SINGAPORE - One of my responsibilities in the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth is to regulate charities.
One thing I have learnt about charities is that wanting to do good is not enough.
When you are responsible for public monies, whether donations or fees, good intentions are not enough to prevent bad outcomes.
From time to time, some charities get into trouble because of the mismanagement of funds and poor governance. The dishonest ones would choose to stay silent, hoping that it would go unnoticed. But, eventually, questions grow too loud, and the issues burst into the open, as they rightly should.
In recent weeks, the centre of attention has not been a charity, but a town council, specifically, the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC).
Every year that the Workers' Party (WP) has run AHPETC, the town council has been consistently flagged "red", both for its service and conservancy charge (S&CC) arrears management and its corporate governance.
In fact, since 2012, AHPETC has faced repeated questions - from its own auditor, from the Ministry of National Development (MND), and from residents of Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East.
The situation worsened sharply in April last year. AHPETC reported a spike in its S&CC arrears - nearly 30 per cent of its HDB
residents and 50 per cent of its commercial units owed S&CC for three months or more. This was more than 10 times the national average for HDB residents; and more than 34 times for the commercial units.
The spike came suddenly, without warning. After that, silence. No more S&CC arrears reports at all, for 18 months now.
Something is seriously wrong.
MND is naturally concerned. It has queried AHPETC several times.
But so far, all we have got from AHPETC are prevarications, non-answers, and sweeping assurances that things will be all right.
It reminds me of an erratic TV set that works initially. After a while, the image starts to flicker, and then with an almighty bang, the screen goes black. Eventually, a message appears on the screen: Please don't adjust your controls. Your TV is working fine; the picture will return shortly.
But nothing more happens.
Recently, WP chairman Sylvia Lim, the AHPETC chairman, explained that the delay in submitting the arrears figures was because of an audit by the Auditor-General's Office (AGO).
But AHPETC had stopped submitting monthly arrears reports 10 months before the AGO audit began.
Anyway, why should an audit prevent Ms Lim from immediately investigating the figures, establishing the facts, and informing the public?
Perhaps, there is a good explanation for all this.
Perhaps, the April 2013 arrears figure was just an aberration.
But maybe, just maybe, there are bigger problems lurking behind the tangled web?
AHPETC recently put out a tender for a new managing agent. Not a single company bid, not even the current managing agent. Clearly, I am not the only one queasy about goings-on in AHPETC.
In fact, the issue is not just the S&CC arrears, but the governance and supervision of the town council, and what the WP MPs are doing (or not) to resolve the matter.
Nobody knows - which is precisely the problem.
Every month, AHPETC collects $3 million in S&CC from residents and shopkeepers. This is $36 million a year.
Residents and shopkeepers deserve to know that their money is being properly managed and spent by the town council, and that everyone who is supposed to pay is, indeed, paying.
But unless AHPETC starts being transparent and accountable and answers questions, the residents may never know the truth.
When pressed recently, Ms Lim said that she was looking into the matter and would release her findings in "due time".
That was the same answer she gave two years ago, when the arrears issue was first flagged.
There is a disturbingly familiar pattern in how the WP responds whenever questions are raised about its conduct.
It has happened again and again - cleaning hawker centres, running illegal trade fairs and, now, managing S&CC arrears.
First, its leaders say it is not a big deal. Then, when they can no longer pretend it is not a big deal, they blame someone else - the National Environment Agency, the People's Action Party, even the AGO. Then, when their excuses are exposed one by one, they say "we are looking into the matter", or that things will be explained - in "due time". And then, more silence.
Perhaps, the WP hopes that by lying low and keeping its head down, the matter will go away. The public may forget, or even better, not notice.
But it will not, and the public will not. Instead, the WP's credibility and integrity are slowly but surely draining away.
After my colleague Desmond Lee, as well as many residents and commentators in the media, raised questions, I was expecting the WP to issue a prompt and full reply, and end its long and damaging silence.
Sadly, nothing of the sort has happened.
Instead, there is silence - one that is growing more deafening by the day.
The writer is the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth.
This article was first published on December 10, 2014.
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