Episode shows need for stronger laws: Heng

Episode shows need for stronger laws: Heng
Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat.

SINGAPORE - Lapses exposed by an audit of the Workers' Party (WP) town council show the need to strengthen the governance of town councils, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday.

His comments came a day after Parliament unanimously endorsed the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) findings of serious lapses at the town council and called for a stiffening of the law regulating these councils.

"We need to ensure that the interests of residents are well served and that there are sufficient safeguards for the use of public funds," he said to reporters on the sidelines of a community event in Tampines held to encourage people to donate used books for a mobile library initiative.

He added that details about how the Town Councils Act will be amended would be discussed later.

The AGO had uncovered major lapses in governance and compliance with rules after a year-long audit of the Aljunied-Hougang- Punggol East Town Council's (AHPETC) accounts.

WP chief Low Thia Khiang said his party's Members of Parliament took collective responsibility for the lapses and have moved to fix the problems identified.

Over two days of lively parliamentary debate that ended last Friday, he and his fellow MPs were taken to task by ministers and MPs for misleading residents and mismanaging public funds.

Yesterday, Mr Heng said the debate was necessary as there has been a "pattern of denial and deflection" by the WP.

Many of the problems at the town council would not have come to light, he said, if not for the AGO audit, and the

debate allowed MPs to point out the problems "factually".

He added that the issue was not one about partisan politics.

"It is a broader issue of how elected MPs must act with integrity and act to serve the interests of residents, so it is of greater interest than just a town council issue," Mr Heng said, reiterating what he had stated in Parliament.

The WP had betrayed the trust of residents by paying its managing agent company, FM Solutions & Services (FMSS), fees that were about twice as much as what other town councils pay, he said last Friday.

The company was set up by WP supporters, who also hold key positions in the town council. The AGO flagged conflicts of interest in $25.9 million worth of transactions between the two entities.

During the parliamentary session, Mr Low countered that the contract was awarded to FMSS in a public tender exercise, and the company was the only one that had put in a bid. His town council had also checked the rates proposed and found them comparable to what other town councils were paying.

Yesterday, Mr Heng rejected this explanation.

Referring to the links between the town council and FMSS, he added: "What we have is a structure that is quite convoluted. There were other options that could have been pursued."

For example, he said, the WP could have run the town council directly when it took over after the 2011 General Election, or extended the contract of the incumbent managing agent.

Mr Heng also called on the WP to take "concrete action" to put things in order. These include taking legal action against FMSS to recover public monies lost, and submitting an unqualified set of its financial reports for financial year 2013 by June 30 this year, and for financial year 2014 by Aug 31.

"What needs to be done going forward is for the WP to show that they are indeed sincere about making the changes," he said.

This article was first published on February 15, 2015.
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