Singapore

Analysts on AHPETC and the voters

The state of  Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council's finances has seen a sparring match between the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Workers’ Party (WP). The New Paper invited two political analysts to weigh in on its impact on voters. These are their replies in full

AHPETC is WP's Achilles heel

Eugene K B Tan

In the titanic struggle to win the hearts and minds of voters, the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) issue may well be a battle royal between the People's Action Party (PAP) and the Workers' Party (WP).

In February 2015, the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) reported that his special audit found that AHPETC had several major lapses in governance and compliance with the Town Councils Act and Town Councils Financial Rules. As such, AHPETC's financial statements for FY 2012/13 did not accurately reflect the state of affairs and transactions of AHPETC. 

The AGO concluded that, until the weaknesses are addressed, there can be no assurance that AHPETC's accounts are accurate and reliable, or that public funds are properly spent, accounted for and managed.

Then there is the issue of whether monies owed by AHPETC to its sinking funds, which funds major repairs and maintenance, including the Lift Upgrading Programme.
Since then, the PAP's big wigs have fired numerous salvos at WP - inside and outside Parliament. The intensity has increased since “election season” was declared after National Day. 

The PAP's position is that the town council issue is not a political attack on the WP but implicates serious issues of competence and integrity. The PAP characterises the fundamental issue as one of honest and responsible politics in Singapore.

Will the accusations of WP's financially irresponsibility stick or will people dismiss this as another PAP political attack? Should voters view the AHPETC issue as a political attack on the WP, then it will backfire heavily on the PAP.
However, the AHPETC issue is clearly WP's Achilles heel. The coming general election will inform us whether the AHPETC issue did inflict a body blow to WP's electoral fortunes. 

Meanwhile, the WP has no bragging rights vis-a-vis their being equal to the task of running a Town Council effectively and efficiently. 
The PAP's frontal assault of WP's ability and integrity in running a Town Council will continue intensely during the campaigning, especially in PAP-WP contests. But the PAP must guard against making its entire GE2015 campaign mono-dimensional by concentrating its firepower on this issue.

There is latent potential that the AHPETC issue could segue into issues that the WP could capitalise on, such as whether the political and governance systems are titled in favour of the PAP.

In light of the AHPETC saga, some voters might carefully consider whether the party contesting in their constituency can properly run a Town Council.

They will also balance their views with their own experience and assessment with that of how the PAP-run Town Councils have fared and how they have may have been favourably treated compared with an Opposition-run Town Council.

Given the many exchanges of accusations and competing narratives, voters may not necessarily fully understand what the brouhaha is all about. 

The AHPETC issue is, of course, real and serious from a matter of corporate governance and prudent use of public funds. 

But perception and reality on the ground may diverge significantly. Areas under AHPETC may not yet experience any decline in service standards. 

The PAP's efforts will come to nought if voters are not persuaded by the persistent attempts to demonstrate WP's incompetence and lack of integrity. 

In the end, the court of public opinion may well be the decider rather than the intricacies of financial rules and probity. 

Voters may well be inclined to look beyond the AHPETC issue and endorse WP's intrinsic value as the leading opposition party, and its role in Singapore's evolving political landscape where the idea of one-party dominance is increasingly being challenged.

If so, AHPTEC may well be a non-issue to most voters. Meanwhile, the tug of war continues.

The writer is associate professor of law at the 
Singapore Management University School of Law

WP Would get 'A' with 60/100 marks

Tan Ern Ser

Some months ago, I had argued that the WP was basking in a honeymoon phase where it can do no wrong.  

A significant proportion of Singaporeans perceived the WP to be a credible, respectable political outfit capable of playing the role of an effective opposition, providing alternative views, checking on the government, and perhaps eventually leading the way to a two-party democracy in the near future.  

This perception has resulted in GE2011 becoming a 'watershed' election, where the WP broke through the barrier of winning a GRC, in addition to keeping Hougang SMC.

The party then continued on this winning streak when it won two by-elections with convincing margins.

I reckon that, moreover, for many young Singaporeans who believe in political diversity, there are good reasons to do away with the 'one-party dominant' system.

For many other voters, young and old, the turn of the century had brought about unexpected hardships, which dented their confidence in the ability of the PAP to deliver the growing affluence and rising living standards they have grown accustomed to since the late 70s.

Indeed, the most popular word in the Singaporean vocabulary was upgrading, also known as the 5 C's. 

The hardships have much to do with stiff global competition, fast technological changes, and a rapidly aging population.  These have in turn led to job and income insecurity, wage stagnation, and higher costs of living.

The good life in the 'land of opportunity' seemed to be unravelling.  At the same time, there were transport woes, and a high influx of foreign labour adding to the hardships.

Because, the PAP's legitimacy has rested on its ability to deliver the good life, it was also, correspoindingly, blamed for all the perceived hardships that have surfaced in the last decade. 

I guess if it has taken much of the credit before, it is logical that Singaporeans would assign to it much of the responsibility for the negative consequences as well.   
What we have been seeing is that the WP can seemingly do no wrong, being in a sort of 'honeymoon phase'.

On the other hand, the PAP, to its critics, cannot do anything right, despite all its good intentions and efforts, because Singaporeans hold it to a far higher standard. 

To illustrate this, the WP could receive an 'A' grade just by getting 60 per cent of the total marks, whereas the PAP needs at least 95 per cent to be given a 'C' grade.

The question here is whether the AHPETC saga has made a dent on the WP's image.  Let say, it has dropped to 40% as a result of the saga.  Would this constitute an A-minus or a B?  

My sense is that it has dropped only to A-minus, and therefore still in a fairly good position to keep what it had won during and after GE2011.  

During the same time, the PAP has had four years to alleviate the hardships faced by Singaporeans.  Perhaps, it has by now scored 90%, barely making the grade.

In the above scenario, I am assuming that the honeymoon is not yet over for the WP.  If it is over, even staying at 50 % is not good enough. 

Thus far, I don't get the sense that the AHPETC saga is gaining any traction among the electorate. 

It could be that many voters believe, rightly or wrongly, that the WP did no wrong, and that any mistakes made were merely the result of its inexperience, or that opposition town councils face an uneven playing field. 

If so, then the AHPETC saga will turn out to be a "no big deal" issue in this election, or perhaps, it's too early to tell. 

After all, we have 9 days of campaigning to watch.  

But note also that in an election season, one day can make a huge difference, even sinking a campaign. 

Whatever the case maybe, we can only hope that Singapore will continue to survive, even thrive in the choppy waters ahead.  
For this to happen, we need competent and wise leadership working in close partnership with the people.  

The people must also understand the dangers in our external environment, the trade-offs we need to consider, and support the difficult decisions that leaders have to make; otherwise, it's like sailing in the Titanic, still floating in the short run but heading speedily towards some giant icebergs.   

This is not to suggest that there is no room for opposition representation and voices, only that we must not end up in frequent stalemates, where every debate is an occasion to score points, thereby being unable to move forward in a fast-changing world.

The writer is an associate professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.
SingaporeSingapore ElectionsAHPETCWorkers' PartyUncategorisedFMSS