The Workers' Party (WP) yesterday objected to giving the Ministry of National Development (MND) powers to govern town councils, as part of changes to the Town Councils Act.
During the debate in Parliament, the WP MPs argued that civil servants will find it hard to be politically neutral because they report to political office-holders.
These ministers may wield the enforcement powers bestowed by the Act as a political tool against elected town councillors from a different political party, said Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC).
But Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee defended the impartiality of the civil service, saying her allegations were serious and unwarranted.
He cited three broad reasons. First, public servants understand the need for fairness and will act and do what is right, he said.
Second, the People's Action Party's track record shows it will act on alleged wrongdoing and not sweep things under the carpet. A case in point is the investigation of Ang Mo Kio Town Council's general manager and secretary, said Mr Lee. AMKTC is the town council of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
"Even in the PM's town council, when allegations were made, they took the first step to make a report and now the CPIB (Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau) is investigating," he said.
Third, any abuse of public powers is subject to the jurisdiction of the courts.
In the debate, Ms Lim and Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) zeroed in on Part 6(A) of the Bill. It allows MND to appoint inspectors to investigate town councils that have flouted regulations, and issue an order to specify remedial action, among other things. These may be public servants or qualified professionals.
Mr Singh said this can lead to the politicisation of the public service, adding: "The MND risks becoming a tool of the ruling party of the day to fix the opposition."
Ms Lim said: "It is not possible to argue that the ministry is a politically neutral body as recent history unfortunately belies that claim."
She said the ministry was "an active campaigner against the WP" in the 2015 General Election, regularly issuing statements on alleged misconduct of the WP-run town council. But after Polling Day, she said, little was heard for weeks. She added that civil servants cannot be expected to issue stinging reports against a town council run by a minister.
Mr Lee objected to what he called Ms Lim's insinuation that public officers acted in a partisan way, and said MND gives town councils the chance to correct inconsistencies and accounting errors in their submitted financial statements.
Ms Lim, a former police officer, said she recognised civil servants do their best to act responsibly, but realistically might find it difficult.
Countering, Mr Lee said: "First she says on the one hand... her former colleagues are people of integrity with spines of steel... and on the other hand, she says they will kowtow their timorous souls.
"I think we all object to that. Our officers are brought up with an ethos of integrity, service and excellence."
This article was first published on March 11, 2017. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.