Whenever Madam Lily Ho's acquaintances find out that she lives in Aljunied GRC, the supermarket merchandiser braces herself to be peppered with questions.
"They want to know if it's different living in an opposition GRC. Whether things have changed since the last election," says the 58-year-old resident of Bedok Reservoir-Punggol division.
"But what is there to tell? The void decks are still swept and the rubbish is cleared."
Invariably, they then start to ask about the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) and its financial accounts woes, which have led the Government to withhold grants for service and conservancy charges that the town council says are needed to deliver essential services.
Madam Ho adds: "Of course I know about that matter. It's been in the news for months. But like I said, the neighbourhood is being taken care of, so I don't worry that much."
Aljunied may now be a byword for the opposition since the Workers' Party (WP) became the first opposition party to win a GRC in 2011's watershed General Election. The People's Action Party (PAP) lost two Cabinet ministers - Foreign Minister George Yeo and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Lim Hwee Hua - when Aljunied became the first GRC to fall into opposition hands.
But for the 100 Aljunied residents Insight spoke to, life has returned from the initial heady days of making political history to a routine which they say is no different than when the GRC was under the PAP.
Government ministers have recently flagged concerns about the WP's management of its town council accounts, raising questions about whether public funds had "gone missing", when long-time supporters were allowed to own agencies which supplied services to the town council they oversaw.
This, they charged, raised questions about the party's fitness to run even a town council, let alone the country. But while the residents say they are aware of the accounting lapses and governance issues in AHPETC (see report on facing page), they also say it is just one of many factors by which they judge their MPs' performance. Some responses indicate that candidates' individual traits - dedication, commitment and the like - may be overshadowed by concerns about national issues come Polling Day.
Despite their role in the 2011 polls, most residents could not name the WP MP in charge of their division. Even fewer could identify the potential PAP candidates.
Mr B. Tay, 68, a hawker, lives in Paya Lebar division but incorrectly identified WP chief Low Thia Khiang as his MP. It is, in fact, Mr Chen Show Mao.
Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Tay says however that as far as he is concerned, it is more important that the GRC is in opposition hands: "If you have only one party in control, then there's no freedom to debate, and no room for change."
As for the AHPETC saga, residents say the picture painted of a town council unable to cope with running a GRC does not square with their experience living in it.
"Sometimes, people dump unwanted advertisements in the trashcans and these overflow," says kindergarten teacher Siti Nadiah Ahmad Abdullah, 27, living in Bedok Reservoir-Punggol ward. "But the litter is cleared up by the next day, and the playgrounds and fitness corners are clean. There's not much to complain about."
Likewise, shipping engineer Abhishek Das, 32, says he is glad to see frequent upgrading - such as new lifts and facilities like coffeeshops and walkway shelters - in Serangoon division. "Things have been improving even in a relatively older place like Aljunied," says Mr Das, who has lived there for eight years.
Still, there are residents like project co-ordinator Jessie Lim, 45, who are concerned about AHPETC's troubled accounts.
"Having a handle on your sinking funds should be a relatively easy thing to manage," says the self-declared ardent PAP supporter.
"But the WP has not given satisfactory answers. How can I trust them to deal with national issues?"
Adds pilot Leon Tan, 44: "The elections are coming. That's probably why the PAP is pressing on about this. Still, I admit it is of concern. Having a conflict of interest in organisations is not uncommon. But it's a matter of the extent to which this has happened.
"The continual news has got some people thinking whether the WP is all that clean. That includes my pro-WP father-in-law."
While largely content with the way their estates are run, some residents have noticed slight changes.
"With the PAP, the estate was about 70 per cent clean. With the WP, it's about 60 per cent. Corridors are sometimes cluttered with other people's things, and this town council can't seem to do much about it," says Mr Chua Ren Hsiang, a 69-year-old retired policeman and long-time Paya Lebar resident.
Mr Andrew Lee, 45, who works in operations support at a bank, says: "I find this place a little bit less well-maintained than where I used to live. It could do with a paint job. But it could also be that this is an older estate." He lived previously in Punggol North division of Pasir Ris- Punggol GRC.
WORKING THE GROUND
The WP has been making itself highly visible since it took control of the constituency. Besides the usual Meet-the-People sessions, house visits and walkabouts, the party organises a variety of activities at which the MPs are present. There are 15 events planned for this month - ranging from hair cuts for seniors and durian-eating trips to Malaysia to qigong exercise and tea sessions with the MPs.
Photographs from outings are regularly posted on the Aljunied GRC Facebook page. Retiree Lucy Ng, 67, a regular participant, says: "I have fun with my friends and it's good to see the MP (Mr Faisal Manap of the Kaki Bukit division)".
Last Sunday, the GRC's five MPs fanned out at the Block 538 Market and Food Centre in Kaki Bukit division to sell the Hammer, the party's newsletter . As they stopped to chat with residents having their breakfast, and to mingle with shopkeepers, a market-goer would occasionally approach one of the MPs with feedback on what can be improved.
Then there are residents who look beyond the events that the WP conducts on the ground. For them, the increased WP presence in Parliament is important, for it serves as a reminder to the ruling party not to take its position in power for granted. And in these residents' view, the larger number of opposition MPs has contributed to policy shifts.
One who believes this to be the case is printing firm owner Tan Hin Kin, 77: "Political competition is good. We've seen better policies for healthcare, housing and in other
areas ever since the 2011 elections. In the end, Singaporeans are the ones who benefit."
PAP FIGHTING BACK
The PAP, meanwhile, has regrouped. Its troops on the ground have been conducting regular house visits and engaging residents in community activities.
But comments by PAP organising secretary Ng Eng Hen, who is also Defence Minister, to The Sunday Times have been read by some to indicate the PAP is not going all out to recapture the first GRC it has ever lost. Dr Ng said: "Why would we want to field somebody that we know has a higher chance of being rejected and deprive ourselves of an office-holder? Suppose you put five ministers in (Aljunied). Does that serve the purpose? Is it fair to other constituencies who have shown us greater support?"
Lawyer K. Muralidharan Pillai, a potential candidate and chairman of the PAP's Paya Lebar branch since May 2012, is undeterred and remains ready for the challenge.
"It's not just about winning the election. Who knows when that will be? It's about focusing on our people," he insists. "The fact that we lost Aljunied did not change our resolve to continue to serve. This demonstrates our sincerity."
Mr Pillai and the other four branch chairmen identified by Insight as likely candidates in the next General Election have introduced services such as subsidised tuition for children from low-income families and transport subsidies for the elderly sick.
In a GRC that is largely middle-class, with 73 per cent of residents living in four-room or bigger Housing Board flats and in private estates, their efforts are aimed at providing more support to those who are less well off and in need of assistance.
Mr Pillai says: "We raise our own money by getting sponsors and donations for these events and programmes. We put in the time as well. If you're doing this just for the votes, it won't sustain you very far."
Besides stepping up house visits and hosting events to mark religious festivals, some chairmen have also seen more residents attending their informal Meet-the-People sessions. Eunos division's Chua Eng Leong, a private banker, says he sees at least 30 residents at his weekly meetings, compared to 20 last year.
Most of their problems centre on requests for rental flats - although there are none in his division. He tries to help by writing to the Housing Board and urging the agency to consider their cases more urgently.
In the past year, heavyweight visitors, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, have toured the GRC and attended events with the residents. Party activists and observers tell Insight that these serve as reminders that the constituency still matters to the PAP.
Last month , its potential candidates for the GRC distributed fliers that prominently display photographs of themselves, competing for face-time with the WP MPs who regularly distribute newsletters to residents.
In March, they went door-to- door to hand out fliers urging residents to ask the WP MPs questions about the management and financial health of AHPETC.
Four of the five chairmen have a career in business or finance.
In addition to Mr Chua, they are Bedok Reservoir-Punggol's Victor Lye, who runs an insurance firm; Kaki Bukit's Kahar Hassan, a director of business development at an engineering firm; and Serangoon's Chan Hui Yuh, a businesswoman.
Their resumes dovetail with Dr Ng's comment last Sunday that the PAP strategy in Aljunied is to stick to its "golden rule": field a team that the party assures "can take care of your town" - a comment that, perhaps, seeks to focus residents' attention on AHPETC's accounting and governance lapses.
Whether these efforts will translate into, at the very least, an improved vote share from the residents remains to be seen.
Some, like cleaner D. Amurtham, 34, still approach the PAP branch in times of need. She says: "I've seen my WP MP (Pritam Singh) for help before, but I feel more comfortable with the PAP. They look like they have more experience and resources."
Others, like cabby Chia Teck Chai, 57, have seen the potential candidates at work, but will not be swayed: "I've seen (Mr Pillai) at events and I like him. What I don't like is the colour of his shirt and the logo on it."
It is also unclear if first-time voters like undergraduate Freddie Ng, 24, are won over by the PAP team. He says: "During the campaign season, I will see what each party promises to Singaporeans and also to Aljunied residents, and then make my decision."
But some fence-sitters, like accounts executive Lillian Ang, 48, say they could be enticed to vote for the PAP if it fields a high-profile candidate. She says, with a laugh: "I'm sure the PAP candidates are nice and capable. But I will know the party really wants my vote when they send the Prime Minister or someone of his calibre to contest here."
CONSOLIDATE OR EXPAND?
On Nomination Day of the 2011 polls, WP chief Low Thia Khiang issued an open letter to Hougang and Aljunied residents saying the move from his stronghold to contest Aljunied GRC was "one of the hardest decisions I have ever made in my life". Citing a need for more elected opposition MPs to hold the Government to account, he argued that a breakthrough in the GRC system was the only way to achieve it.
The gambit paid off as his team defeated the PAP slate that included two Cabinet ministers, a Senior Minister of State who was a potential Speaker of Parliament, and a first-time candidate touted to be of ministerial material.
Now, talk has swirled once again about whether the WP will use the same tactic and deploy Mr Low or Ms Lim to lead another GRC team - perhaps in East Coast where the WP secured its next best performance in a GRC in 2011, with 45.2 per cent of the vote share.
Residents have mixed reactions to that. Cabby Mr Chia feels that moving some MPs to another GRC is part of party strategy, not unlike the way the PAP may reshuffle its slate of MPs in a GRC.
"Whatever he (Mr Low) decides, we will support. We know his larger goal is to fight for the people and for Singapore," he says.
Others point out that while Mr Low paid his dues in Hougang with 20 years of service, the other Aljunied GRC MPs are just seeing out their first term. "It's quite unfortunate that the WP have had so much trouble over their managing agent, then settling their finances," says businessman Ong Mingwei, 40, a PAP-turned-WP supporter.
"But they must at the very least settle these problems before taking on another GRC. Four years is a short time to get experience in running a town council. People will understand if their longer -term strategy takes a back seat."
Although many residents say municipal issues matter to them, there are others, like swimming instructor Ker Cheng Lik, who put greater importance on national policies.
"Certainly the PAP has done good work of late," says the 62-year-old, citing the MediShield Life scheme that will provide health insurance for all, and Workfare income supplement for low-wage workers. "But issues like the number of foreigners and public transport breakdowns are not fully settled yet. So it's still a question mark as to how I will vote."
•Additional reporting by Lim Ching Ying
Twists and turns in AHPETC saga
Independent auditors hired by the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) have been unable to verify its accounts for the third year in a row.
And a separate 10-month audit by the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) highlighted "major lapses" in governance and compliance with the law.
The AGO report, released in February, led to a heated two-day debate in Parliament over its findings. These include lapses in making timely transfers to the AHPETC sinking fund; lapses in governance of related party transactions leading to conflicts of interest, and lapses in internal controls.
In particular, AHPETC failed to disclose related-party transactions involving its managing agent companies, FM Solutions and Services (FMSS) and FM Solutions and Integrated Services, which were owned by some of AHPETC's key officers. The AGO said: "Unless the weaknesses are addressed, there can be no assurances that AHPETC's financial statements are accurate and reliable, and that public funds are properly spent, accounted for and managed."
Law Minister K. Shanmugam also told Parliament that AHPETC had overpaid FMSS by $1.6 million a year over the past four years.
But WP MPs rebutted charges levelled by PAP ministers that AHPETC awarded contracts to its "friends".
They said "urgent taking-over work was needed" after WP's victory in the election, which was why FMSS was given a one-year contract to manage the estate without competition.
In March, the Ministry of National Development (MND) applied to the High Court to appoint independent accountants to safeguard government grants disbursed to AHPETC. MND said it would release $14 million in grants only if this condition was met, and that AHPETC had not done enough to rectify the lapses since the AGO audit.
In May, the court ruled that MND did not have the legal basis to make such an application, but added that the Housing Board and residents can seek a court order to take the town council to task. MND is appealing.
The court also found that AHPETC had breached and continued to be in breach of its duties and obligations in law, and that there were critical questions about the state of its finances.
On its part, AHPETC said it has made progress in resolving issues in its accounts and taken steps to strengthen its internal financial processes.
In the latest development, the town council met the newly imposed June 30 deadline set by the MND to submit overdue financial year 2013/2014 accounts. However, its own auditors flagged eight areas of concern, prompting MND to say the latest accounts "reinforce MND's existing concern about the town council's state of financial affairs".
AHPETC said that concerns over related-party transactions will be "completely removed" after July 15, when the managing agent's contract expires and AHPETC will manage the town council directly.
Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim, who is AHPETC chairman, also released an open letter in which she rebutted allegations that AHPETC was overpaying its managing agent.
Ms Lim said AHPETC arrived at the contractual rates "using available market information".
This article was first published on July 12, 2015.
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