The headline on the front page of the Straits Times (14 May 2013) said “Khaw: Town councils political by nature”.
It explains nothing.
A country’s government is also political by nature. It doesn’t mean that the government can sell the Finance Ministry’s tax-collection software to a party-owned vehicle.
That is the chief issue which the National Development Ministry’s review report on town councils and the debate in parliament (13 May 2013) failed to address.
The controversy dates to December 2012 when I highlighted the fact that town councils run by the People’s Action Party (PAP) sold the intellectual property rights to their management software to Action Information Management Pte Ltd (AIM), a company whose beneficial owner is none other than the PAP.
Right now, in the German state of Bavaria, a controversy is swirling over the fact that “Dozens of party members paid their spouses, children and parents to work as assistants,” wrote the New York Times. See article Nepotism in Bavarian Politics Creates a Scandal Merkel Could Do Without. The loophole was closed in 2000, said the newspaper, but existing employees could continue.
So here too, this is something that is legal, but saying it is legal is not the end of the matter. People at large clearly think it is unethical; thus the controversy.
The ministry’s town council review too makes the same omission, saying again and again that the AIM transaction complies with the law. In fact, the entire report reads as if someone went to town council spokespersons, interviewed them extensively, and wrote up their justifications for what they did. There is not a lot of critical enquiry into what they said.
I even did a search for two words in the 37-page document: ‘ethics’ and ‘ethical’. Both searches resulted in ‘none found’.
The report went some length to play down the value of the obsolescent software that was sold to AIM, thus arguing that town councils suffered no loss. By so focussing on the dollars and cents, the review lost sight of the principle involved.
Indeed, the review doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with selling IP rights to a partisan owner, not only in this case, but in all future arrangements.
Page 15, for example, described how the town councils decided to move to a ‘service model’ wherein “the ownership of the software would reside with an external vendor. The TCs would lease the software from the external vendor and pay for maintenance.” Then it says that AIM would “work with the TCs to understand their redevelopment needs, including looking for a suitable vendor to provide these upgrades.” (Page 16, paragraph 18). This was in reference to the town councils’ need for “third generation software”. It left open the possibility that the final vendor for third generation software could well be AIM again; there is nothing to exclude them.
Just as troubling was the review report’s gentle description of why a one-month termination clause was inserted to provide for the event of material changes in the composition of a town council. It comes right after noting that the general termination clause specified three months’ notice. See page 4 of the report.
It doesn’t at all question why material changes in the composition of a town council must necessitate a special clause providing for such a rushed termination. The reason it offers and endorses – and it probably comes right out of the mouths of town council spokesmen since this reason had been proffered by town councils way back in January 2013 – was “the vendor would have priced its bid on the basis of the existing TC and Town boundaries. However, should this change materially, the vendor could end up providing services to a TC comprising a much larger area and a larger population of residents, but is held to do so at the same fixed price”.
Anyone with half a brain would ask two questions:
1. How much extra work will be involved? The servicing is of the software, which remains the same, and is not all that sensitive to the data load (which correlates with the number of residents)? As far as I know, AIM is not even providing the host servers or the band width.
2. Even if there is some difference to servicing work, is the difference so material that the general three-month notice is unfairly onerous on the vendor, and a rushed termination is justified?
If you are not satisfied that the above two points justify a rushed termination clause, then you must ask, what really was the motive behind it?
This is pertinent, especially as the report itself, in a brief flicker of independence, points out that such rushed termination presents a problem of continuity. By implication, it won’t be in the best interests of citizens and residents. On page 8, it says “The review . . . have surfaced a broader issue of how to ensure continuity of services to residents in the event of a change of MPs.”
I thought this comment, at least, was interesting. Does it suggest that the terms of the contract with AIM were designed to imperil continuity should there be a change of party representing the district?
When National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan says town councils are necessarily political institutions, is he saying that such motives are acceptable? Is he saying that politics in Singapore can be a no-holds-barred contest? That scorched-earth policies for partisan advantage is acceptable? It would be a road to ruin if this were the case.
We are left with the same questions as in December and January and still no answer.