Parliamentary debate, 9 July 2013.
When, sometime in mid-June 2013, in relation to the saga about cleaning market centres, Low Thia Khiang said we should move on, I allowed myself a great big “Hmmm…”
The release of a “dossier” by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources detailing the communications between the National Environment Agency (NEA), hawkers and the the managing agent of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPeTC) confirms my suspicions that we have not seen all that there is to see.
I won’t repeat the background to this story, since readers can get the gist of it from an earlier article, Cleaning market 538 — as clear as mud, published on 13 June 2013.
Piecing together various statements by the Workers’ Party over the last few months, their stand seems to be:
- They don’t deny that town councils are responsible for one major spring cleaning (i.e. including high areas) a year;
- AHPeTC’s contract with their cleaning contractor in fact provides for it;
- Since the town council pays, it shouldn’t be for hawkers to decide when to have a major spring cleaning;
- There was confusion whether the March spring cleaning of Market 538 and the June spring cleaning of Market 511 were major or minor spring cleanings;
- Even if major, there was confusion whether the hawkers of Market 538 volunteered to pay for “scaffolding”;
- AHPeTC never asked hawkers to pay extra to the town council for cleaning high areas.
There are things in the dossier, which refers to Markets 538 and 511, that undermine this position. Some documents we have seen before, but one important thing is new. It is that Tai Vie Shun, the Property Manager, and employee of the managing agent FM Solutions and Services Pte Ltd (see media release dated 5 August 2011), kept repeating all the way into May 2013 that “Spring Cleaning is a practice set by NEA, not Town Council. As such, we advise the Merchant Association to liaise with NEA directly on the requirement.”
It is quite hard to understand this statement and harder to reconcile it with the Workers’ Party’s stand. First of all, what is meant by “Spring Cleaning”? As discussed in the earlier article, there are two kinds: major spring cleaning, which includes high ducts, fans and other ceiling fixtures, and which typically takes five days to complete, and minor spring cleaning, which covers areas up to 2.5 metres from the ground. For the latter, the market does not need to be closed for more than two days.
Secondly, it sounds as if Tai was pushing away responsibility for a matter which is primarily the town council’s. Even the Workers’ Party, which runs AHPeTC, does not deny this responsibility. See video above at 10 minutes, 20 seconds. At the very least, Tai was being extremely unhelpful to the hawkers who were trying to find out what the cleaning plans were.
Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister in charge, is alleging that AHPeTC and/or its managing agent, was intent on disclaiming responsibility for cleaning the high areas once a year. In this, the internal meeting notes of the NEA dated 26 April 2013 — discussing the upcoming cleaning of Block 511 market — backs him up. It records:
On the scope for the fore coming spring cleaning Mr Tai informed the meeting that they will carry out cleaning only up to areas reachable by the cleaners, i.e. similar or equal to the wall fans height or 2.5m. NEA then informed the TC that for the major spring cleaning they are required to clean areas beyond 2.5m and up to the ceiling area. Mr Tai however disagreed and replied that it is MOM’s rule that no works beyond height of 2.5m be carried out without scaffoldings.
The HA reps commented that the ceiling and beams were dirty, and were covered with bird droppings. However, TC commented that they will not be bearing any costs for the erecting of staging/machinery for cleaning of areas beyond height of 2.5m. Mr Tai mentioned that the costs of erecting the staging/machinery for cleaning of areas beyond 2.5m shall be borne by HA instead of Town Council. Following queries from the HA, Mr Tai said that he is following their SOP for all their works to be carried out.
Here, ‘TC’ stands for Town Council, and presumably it was Tai who was speaking on behalf of the Town Council, since he was listed under ‘AHPeTC’ in the header of the same notes. ‘HA’ stands for Hawkers Association.
One needs to bear in mind however that these are internal meeting notes, not minutes. Minutes are usually shared with all parties seeking their agreement that the record correctly represents what they each said. Internal meeting notes are unilateral, for the internal use of one side only. In other words, if Tai had been misquoted in these notes, he would not have had an opportunity to correct them. This is provided I am correct in assuming that these were NOT minutes and had not been circulated to non-NEA participants.
With that proviso in mind, you see in these notes NEA speaking about “major spring cleaning” and Tai disagreeing that his side was responsible for cleaning walls and fixtures above 2.5 metres.
I believe the Workers’ Party’s stand is that there was confusion about what kind of cleaning was being scheduled (and by whom), and anyway, it is not for hawkers to dictate to the town council when and how often major spring cleaning should be carried out. This may be credible if we are discussing the events up till March 2013 relating to the cleaning of Block 538 market. But after the hawkers shut their stalls for five days in March, paid a contractor to cover their premises only to discover that high-level cleaning was never carried out, and complained about the loss they suffered, it is hard to keep denying that the town council and its managing agent were still confused what the issue was about. They must surely know that the hawkers were concerned about whether or not high areas would be cleaned, and thus, whether they should close for two days or five.
So, when the hawkers of Market 511 raised similar concerns at that 26 April meeting, it cannot withstand scrutiny to now say there was confusion and miscommunication regarding major or minor spring cleaning.
Another possibility is that the town council did not plan to do major spring cleaning of Market 511 in June, but later in the year, and that is why in the internal meeting notes (which was about the June cleaning), Tai was recorded to have disagreed that AHPeTC was responsible. But if the town council had a different schedule for major spring cleaning later in the year, why was the meeting not so advised? This omission allows a presumption that Tai and AHPeTC had no plan to do any high-area cleaning at their cost at any time.
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In previous media statements and again in the parliamentary debate of 9 July 2013, Sylvia Lim (Workers’ Party) said that at no time did AHPeTC say they were imposing additional charges on hawkers. In the video above, at 15 minutes 03 seconds, Sylvia Lim says: “Mr Tai at no point in time asked for extra money to be paid to the town council for high area cleaning.” (My emphasis)
Technically, she is probably correct. Mr Tai seems to have asked hawkers to find and pay a contractor directly, not pay the town council, but even so, the Workers’ Party’s reply smacks of sophistry.
Then again, the NEA could have helped create the mess. At 12 minutes 33 seconds of the video you will see Sylvia Lim pointing out that “. . . and the reply that came back [from the NEA] was that the Hawkers’ Association would be making arrangements with their own contractor for the scaffold erection and dismantling.”
The failure to state clearly whether the scaffolding was for cleaning the high areas or to lay canvas over the stalls seems to be crucial. That said, why didn’t anybody make an effort to clarify?
* * * * *
And still, a big question remains. I have long wondered why, after having run Hougang Town Council for decades, this issue of major and minor spring cleaning, who should be scheduling them and who should pay, should crop up now. The Workers’ Party is not new to running town councils, and this has never been an issue before. Why now?
Alas, on this, I am no more informed than before.