Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How does a Town Council decide on awarding a contract to a Managing Agent?

Just as I thought that the muddle over conflict of interest was beginning to clear up a little because of the clarification from MND and from Madam Halimah, I have come across news (rather belatedly noticed by me) that Potong Pasir Town Council has appointed EM Services as the Managing Agent.

On 21st May 2011, it was still being reported that the newly elected PAP MP Mr Sitoh Yi Pin was hoping to take over the management of the Town Council by the end of the month. It has been reported on 27th May that the Town Council has appointed EM Services.

The following is from an article appearing on Channelnewsasia on 27 May 2011:
Potong Pasir Town Council staff to be offered jobs by EM Services
SINGAPORE: The Potong Pasir Town Council has engaged EM Services to be its managing agent.

Town council Chairman and MP for the area, Sitoh Yih Pin, said there are currently 16 staff in the town council under its previous Chairman, Mr Chiam See Tong.

And EM Services has accepted Mr Sitoh’s request to re—hire all of them from the town council.

Mr Sitoh said he wants to take over the operations smoothly with minimal inconvenience to the staff.

EM Services has distributed human resource forms for the staff to complete and they would likely be re—hired in other town councils.

Mr Sitoh added that he is also in discussions with EM Services to place three of the staff in Potong Pasir as they live in the division.

The choice of the next general manager of the Potong Pasir Town Council would also be left to EM Services to decide.

It is clear that EM Services has been engaged by the Town Council to be its managing agent. Did they go through a tender process? On the 21st of May, Mr Sitoh had not taken control of the Town Council yet. On the 27th of May, he is already able to confirm that EM Services has been appointed as the Managing Agent.

So, is it a case of the Town Council Chairman having full discretion to invite any company to be the Managing Agent of a Town Council? Is this the manner in which other Managing Agents are appointed in other Town Councils? EM Services currently manages 8 Town Councils. How was the company appointed? Was there a tender process? In the interest of transparency, I hope that there was a tender process through which EM Servies was appointed as the Managing Agent.

Potong Pasir residents should write to their Town Council to find out the process by which EM Services was chosen to be the Managing Agent of the Town Council. Don't forget that EM Services currently manges Sembawang Town Council (where questions have arisen over how there was easy access to the water tank where a corpse had been disposed).
Of course, it also does not help that Mr Ang Mong Seng is the chief operating officer of EM Services. As I always insist, conflict of interest is not merely an issue of whether there was an actual conflict but also an issue of whether the appearance of conflict could exist. This has to be avoided to bring governance to a higher standard.

Monday, May 30, 2011

More transparency needed in our Town Councils

Over the last week, this has become something of a pet issue for me.

Is there or is there not any conflict of interest in the management of our Town Councils?

The following article has appeared in Todayonline:

MPs: No conflict of interest ...

by Cheow Xin Yi 04:46 AM May 30, 2011
They are general managers accountable for the day-to-day administrative functions of town councils. Some of them are also employees of managing agents who win contracts from the town councils to service the estate.

This arrangement - known to occur in at least four town councils in Singapore - has raised the issue of conflict of interest in town council management.

At Aljunied and Jurong town councils, the respective GMs, Mr Jeffrey Chua and Mr Ho Thian Poh, in fact also hold the position of managing directors at CPG Facilities Management and UGL Premas.

CPG is currently the managing agent of Aljunied Town Council, although it is not clear if the agreement will continue following the Workers' Party taking over of Aljunied and the subsequent merger to form Aljunied-Hougang Town Council .

UGL Premas, meanwhile, is the parent company of Emasco Township management, the managing agent of Jurong Town Council.

To National University of Singapore business school associate professor Mak Yuen Teen, the first issue to establish is how the GMs of town councils are appointed. "Are they appointed after the facilities management company has been selected? If so, there would not be a conflict in terms of someone being put in a position to recommend or award a contract to his own firm," he said.

"There will, of course, still be the issue of who evaluates the performance of the facilities management company - it certainly should not be the GM of the town council if they are related parties," he added.

When contacted, former chairman of Jurong Town Council Halimah Yacob confirmed that was the case: Mr Ho was only appointed GM after the town council contracted Emasco as the managing agent. His salary is also paid by Emasco.

"The Council pays the managing agent the fee agreed upon under the contract which the managing agent uses to cover its costs of providing service to the council including staff salaries," she said.

Mr Ho is also not authorised to approve any tender, said Mdm Halimah, who is a Member of Parliament in Jurong Group Representation Constituency.

"We have a transparent and rigorous system in place where all tenders, including the appointment of the managing agent, are evaluated by the Tenders and Contracts Committee comprising Councillors. This committee's recommendations are then reviewed by the full Council," she said.

At Holland-Bukit Panjang Town Council, its secretary Albert Teng is also an employee of its managing agent, EM Services. Bukit Panjang MP Teo Ho Pin, who has been the coordinating chairman among PAP town councils, reiterated: "We must comply with the Ministry of National Development (MND) guidelines if there is a conflict of interest among our councillors or staff when tendering for contracts."

Still, given the close working proximity between the GM and the councillors, isn't there the chance of the committee favouring contractors of their own working partners?

An ex-town councillor at a town council, who declined to be named, said the possibility is mitigated by the diverse groups of people making decisions on the tenders.

At his town council for instance, where the general manager is in fact an employee of the managing agent, there would be at least 10 councillors in subcommittees making recommendations for particular contracts for a total panel of more than 40 councillors to approve.

Weighing in on the issue, the MND said there are safeguards within town council financial rules to prevent a conflict of interest, even as the ministry stressed that it monitors the award of tenders to ensure they comply with the financial provisions.

If a managing agent intends to participate in a tender for works or services called by the town council, the managing agent is required to declare its interest to the town council and is prohibited from participating in the evaluation of the tenders received, said a MND spokesperson, adding that the independent tender committee must ensure that the" tender specifications do not favour any particular tenderer."

Firstly, I am glad that the Ministry of National Development has clarified that there are safeguards within town council financial rules and it is indeed to be lauded that the Ministry monitors the award of tenders to ensure that they comply with the financial provisions.

To be fair, as I have maintained from the very beginning, the mere fact that the General Manager of a Town Council is also the director of the company that provides services as a managing agent does not amount to conflict of interest.

Based on information that has been forthcoming thus far, there is no obvious case of a conflict.

Secondly, the above article indicates that there are 4 town councils with the potential conflict situation. But, the article has mentioned 3 town councils: Jurong, Aljunied & Holland-Bukit Timah. I had speculated about Holland-Bukit Timah in an earlier blog post on the basis of a listing on the website of the Association of Facilities and Property Managers that names Teng Ann Boon, Albert as an employee of EM Services. Today’s Todayonline article confirms this fact. I wonder which the 4th Town Council is.

Thirdly, this issue of potential conflict of interest is one that should be examined at the level of individual Town Councils rather than at a national level. The Ministry of National development should at best be expected to devise a policy guideline for Town Councils to follow and monitor whether or not structural devices are in place in Town Councils to ensure that conflicts do not arise. Town Councils collect conservancy charges from residents and these TCs should be answerable to residents if there happens to be any conflict of interest.

Fourthly, I wonder about the situation involving Mr Ang Mong Seng (the former MP for Bukit Gombak & former chairman of Hong Kah Town Council). He is the Chief Operating Officer of EM Services. The explanation given by Mdm Halimah of Jurong Town Council is, to me, satisfactory in assuring that there is no conflict of interest in relation to Mr Ho Thian Poh. Her explanation is that Mr Ho was appointed as the General Manager after Esmaco was awarded the contract to manage the estate and that Mr Ho was under the payroll of Esmaco. Provided that the award of other projects and contracts and the monitoring of Esmaco’s services is carried out by other persons/committees, prima facie there is no reason to assert that there could be a conflict of interest.

In relation to Mr Ang Mong Seng, the situation is not very clear. When was he appointed as the Chief Operating Officer of EM Services? He was the Chairman of Hong Kah Town Council at a time when EM Services was bidding for projects. The Town Council has a tender committee and it is clear that Mr Ang was not a member of that committee. But, what measures did the Town Council have in place to ensure that conflicts do not arise? Would Committee members feel obliged (through no coercion or influence) to award a contract to EM Services? The reason why we try to come up with measures against conflict of interest is that we want to battle against human weaknesses.

Shouldn’t there simply be an absolute no-conflict rule for those who serve as town councillors or Chairmen/Vice-Chairmen of TCs? This would mean that if they are in an executive position in a company that bids for a Town Council project, then the company would be automatically disqualified from making such a bid. This would be the better way to go in the future. So, for instance, EM Services should not have been permitted to bid for projects in Hong Kah.

Fifthly, I agree with the MND spokesperson that the tender committee should ensure that the tender specifications do not favour any particular tenderer. This is one area worth exploring and monitoring. Are the specifications drafted in a manner that might favour any single company? It is one thing to say that there is a tender committee but it is a wholly different issue of the tender process is hijacked by rigging. Again, as observed earlier, residents could play an active role in keeping the committees and town councillors on their toes.

Another thing I want to add…. Keeping them honest and keeping them transparent should apply equally to PAP as well as WP wards. WP in Aljunied should heed this and build a transparent system there that residents can readily scrutinise.

All Town Councils should implement an internet-based disclosure regime for the tendering of all projects. (Incidentally, I got some of the information relating to Hong Kah Town Council because they have uploaded their tender results on their website. This is useful and a step in the right direction.)

‘Conflict of interest’ raises important ethical and moral issues in governance and we shouldn’t treat it as a frivolous matter.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Town Council formerly known as Hong Kah

The more one digs the more finds…..

Mr Ang Mong Seng, the former MP for Hong Kah GRC (Bukit Gombak) is named at the following website of United Fibre Systems Ltd as one of its Independent Directors. That is perfectly fine.

The write-up on that website says this about Mr Ang.

"Mr. Ang is a Member of Parliament for Hong Kah GRC (Bukit Gombak). He has almost 30 years of experience in estate management. He is the Chief Operating Officer of EM Services Pte Ltd, Chairman of Hong Kah Town Council and Vice Chairman of South- West Community Development Council."

He didn’t seek re-election this time around. So, the site is obviously not updated yet. But, note that he is referred to as the Chief Operating Officer of EM Services Pte Ltd. To be fair, the estate management of Hong Kah Town Council is provided by Esmaco Pte Ltd and not by EM Services Ltd. EM Services provides its services for the following Town Councils:

East Coast Town Council
Holland-Bukit Panjang Town Council
Jalan Besar Town Council
Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council
Sembawang Town Council
Tampines Town Council
Tanjong Pagar Town Council

So, there’s no direct conflict of interest there. He is not involved in the management of those town councils. Ideally, being the MP for Bukit Gombak and therefore being involved in the Town Council management of Hong Kah Town Council, he should have avoided retaining the position of COO in EM Services. The problem is that EM Services has tendered for estate management in many Town Councils and has also tendered for projects in Hong Kah.

In fact, on 7th August 2009, a term contract for the servicing and maintenance of Senior Citizens’ fitness equipment was awarded to EM Services for the period of 1 Dec 2009 to 30th Nov 2011 by the Hong Kah Town Council. Again, to be fair, Mr Ang was not sitting in the Tenders Committee of the Town Council. Although, there may not in fact have been any interference and the entire process may have been above board, it is sometimes not enough for office bearers to merely insist that everything was clean and above board. It is necessary for them to be seen to be above board as well. The best way to do it is to remove yourself from those companies that may potentially bid for such contracts or to cause those companies not to tender for the contracts in the first place.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Jurong Town Council - Esmaco Services

Based on reading an article in Temasek Review on 15th May 2011, I was under the impression that Esmaco is a company based in Australia and probably originating from there.

I managed to find out the following about Esmaco. Esmaco was originally owned by HDB Corporation Pte Ltd which then sold off its interest in Esmaco to Premas International Ltd. Premas International Ltd was a subsidiary of CapitaLand Ltd. CapitaLand had in 2005 sold Premas to United Group Limited (an Australian company).

So, today... UGL Premas is the holding company and Esmaco is its subsidiary. It is likely that many of the staff and management in UGL Premas and Esmaco would have been the same chaps that were around prior to the divestment by CapitaLand. Mr Ho Thian Poh may well have been holding on to his position in Premas even before the acquisition by the Australian company and quite possibly he may have been the General MAnager of the Jurong Town Council from before the 2005 acquisition of Premas by UGL.

I'm not making any insinuations here or alleging any wrongdoing. Just trying to give a more accurate picture of the status of Esmaco.

There is still the unanswered question as to how the Managing Director of Premas could also be the General Manager of Jurong Town Council and avoid any possible conflict of interest.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Where do we go now?

For the last 20 to 25 years, I have had this feeling that our country had lost its soul. I might even add that maybe we didn’t really develop a soul after independence in 1965. We had become mere digits in a giant GDP focused machine.

Many of my friends and some of my relatives have gone away to work overseas or have relocated and given up their citizenship. If you were to ask most of them what the reason for leaving was, one inevitable reason would be that our country was missing a soul. Some would talk about it in terms of the politics here. Others would lament the lack of a balanced lifestyle. Still others may speak of the lack of a creative environment.

To me, these are all interrelated reasons. Our politics has stifled our cultural environment. The ruling party’s overriding focus on economic growth at the expense of everything else has stunted our development as a nation. After all these years of independence, why are we still not a nation yet? (Mr Lee Kuan Yew asserted as much in 2009 when he insisted that we are still not a nation.)

The answer lies in the fact that for too long the PAP has relied on a top-down model of governance that has stifled the voice of the people. Whilst you are trying to lead a whole community, the voice of the people might feel like a cacophony that distracts you from your primary purpose. But, within that cacophony is a yearning for ownership. Each individual wants to have the dignity of being the creator of his own destiny. This collective yearning to be creators, and therefore co-creators of the community’s destiny, should not be shut out. But, this is what the PAP has done in all these years of governing this country.

The PAP leaders have acquired a ‘we know best’ persona and have refused to hear or accommodate dissenting voices or views. This has manifested itself in a range of ways. Letters written to the forum pages of the state media may not readily be published if they are overly critical of the government. Responses from government departments or ministers have adopted a ‘trust-us-this-is-good-for-you’ approach rather than to suggest that they would consider the complaints and look into how things could be improved. This may sound trivial. But, psychologically this is something valuable for the people. We can feel that we have expressed our frustrations and that these frustrations have not only been heard but that they may possibly be the basis on which policy decisions are made.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, too many Singaporeans have grown up with a sense of fear as to what could happen to them if they voiced their views in public. Detentions under the Internal Security Act had caused many of us to fear a government that we saw increasingly as being bent on retaining its grip on power through whatever means possible. The 1987 detentions under Operation Spectrum were pretty unconvincing in terms of the reasons supplied by the state. Roman Catholic church members, social workers and lawyers: these are hardly the kind of people that we consider to be dangerous communist insurgents. But, the government through the state media tried to sell that story to us. Some of us bought it. Many didn’t. But, amongst the many that didn’t buy into the reasons, we certainly got entangled in the state of fear that the arrests induced.

Singapore society fell silent. Social activists fell silent. The Law Society fell silent. We knew that it was not prudent to criticize the ruling party or to speak in support of opposition parties. I remember for a long period of time that any conversation critical of the PAP or its leaders had to be conducted within the privacy of our homes or if in a public place, with hushed tones so as not to attract the attention of some ISD operative. You could be in a coffee shop and the conversation could veer into politics and friends would uneasily glance over at other tables especially if there is a lone individual sipping his coffee for an endless period of time.

As a concurrent development in the 1980s, the youth of that time were displaying dissent at the ballot box. (Presumably it was the youth as LKY was pretty upset with the younger generation at that time.) At its peak the opposition managed to get 4 seats in Parliament and had reduced the PAP’s popular vote to 61%. That was in 1991. Since then the PAP has been effective through redrawing of boundaries and the extensive usage of the GRC system to effectively neuter the opposition and limit them to Hougang and Potong Pasir.

By the time we stepped into the 1990s, it was becoming clear that voicing your views against the PAP was not a prudent thing to do. In the 1990s, we moved from ISA detentions to defamation suits. In a country where the pursuit of wealth or at least economic survival is of penultimate importance, the threat of defamation suits was a powerful weapon against dissent.

But, the last five years have been different in many ways. Little by little people were voicing out their views and getting away with it (with the exception of the law extending its arm now and then to show who’s the boss). The internet gave us two things: an avenue for alternative news and an avenue for venting our frustrations. The 2011 general elections saw online criticism of the PAP reach fever pitch with some really nasty and heated comments being dished out by disgruntled individuals. For the first time in a general election we had policy issues to grumble about and the discussions were not merely about checks and balances in Parliament. (But, arguably the a sizeable percentage of voters have matured enough to realize that the best way to effect policy changes is to have an effective system of checks and balances in Parliament)

Ironically, the government’s decision to adopt a light-touch approach to the internet as well as the decision to allow the internet to be used as a campaign platform became a sword against the PAP. The opposition parties do not have the organizational strength of the PAP nor the kind of structural reach into the population through grassroots organizations. But, through the internet and the internet-savy youth, they penetrated well into the hearts and minds of a frustrated population. Alternative news could not be ignored. The mainstream media could not ignore the online chatter. The PAP leaders could not ignore the sheer anger that was being displayed by the population during the campaign period. All that led to that historic day of ministerial apologies and we felt that Goliath, whilst not slain, was made to have a good hard look at himself (even if he may find it difficult to really alter himself).

Polling day came. More than 800,000 people made their roar audible. A GRC fell. Several GRCs were close. A warning has been served.

We stand now at the threshold of a new dawn. This is liberation day all over again. Not liberation from a colonial power but liberation from the fear that had gripped our nation. Suddenly, we realize that there is nothing to fear. The mighty PAP is fallible. The present leaders are not going to come down on us with the ISA. They appear willing to let us have our say and not quash us or our views.

During the election campaign period, many volunteered their services for the opposition parties. To do this in Singapore takes tremendous courage and a sense of self-sacrifice. Many had to battle disapproval from family members or colleagues or superiors. After the elections were over, many came forward to volunteer their services. I know of many (usually younger than me) who have voiced the intention to serve on the ground with opposition parties either as members or simply as grassroots volunteers.

One thing is clear: Anyone who volunteers in this manner to serve opposition parties is not trying to gain some kind of benefit for himself. The unfortunate fact about most people who join existing grassroots organizations is that they seek some kind of benefit for themselves. I have a relative who urged me a long time ago to join the grassroots as I am bound to benefit through contacts and I could get better clients that way. When I first moved to Choa Chu Kang, a court clerk that I knew bumped into me and suggested that I join the RC in my zone (in which he was a member). His rallying cry was also about the benefits that I could get as a result of being a RC member. I know of many parents who volunteer their services to grassroots organizations in the hope that they will get preference for the primary school where they intend to send their kids. There is only one thing to say about this. It is pure selfishness and self-interest at play. There will surely be some who join purely out of a sense of service and I am not going to lump them up in this generalization.

Unlike the grassroots organizations from which the PAP draws its strength where sycophancy is often the order of the day, the volunteers that are now coming forward to help the opposition cause carry a serious message through their actions. They want change. They want to live their lives with a sense of purpose. This purpose is not in fulfilling their own narrow interests but in pursuing the greater good of Singapore. The political stranglehold that the PAP has had in our country has sucked out almost the last drop of the idealism and hope that we were born with. But now, something has changed. Something magical has happened.

People are rising up. There is a momentum created during the days of the campaign period that has not gone away. Many are carrying this flame in their hearts and surely more and more capable and passionate people will step forward to join the opposition parties. The next general elections will see the opposition fielding very strong candidates with tremendous passion. This is something the PAP is going to be lacking: passion. It already lacks this and it is failing to attract passionate individuals. Neutered unionists, technocrats and individuals climbing up the PAP-engineered meritocratic ladder are the types that the PAP can churn out. Individuals with a passion for the people are inevitably going to cross over the line and towards the opposition.

What do we do now? There is an important political milestone to be reached in our country. We have to prevent the PAP from amending the constitution whenever it deems it fit. Constitutional amendments must be done only when there is a cross-party support for such measures. To ensure this, the opposition must obtain sufficient seats in Parliament to prevent the PAP from having a 2/3 majority.

30 seats in Parliament for the opposition and the PAP’s stranglehold will be broken. That is the target.

This is achievable even by the next election. Those of us that are committed to building an active democracy must do our part. We could volunteer to assist in the grassroots activities of opposition parties. We could monitor the state media and expose any propaganda. We could continue to highlight the policy failures of the government and socio-economic issues encountered by Singaporeans. We could continue to campaign for the reform of the law and our legal system.

We want a just society. We want an equal society. We want a democratic society.

This is not too much to ask or too much to seek to accomplish. It is nothing more than what we have been pledging to do all those years in our school days. For once, the pledge can mean something. We now have a chance to cease to be hypocrites and really do what we have been pledging to do.

“We, the Citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.”

Monday, May 23, 2011

Town Councils - conflict of interest?

A couple of interesting revelations have arisen after the general elections in Singapore this year. These are worth pursuing in the interest of transparency. In the end, I suspect that there may not be anything to be concerned about. But, prima facie, there appears to be a potential for conflict of interest in the management of some town councils.

I am not prepared to jump the gun and declare that there has been an obvious case of conflict. There are so many details that are missing that it is impossible to state with any degree of certainty whether conflict might exist.

Soon after the elections, information surfaced that the General Manager of Aljunied GRC was also the Managing Director of CPG Facilites Management Pte Ltd. This is the company that was awarded the town management contract at Aljunied Town Council. Now that Aljunied has fallen to the opposition Workers Party, there will be a handover of the Town Council management pretty soon.

In an article in the Straits Times on 12th May 2011 regarding the handover of the Aljunied Town Council, the following was stated:

“Aljunied Town Council is now managed by CPG Facilities Management, with whom the town council signed a three-year contract last year. CPG managing director Jeffrey Chua is the town council’s general manager. As the town council managing agent, CPG engages the services of other companies for services such as cleaning, maintenance and lift rescue.”

On the surface, the idea that the same person is the General Manager of the Town Council as well as the Managing Director of CPG appears to be a conflict of interest.

Not too long after this, there emerged news that an employee of Esmaco Pte Ltd working at Jurong Town Council had been sacked. There were allegations about her being sacked because of her election campaign activities when she was supporting the National Solidarity Party. This was denied by her employers. In the midst of this, it has turned out that Mr Ho Thian Poh is both the General Manager of the Jurong Town Council and the Managing Director of UGL Premas Ltd. Esmaco Pte Ltd, which is the managing agent of Jurong Town Council, is in fact a subsidiary UGL Premas Ltd.

So, we now have a situation where the GM position in two Town Councils has been occupied by individuals in a directorial capacity in the companies that have been awarded the contract to be managing agents.

I did a quick check on the names of all the General Managers or Secretaries in the various Town Councils. They are as follows. (I have also included the companies that are carrying out the estate management in these estates):

Aljunied Town Council Jeffrey CHUA Leong Chuan
CPG Facilities Management Pte Ltd.

Ang Mo Kio - Yio Chu Kang Town Council WAN Chong Hock
CPG Facilities Management Pte Ltd.

Bishan-Toa Payoh Town Council LING Ming Chuan

East Coast Town Council S Sasidharan NAIR
EM Services Pte Ltd

Holland-Bukit Panjang Town Council TENG Ann Boon, Albert
EM Services Pte Ltd

Hong Kah Town Council Ms Christina GOH
Esmaco Pte Ltd

Hougang Town Council Ms HOW Weng Fan

Jalan Besar Town Council LIM Kee Ee
EM Services Pte Ltd

Jurong Town Council HO Thian Poh
Esmaco Pte Ltd

Marine Parade Town Council Ms PNG Chiew Hoon
Esmaco Pte Ltd

Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council Ms KWOK Wei Kin
EM Services Pte Ltd

Potong Pasir Town Council

Sembawang Town Council SOON Min Sin
EM Services Pte Ltd

Tampines Town Council LEONG Shee Wing
EM Services Pte Ltd

Tanjong Pagar Town Council Simon KOH Tee Chuan
EM Services Pte Ltd

West Coast Town Council TAY Eng Hwa
Esmaco Pte Ltd & EM Services Pte Ltd
The Association of Property and Facilities Managers lists Teng Ann Boon, Albert as being from EM Services Ltd. He is the General Manager at the Holland - Bukit Panjang Town Council.

A google search on Christina Goh throws up a ‘Linkedin’ profile with a past employment at UGL Premas. There is no way of verifying whether this is the same Christina Goh at Hong Kah Town Council.

The bottom line is that a simple search on the internet does not throw up any web of connections. More digging is needed to get to the bottom of this… if at all there is anything to be uncovered.

Assuming a person is a General Manager of a town council, is there necessarily a conflict of interest if he is also a director of the company that is appointed as a managing agent of the town council? Much will depend on the nature of the GM’s role. If the arrangement is that the town council awards the contract to a company like Esmaco and as part of that contract Esmaco appoints it employee or director to be the GM of the town council, then this arrangement would not on its own amount to a conflict. Presumably, the town council could still call the shots in terms of the contractual obligations of Esmaco and could still hold Esmaco accountable for any breach of service standards. The GM would effectively be an employee of Esmaco and he would be in charge of fulfilling Esmaco’s contractual obligations to the town council.

There would be an unpardonable conflict of interest if a person is at first appointed as a GM of the town council and then he is in charge of procuring the estate management contract and he proceeds to procure the services of Esmaco where he is a director or he is a director of Esmaco’s parent company. I doubt that this was the nature of the arrangement between the town council and Esmaco. It is more likely that Esmaco was appointed to manage the estate and the GM was appointed as Esmaco’s representative under the contract. He is probably under the payroll of Esmaco as well.

There are other issues that can potentially arise out of the way these town councils are managed. If the GM was involved in the process of awarding specific contracts for instance for tiling works or building covered walkways, how is the process managed in the town council. Does the town council leave Esmaco and its representative to decide on the contracts to be awarded and accordingly the pricing involved or does the town council exercise direct control over the process or at least some oversight. Given that estate management in PAP wards is being contracted out to private companies, the important question to be asked is the level of oversight that is being exercised over the way in which these companies operate.

If we look at the CPG Facilities Management website, we can see that as part of the township management services they perform, they carry out fund management and investment as well.

It is not clear whether all private companies carrying out estate management services in fact engage in investment on behalf of the town councils. If they do, this is another area to be concerned about in terms of the extent of oversight and control exercised by the town council itself.

But of course, if contrary to my conservative opinion, it turns out that there is something more to the position held by these GMs, then let the proverbial shit hit the fan.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Change: My wish list (non-exhaustive)

PAP is singing the tune of change... As for myself, I would love to see the following changes. But, I already suspect that none of these would transpire until more opposition voices enter Parliament. (or the PAP is voted out of power)

1. Abolish detention without trial
2. Repeal the mandatory death penalty
3. Repeal s.377A of the Penal Code
4. Amend laws that reverse the burden of proof and place the same on the defendant. (e.g. Misuse of Drugs Act)
5. relinquish control over the local media by repealing the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act
6. Politicians should cease to institute defamation suits
7. Lay bare the accounts of Temasek Holdings and GIC and specifically set out the salaries of office bearers
8. Reveal the details of our national reserve
9. reveal the per unit cost of construction of HDB flats
10. what component of CPF monies are invested by the state and what are the returns on the investment
11. Amend the Films Act to make it compliant with the Constitution
12. Amend the Public Order Act to allow for peaceful assemblies
13. Abolish the GRC system and revert back to the single member constituency system
14. move the elections department out of the PM’s Office and create an independent Electoral Commission to administer elections
15. Legally constrain the Boundary Committee to redraw electoral boundaries only for the purpose of reflecting demographic changes and restrict such changes to once every 15 years
16. Remove restrictions on the arts scene

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Change from within?

The catchword for GE 2011 has become ‘change’. Whatever else may or may not have happened and whatever change may be due to take place, the political landscape in Singapore has changed irrevocably in a noticeably powerful way. Our collective fear of the PAP has been smashed in a dramatic fashion. I know that a significant number of people still experience that fear. However, thanks to the social media, for many of us this general election campaign has enabled us to find a voice and a very loud one at that.

All of this noise making has, it appears, forced the PAP leadership to re-examine itself. It is too early to tell if the PAP leaders would in fact change their policies and modify their authoritarian style of government. I am still skeptical. We have heard before about the supposed change in the style of government. But, past actions do not bear out any real attempt at fulfilling those promises.

As it stands right now, it appears to me still that the leadership is engaged in perception management more than anything else. I am not convinced that they are really going to look at their policies to see how they may be changed. I suspect that they may try to explain their policies in a more palatable fashion.

The following is an article that appeared in the Today paper on 13th May 2011 entitled “I wondered how leaders would react: Tan Chuan-Jin”:

BG Tan said what needs to be done is to change the perception that the PAP is a long—time ruling party that is quick to look past public views — even though it has made policy decisions with the best of intentions.
"It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint what exactly sparked that perception. But perception is reality and it’s important because if that perception is widespread, it will erode that sense of support ... and the mandate where the people trust you to make long—term strategic decisions," he said.

My worry is that in the end, the next five years becomes an endless exercise in underlining the official narratives that continue to keep the majority of Singaporeans convinced that this country cannot survive without the PAP. We are a small island with no natural resources. We are surrounded by hostile or potentially hostile neighbours. Our economic progress was solely due to the enlightened economic policies of the PAP. That such economic progress is not compatible with ‘confrontational’ politics. That our society is so fragile that it is just poised to break into chaos if freedoms are given to Singaporeans. That the past track record of a previous generation of leaders is indicative of the present and future performance of PAP leaders. I could go on.

The election campaign on the last day and the subsequent comments by the PAP leaders as well as forum page letters in the Straits Times all indicate a trend where:
a) the PAP leadership has realised that the level of unhappiness on the ground borders on anger and hatred;
b) they have decided that an apology and a promise to change would be the best way to limit the fallout;
c) they don’t appear thoroughly or even mildly convinced that their policies are wrong or may be wrong;
d) they seem to have a sense that Singaporeans have not fully understood government policies and explanations and that there is a breakdown in the communication

What I worry the most is that the campaign of perception management that the PAP leadership may engage in over the next few years might achieve the objective of pulling back the popular vote in PAP’s favour without any real change that the some of us desire; i.e. a change in failed policies, greater accountability for policy decisions and transparency through an effective system of Parliamentary checks and balances.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

GRCs – where do we go from here?

The Group Representation Constituency system was introduced in the 1988 elections ostensibly for the purpose of ensuring minority representation in Parliament. In the 2011 general elections, the PAP has lost 2 of its ministers through the loss of Aljunied GRC. The Workers’ Party raised the stakes by placing its best candidates in Aljunied knowing that the closet election battle in the last election was fought in this GRC. They won the bet.

Now, more than ever before, there is an urgent need to talk about the GRC system. There is an urgency to deal with this system whilst PAP supporters themselves are bitter with the loss of George Yeo. For a long time, opposition supporters have maintained that the GRC system unfairly disadvantages opposition parties and favours the incumbent. Well, it is equally dangerous for the PAP: the loss of a GRC means the loss of at least one or two ministers depending on the particular GRC.

Let us examine the stated rationale for the GRC system and whether it has any merits:

Minority representation

The official reason for the introduction of the GRC system in 1988 was to ensure that candidates from minority races can still be represented in Parliament. Was Singapore in danger of voting along racial lines back then in the 1980s? The evidence shows that PAP candidates of Indian and Malay origin had little difficulty in defeating Chinese opponents from opposition parties. Equally true is the fact that the first opposition MP to enter into Parliament was JB Jeyaretnam of the Workers’ Party in a constituency where the majority of residents were Chinese. The truth is that Singaporeans had not been voting along racial lines as at 1998 and it remains true that Singaporeans have not been voting along racial lines since then.

Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a Singaporean who would vote along racial lines. Most Singaporeans can be classified into pro-PAP, anti-PAP, pro-a-particular-opposition party or just simply apathetic or unconcerned.

People vote along racial lines? Here in Singapore? We don’t buy that.
We may be told to rewind the clock back to the 1950s and 1960s. We may be told that racial divisions were real and were about to tear our society apart. We may be told that even though we notice such divisions today, they are still there below the surface waiting to blow up in our face at the slightest instigation.
If we are to believe that, then we must accept that 4 decades of nation building has been a failure; 4 decades of talking about racial harmony has been a failure; 4 decades of attempting to build a Singaporean identity has been a failure. But, I find that hard to accept.

Sure. There are racists in Singapore. There is racial discrimination here and there. Singaporeans have racial stereotypes about each other. But, to the credit of the Chinese majority in Singapore, they have never derided their politicians because of their race. Many minority race candidates from the PAP and the opposition have been received well by the Chinese majority. We are not in danger of slipping into a race based voting pattern. I know of so many Chinese friends who speak adoringly of JBJ and have a lot of contempt for LKY. Race has not been a factor in the way that the majority race votes in Singapore and with the high degree of tolerance and integration that we have amongst Singaporeans, it is unlikely that race will become a factor in the foreseeable.

So, the need to ensure minority race protection is nothing more than a hypothetical argument. In 1988, the PAP government was trying to ‘solve’ a hypothetical problem. Now, let us assume for a moment that minority race representation in Parliament is an issue to be catered for. Is the GRC system necessarily the best way to deal with it? Can’t such protection be ensured through a minimum quota of seats in Parliament? Under the present system, there are 15 GRCs. That translates into a reservation of 15 minority race seats in Parliament. If minority race representation is the true reason for introducing the GRC system, I suggest that a better system of ensuring minority race representation would be to reserve 15 constituencies as minority race seats. Any political party fielding candidates in those constituencies must field a person from a minority race. (I am personally opposed to this idea of creating a quota. But, playing ball with the PAP’s officially stated rationale, an alternative and better approach to the GRC would be a SMC system with a fixed quota for minorities)

What the GRC system really does is that it shields weaker candidates from electoral defeat. Back in 2009 I had blogged about manipulation of the electoral system and in that context the following analysis of Eunos GRC is something stand by still:

“Given the lack of proportionality that is inherent in the system, layering the GRC over it helps to aggravate the disproportionality. With the introduction of the GRC system, it is possible that some MPs that may have lost their individual seats are rescued by stronger candidates in other constituencies. The practice of having a Minister head a GRC team places an apprehension in the minds of voters that if the team loses, the Minister would no longer be able to serve in his office. Weak candidates within the GRC would benefit from the presence of a Minister on their team.

Let us take the Eunos GRC example. In the 1988 elections, Eunos GRC was a 3 member ward. The votes in favour of PAP – 36,500. The votes in favour of WP – 35,221. If the 3 constituencies that were a part of the GRC were single member constituencies in that elections, it is highly likely that at least one of the PAP candidates would have lost his seat. It is likely that Francis Seow would have won a seat in his constituency. In fact, with a vote difference of 1,279 votes, I would not be surprised if 2 PAP MPs had in fact lost to the opposition in the Eunos GRC(if only the Elections Department were to release the detailed results).

The same analysis can be applied to the Eunos GRC of the 1991 elections. This time around it was composed of 4 constituencies. PAP obtained 45,833 votes as opposed to 41,673 for the WP. With a vote difference of 4,160, again it is likely that at least one of the PAP candidates would have lost the seat in a conventional single member seat.

Through the GRC system, the PAP has managed to keep some of its MPs in Parliament where they would otherwise have found it tough going in a single member constituency. The growth in the size and number of GRCs was accompanied by the disappearance of most of the single member constituencies. This is another unique form of electoral management that has ensured the PAP’s continued super-majority in Parliament.”

The fact is that through the GRC system PAP had managed in the early years of its introduction to avoid losing seats in Parliament to candidates that would have posed a serious threat in Parliament such as Francis Seow and Tang Liang Hong. Single member constituencies that were too hot for the PAP to handle such as Bukit Batok, Bukit Gombak and Ulu Pandan (amongst others) were quickly obsorbed into GRCs. The GRCs started growing in size from the original 3 member groups to 5 and 6 member groups. Over time, it has also become evident that the GRC system is a useful way by which the PAP is able to regenerate itself and to train newbies. Every new candidate introduced in a general election by the PAP is shielded by a Minister or two in a GRC. People would generally not dare to vote out a minister and the new candidate would effectively be protected that way. This rationale has been evident in the PAP rhetoric in the last two elections and in fact it was elevated to a new level in this election this year.

PAP ministers have been repeating the warning that a Minister could be lost if voters went against the PAP in a GRC. In the 2006 election, much was made about George Yeo’s experience and credentials as a Foreign Minister. In the 2011 election, we have seen again how the PAP made much ado about the possibility of losing a Minister if Aljunied GRC were to be lost.

So, it has come to pass. Aljunied has been lost to the Workers’ Party. The residents of Aljunied have rejected the PAP’s arguments. The desire for a voice in Parliament has been so overwhelming that the WP team in Aljunied pulled off a vote swing of 10% in a GRC where precincts were moved out into Ang Mo Kio GRC and precincts were brought in from Marine Parade in an attempt by the incumbent to dilute pro-opposition votes.

Low Thia Khiang said on nomination day that it is time to teach the PAP a lesson. Well, the lesson has been delivered. But, has the PAP learnt anything?

And there is one more thing. This election has really exposed the GRC system in a big way. Tin Pei Ling can become an MP. Half a dozen faceless individuals in the PAP ranks can become MPs. But, George Yeo, Tan Jee Say, Vincent Wijeysinha and several other credible individuals can be left out of Parliament. The net effect: the GRC system is inherently inefficient in delivering the best outcome. The most credible candidates would enter Parliament in a straight one to one contest. But, in a system that shields the incompetent, Parliament suffers in quality.

To summarise:
1. I don’t buy the argument that GRCs protect minorities.
2. If we really want to protect minorities, we could have a fixed quota of SMCs for that purpose.
3. GRCs have favoured the PAP because of the all-or-nothing effect that they produce
4. GRCs permit less than competent candidates to enter Parliament through the presence of Ministers
5. When a GRC is lost due to backlash, a good PAP candidate can be lost along with the whole team

There is one more point that I did not make above. The first past the post system that we have inherited from the British is not representative of the votes of the people. The GRC system amplifies this problem and our Parliament has become dramatically unrepresentative. 6 seats out of 87 seats as representation for 40% of the population that voted for the opposition? That is atrocious.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


The 7th of May has come and gone. Many of us were harping on the message of change. For some, it was as grandiose as a defeat of the PAP and the formation of a coalition government. For others, it was about denying the PAP a 2/3 majority. But, I believe, for most it was about making a breakthrough in a GRC.

In the heat of the campaigning, it was becoming increasingly clear from all the noise-making on social media platforms such as Facebook and from all the conversations that we were having with friends and relatives that something was happening. There was a shift against the PAP. A wave of anger. This was made worse by the almost arrogant insistence by Ministers that there would be no policy shifts and the veiled and direct threats that were made to the electorate generally and to voters in Aljunied in particular.

For a while, some of us sensed that Holland-Bukit Timah might fall to SDP in addition to a victory for the Workers’ Party in Aljunied. As more and more of us raised our voice in whatever way possible, we became more and more hopeful that something exceptional was going to happen on 7th May 2011. My own rational wish on cooling off day was that WP must take Aljunied and the votes must swing against the PAP to bring their majority to 60%. On polling day, both wishes came true. But, I felt a little empty because of so many close fights and of course the hyped up expectation of a totally surprising result. The surprise didn’t materialize.

With the heat of the election battle cooling off, and after rationally analyzing the opposition performance, I must say that there has been a significant change in this election. This is the highest number of opposition MPs in post-independence Singapore. This is the lowest percentage of popular votes garnered by the PAP.

More significantly, more than 800,000 Singaporeans voted for the opposition. During the campaign period, fear was rapidly disappearing from the minds of Singaporeans. We were saying stuff on our blogs. We were tweeting bold messages. Our Facebook updates were becoming ever more daring. We were publicly discussing politics with our friends, colleagues and relatives. We were not shy or fearful of discussing the topic in public places. Fear: a powerful tool in the hands of the PAP was now disappearing from our minds. I know of friends who had voted for the PAP previously out of fear or had spoilt their votes previously for that reason, who had decided in this election to cast away that fear. (Reality check – I also know of some who did not manage to do it and at the last minute succumbed to the fear of some backlash)

Of all the things that we can say about GE 2011 (be it the quality of opposition candidates, the disciplined messaging of WP and SDP, the off-message statements of PAP candidates, the sideshow involving Tin Pei Ling and Nicole Seah, the unprecedented apologies of Ministers, the swelling crowds at opposition rallies, the unrestricted usage of new media and the shameless lies of the New Paper), the one undeniable thing that has stood out for me is the lifting of the fear factor from the minds of so many Singaporeans.

Change has come.

Now, we have more work to do.!/video/video.php?v=1753951563382&comments