Workers' Party under fire again over town council issue
Workers' Party-run AHPETC's financial issues once again raised in Parliament
The Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) issue was in the crosshairs yet again yesterday.
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is also the Minister of Finance, took aim at the town council when fielding questions in Parliament about the Attorney-General Office's (AGO) report on lapses in several statutory boards and government agencies.
In just five days, at least four senior members of the People's Action Party (PAP) - Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and now Mr Tharman - have weighed in on the matter.
Analysts say it is clear this will be a major issue during election hustings.
Political observer Mano Sabnani said the AHPETC issue has been politicised - something the PAP will use to its advantage during the campaign.
"It would want to portray the Workers' Party (which runs the town council) as being unable to run a town council so as to avoid losing more GRCs," he said.
Calling this the WP's "Achilles' heel", Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan said the PAP is taking every opportunity to remind Singaporeans of the town council's outstanding issues.
He said: "It'll be a hot election issue, particularly when the PAP, besides focusing on the kind of national leadership that Singapore needs, has also been harping on the need to elect MPs who can effectively run town councils and manage municipal issues - a clear reference to the troubles at AHPETC."
"That is like saying that except for the fact that the pillars of my house are in serious danger of collapsing, everything is fine."
- Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam
The finances of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) were brought up in Parliament when Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam compared the Auditor-General's Office's (AGO) audit findings of the Government's accounts to AHPETC's.
He said that the main difference between the two was whether public monies had been safeguarded and properly used by the town council, calling the "whole house of AHPETC's finances unsafe".
Conversely, the AGO gave an unmodified opinion on the Government's financial statements, indicating there was no question about public funds but rather it was administrative issues that led to compliance problems.
The Finance Minister said there were fundamental problems with the way funds were being managed at AHPETC, likening it to a house with problems in its foundations.
"The AHPETC's own auditors and AGO could not certify the AHPETC's house as structurally sound… by comparison… (the Government's) house is safe, he added.
Replying later to AHPETC chairman Sylvia Lim, who said the town council has been playing by the rules except for certain observations made by auditors, Mr Tharman said: "That is like saying that except for the fact that the pillars of my house are in serious danger of collapsing, everything is fine."
Mr Tharman said that AHPETC has not been regularly transferring money into its sinking fund, which is a requirement for all town councils.
He brought up the fact that the Ministry of National Development (MND) withheld $7.2 million in operating money from the town council until it could show it had cleaned up its accounts, which the town council has been unable to do.
"Even if you take into account MND's grant, which MND is willing to discuss with you, and you have part of the MND grant that goes into the sinking fund and another part into the operating fund, the amount that is owed to the sinking fund from the operating fund would not be solved by MND grants," he said.
Responding to Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) chairman Sylvia Lim pointed out that the number of disclaimers from its previous audit has been reduced from 13 to three.
Furthermore, these were carried over from the previous opening balance, she said, asking if Mr Tharman agreed.
In a statement released last evening, disagreeing with what Mr Tharman said in Parliament, AHPETC said that money has been transferred into the sinking fund on time. This was despite Ministry of National Development (MND) withholding funds from the town council.
It gave a breakdown of the funds, stating that should the MND operational grant of $7.2 million be transferred directly into the town council's sinking fund, it would "more than fulfil its obligations to transfer sinking funds for FY 2014/2015".
The same statement said that Ms Lim had wanted to clarify these points in Parliament, but Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob had not seen her raised hand.
MND, MOF say...
What AHPETC said was inaccurate and misleading, said Ministry of National Development and Ministry of Finance in a joint statement released late last night.
It accused the town council of misquoting Mr Tharman and said AHPETC had not provided the full picture of the situation by focussing only on financial year 2014-2015.
MND said it was prepared to give out the grant on the condition that AHPETC submits its latest cash flow position to the Ministry, but it never got back.
"Furthermore, AHPETC tries to blame MND for its failure to make sinking fund transfers but (Justice Quentin Loh who presided over MND's application to appoint independent accounts to AHPETC) noted that it was AHPETC that did not accept MND's offer of grants in FY14/15."