Below are extracts from Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's interview with the Straits Times on the evolution of Town Councils, including the recently announced Town Council Management Report. (TCMR).
The interview was held on 22 June this year and published in the Straits Times on 27 June.
SM Goh on why town councils were formed:
SM: Town councils are part of this process of the maturing of our political system. Before Town Councils were formed, we had, of course, the elected government. HDB is a statutory board. But in time to come, HDB did not just build public housing but also managed the public housing estates. HDB was functioning like a municipal government looking after municipal interests, which if you have a two-tier system of government will be run by a municipal government. And that municipal government would normally be elected.
But when HDB was running this, what prompted me and the others to come up with the idea of Town Councils was that we did not quite like the uniformity of decisions taken by HDB. Uniformity meant slowness in the implementation of new ideas. As an MP, I experienced that. We had certain suggestions to make, went to the HDB branch office, and then the HDB branch office referred us to its HQ. HDB HQ will say, "This idea is good but we can't do it for you because if we do it for you, we must do it all over Singapore."
So Town Councils would give us that flexibility to do different things for our housing estates. This means that over the whole of Singapore, each Town Council would have its own way of doing things.
On why the need for a report now, and whether it is linked to the financial report
SM: No, it is not. HDB has been doing some kind of evaluation report for some years now but the reports were internal to MND and HDB. You've got to remember that HDB is the property owner and landlord of the estates. I did ask Minister Mah Bow Tan this question before. You own the estates and you cannot just leave it to the Town Councilors and elected MPs without worrying about the state of your property.
Initially, because HDB wanted the Town Councils to have more autonomy, they just left it to the Town Councils. So they did not take a very keen interest in the state of the property until it became obvious to them. But as a landlord, as an owner, you've got to be sure that the property is well taken care of. So HDB started to have internal reports and the process predated the financial crisis. But of course, they were looking for indicators for the report to be objective. And I think after some years, they felt that maybe it's time for us to take the next step, which is to publish a report. And this is tied in with my earlier remark, that you want residents to take an interest in your housing estates.
So when the reports are published, initially anyway, I think the residents would take an interest. After a while they may begin to lose interest. Every year, what else is new? But I hope this will stimulate interest in the residents as to how their own Town Council is doing regarding certain key indicators on the management of housing estates. So the timing of the TCMR is just coincidental to the revelation of financial investments of certain Town Councils. They could have done it earlier or they could have done it later. I think this is not a material point.
On the link directly between MPs & the municipal as being successful
SM: I would not say that the direct link has been forged yet between residents and the Town Councils. But Town Councils have been successful in getting the grassroots leaders to understand the linkage between what Town Councils can do and what the people must do.
One example is the S&C, or service and conservancy charges. Before we had Town Councils, each time S&C charges were revised by HDB, even grassroots leaders would join in the chorus to criticize the increase. They would not look at the costs and benefits. They just asked why? Why do you increase the charges? So they would join in the chorus. But having to decide with the Town Councilors whether S&C charges must be increased, the grassroots leaders began to understand where the money was going to, where it would be spent, what provisions you were making for sinking funds and so on. Is the increase justified? Can we convince the residents that the revision of S&C charges is justified?
So that link between Town Councilors and grassroots leaders in the housing estate has been successful. But for the residents themselves, that's the next stage - how do we get them to take a greater interest?
On potential pitfalls of the TCMR
SM: I think the first potential pitfall will be perception of objectivity of the marking. Whilst the evaluators could be as objective as possible, the people who read the report may not always agree that the report is objective. So that's a potential pitfall.
Secondly, after some years, you're not likely to see marked changes in the benchmarking or in the marks accorded to each housing estate. So after a while people will say, well, there is no scandal; nothing else is new. Then they begin to lose interest.
If you have an exercise in which people don't pay much attention, then you're just wasting resources.
SM Goh on more autonomy given to Town Councils
SM: It would be good if they can identify more activities to be passed on to the Town Council. But I would hesitate to let the Town Council do the enforcement of certain breaches of services, which are now being done by the government, for example, by the National Environment Agency. If you let the Town Councils do the enforcement of, for example, traffic violations within the estate, I think it's too close.
I think it is right to see what more can be devolved to the Town Councils. But my own view is that on certain enforcement issues, where the linkage between the Town Councilors and the residents may be too close, we should leave it to a national agency to do so. The national agency can be more objective and can implement policies without having to worry about the impact on the political scene.