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News Reports

Town councils: People vs Politicos

Looks like the people and the politicos are at odds when it comes to the “fundamental nature’’ of town councils, going by a poll in ST published today. Most of the 50 people polled wanted town councils to be “apolitical’’, harkening back to the old days when the Housing Board and National Development Ministry ruled the roost with MPs conducting meet-the-people sessions in their wards. The politicos, however, didn’t think such a turnaround was needed and suggested that maybe more oversight of town councils’ activities can do the trick.

If the poll is correct, it seems that the people had never quite imbibed the notion of town councils as political entities in the first place. It was intended for MPs to show their mettle, so to speak, by demonstrating their ability to run housing estates. MPs must show that they are not just talk (in Parliament), but action (on the ground) as well. Of course, those with long memories will recall that it had looked like a way to warn residents that electing opposition politicians might lead to dirty corridors and rubbish piled up in the chutes…

That didn’t happen.

Remember in those days how there was so much discussion about how town councils will be akin to “local governments’’ with representatives elected from residents who live there? There was all this expectation that residents themselves will have control over their neighbourhoods. Doubt that this is happening anywhere. Do you know your town councillors? In fact, do residents even scrutinise town council annual reports and act as the real overseers of their estate?

Instead, town councils have succeeded in becoming so partisan that political party members are employed in town councils or as their managing agents, whether in the People’s Action Party or opposition side. In fact, it is so partisan that the PAP actually started a company to serve their IT needs!

You know what? Residents don’t care who looks after them, so long as the rubbish is collected and void deck is clean. It might be the HDB, the town council or a private company from outer space doing the cleaning and residents wouldn’t bat an eyelid so long as things run smoothly. It is when things don’t or some aberration is brought to their attention, that people sit up and look at what’s happening.

That’s when they will find out (or not) the number of relatives, friends, party members or partisan companies employed by town councils for no other reason than political affiliation. Then again, so what if the void deck is clean and the rubbish is cleared and the S&C charges aren’t unreasonable?

It’s a little disappointing that people don’t look beyond their immediate comfort zone.

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The town council “experiment’’ has actually not been too bad from the residents’ point of view. MPs are kept on their toes because residents know where to go to when they want to complain about bad estate upkeep. The MP is also, ah, a cleaning and maintenance contractor… Plus, residents can always threaten with the vote: Raise my service and conservancy fee and I’ll kick you out! Maybe it’s a good thing that residents aren’t so political. Imagine a whole housing estate lobbying for lowered fees… town councils will be ham-strung no end…

Back to the apolitical/political nature of town councils. For the best analysis, read the piece by Eugene Tan in today’s edition of TODAY.In the wake of the ministry’s review of the AIM saga in which a PAP owned company was providing services to PAP-run town councils, the key question really revolves on the oversight role the State should play in ensuring that residents get essential services despite changes in political “ownership’’.

The ministry has recommended another “strategic’’ review which all and sundry hopes will be non-partisan and inclusive. MND Minister Khaw Boon Wan will be making a statement in Parliament on Monday and the Workers’ Party, the one which raised the issue, has applied for an adjournment motion so that more time can be spent discussing the town council issue.

Perhaps, someone will do something about the role of HDB residents themselves in ensuring town councils are politically accountable to them. So many suggestions and tweaks have been suggested – centralise this, decentralise that, allow this and disallow that… But nothing has been said about the rights and responsibilities of residents whom the town councils serve.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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