means is that, we can perhaps be more analytical and perceptive about how we explore this issue, without making personal insinuations. But as Alex Au has said on his blog, “it is important to bear in mind that all I have said so far about AIM and the town councils were not cited by the lawyers as defamatory, only those statements directed at Lee.” So, basically, we should all conduct ourselves objectively, which we should always in a critical discourse, regardless.

What will happen next will be more or less predictable. And in the end, it would be important for us to watch carefully on how the fundamental nature of the TCs will change, in terms of the new or revised management system and/or financial structure.

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