Since many housing estates that come under town councils run by the People’s Action Party (PAP) have been upgraded by the Housing and Development Board, they are easier to maintain, said Low Thia Khiang, the secretary-general of the opposition Workers’ Party and Member of Parliament for Hougang. It is not a level playing field on which to score maintenance standards across various town councils.
In a party statement released 15 June 2010, Low challenged Grace Fu, Minister of State for National Development, to deny that this general principle is true. “Is she saying that upgrading programmes has [sic] no impact and implication on estate maintenance?” he asked.
I’d be most interested to see if Fu attempts to deny impact. I think all of us knows there is a relationship. Things new or recently overhauled, be they homes, production machines, cars or computers, give far fewer maintenance problems than older ones, the occasional exception notwithstanding. Singapore Airlines, for example, has a policy of keeping its fleet young for exactly this reason — technical reliability, which translates to service schedule reliability and cabin comfort for passengers. It will be humourous if a natural rule that applies to a government-owned airline is denied with respect to other infrastructure.
What got Low’s goat was Fu saying a day earlier that an upgraded estate also faces maintenance issues as covered walkways, for example, could need more effort to maintain than a ‘clean patch of grass’ (Straits Times, 14 June 2010, MND considers new town council criteria). She in turn was responding to Low’s prior statement (last Thursday) that opposition wards were disadvantaged as they were at the end of the queue for various upgrading programs.
Low got more specific in his June 15th statement:
Upgrading programmes such as IUP and MUP do not just build additional facilities like covered walk-ways as she mentioned. The upgrading programme also include upgrading of common areas like re-screeding of common corridor and replacement of lift lobby tiles as well as upgrading of playgrounds etc. One will not expect to find missing or worn off screws, nor floor mat being ripped off in new playgrounds. If the staircase railing is replaced with stainless steel railing instead of the existing mild steel railing inherited from the HDB as part of the upgrading program, one will not expect the railing to become rusty and corroded to become a maintenance issue.
This latest round of hurling began last Friday when the government released a scorecard of what it called town councils’ performance (Straits Times, 11 June 2010, It’s official: HDB estates are clean but…). The sixteen town councils that run various parts of Singapore were assessed in four areas of their responsibility: cleanliness, maintenance, performance of lifts and the management of arrears in service and conservancy charges. See Press Release by the Ministry of National Development.
All sixteen scored well on cleanliness. However, the opposition-held wards of Potong Pasir and Hougang, run by the Singapore Democratic Alliance and the Workers’ Party respectively, were given relatively lower scores for maintenance compared to all fourteen PAP-run town councils.
It is for this reason that Low shot back at the government for overlooking opposition-run town councils’ “disadvantaged position” in the rating process.
On lift performance, Hougang did very well, but Potong Pasir came in poorly. Finally, on the management of arrears, the two opposition areas were given the lowest scores.
On this, Low pointed out that PAP-run town councils show smaller amounts as arrears, not necessarily because they are good at collecting money from residents, but because they write off debts.
I took a look at the accounts of the Ang Mo Kio- Yio Chu Kang Town Council, run by the PAP under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself (he is one of the six members of parliament for Ang Mo Kio).
For the year ended 31 March 2009 (the latest accounts available on their website), this town council was owed S$981,360 in “conservancy and service receivables” by its constituents (Balance Sheet, line 10). But go to the fine print and you will also see under Notes to the Financial Statements 2(a)(a)(i) this statement:
Impairment for doubtful conservancy and service debts and legal fees amounting to $1,357,093 and late interest payments amounting to $244,287 have been estimated on the basis of age of debts, results of recovery efforts and historical experience.
Just in case you’re not familiar with the term “impairment” when used in this context, a sentence in Notes 2(c)(g) will give you a good clue:
Receivables which comprise conservancy and service receivables. . . are recognised initially at fair value and subsequently measured at amortised cost using the effective interest method, less allowance for impairment.
In layman’s language: This town council’s annual report showed “only” S$981,360 in uncollected debts because it had earlier written off S$1,601,380 ($1,357,093 + $244,287). Do note however, that the provision for impairment is cumulative over the years; it was not made entirely in Financial Year 2008/9. See the top of Page 24 of its financial statements.
But where did they get the money to write off such a large amount? Low suggested that “perhaps they have more surpluses and are in a better financial position due to additional funding received through upgrading program?”
And then he landed one on the jaw: “However, the more serious question is whether this is fair to other residents who pay promptly.” Ouch.
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The government claimed that releasing the score cards for all town councils was not meant for comparison. Cheekily, they said they were meant for residents’ information, so they could assess if they were getting value for their fees, and meant for longitudinal follow-up (i.e. assessing progress over time). But they quickly let the mainstream media do the comparing, and anyway, how are residents going make sense of their own town council’s scorecard without seeing how other town councils fare? This is especially since this is the first time such an assessment has been carried out; what longitudinal assessment is possible?
Just about everyone in Singapore must know that this is part of the upcoming elections. The government keeps threatening voters that if they return an opposition member of parliament, they will firstly not get priority for upgrading their blocks of flats and secondly find that they have voted in a bunch of incompetents running their town council. The report card is meant to show that opposition-run town councils are exactly that.
Essentially, the PAP is banking on people voting with their pocket. They stress economic rewards for voting PAP, and asset-value penalties for not doing so.
Low’s riposte cuts a different path, reminding voters of the unfairness that so characterises PAP rule, with the bonus of spotlighting artfulness in preparing accounts and assessing town councils in this case.
It’s THE emblematic divide between the PAP and the opposition: One appealing to selfish instincts and gain, the other appealing to larger themes of justice and transparency. One using both craftiness and the advantage of incumbency in making its case, the other the disadvantaged with little going for it but its wits.
Do not underestimate the appeal of fairness. It’s a notion that’s hardwired into higher primates, as recent psychological studies of great apes have shown. It was the driving force behind the determination of the Red Shirts that paralysed Bangkok recently. Fairness must be the single most common issue over which revolutions have broken out throughout history. Not only is it a powerful motivation, it is noble. By tapping on it, Low scored well.
And while it’s early days yet, there is now the interesting possibility that the too-clever-by-half town council assessment scheme may eventually boomerang on the PAP.