On Politicisation. The recent Insight report released by The Straits Times has somewhat uncovered the possible political implications behind the Town Council reports; though it seems gradually apparent that the intentions may have backfired. The contention by the Ministry of National Development (MND) that upgrading and maintenance cannot be compared across the board seems ludicrous, since the figures show that they are woefully disproportionate: the Community Improvement Projects (CIP) grants are non-existent for Town Councils in the Opposition wards.
More importantly, the fact that Hougang and Potong Pasir have managed to keep up with their counterparts in the “Cleanliness”, “Lift Breakdown” (and “ARD Failure” for Hougang) shows two things. One, the Town Councils in the Opposition wards have done a respectable and tremendous job despite being handicapped by fiscal limitations; two, when it comes to the management of a constituency or estate, funds injected per se might not have the most significance. Even if the Town Council reports were a subtle attempt to persuade Singaporeans to rethink about voting for the Opposition – using facts and figures to reflect the classic carrot-and-stick approach – it has only shown that Opposition politicians have the experience and ability to do exceedingly well if it is granted a level-playing field, for the benefit of infrastructure and residents.
In essence, with the strong hint of politicisation, the multitude of backlashes proves that the ruling administration might have made an unfortunate miscalculation.
On Financial Accountability. How can the arrears management of the Service and Conservancy Charges (S&CC) be an accurate indicator of the overall financial health and muscle of the respective Town Councils? Although it can be asked of Hougang and Potong Pasir about the relatively low collection of the S&CC, should future reports not take into account the amount of money pumped into the various national upgrading projects: estimated to amount to around S$1.3 billion between 2009 and 2010? Even if the Town Councils do dip into their pockets to conduct basic cleaning and servicing, it is obvious that the funds from the government dedicated for a plethora of projects would extensively affect a Town Council’s overall performance. Residents in Hougang and Potong Pasir have the right to know if they are being unfairly short-changed in the overall upgrading scheme, and given an exceedingly small slice of the national upgrading pie.
Were these financial indicators cherry-picked to specifically make the Town Councils in the Opposition wards look bad; similarly, were other factors overlooked in an attempt to boost ratings on the other side? The report made no mention of Town Councils which had invested irresponsibly with portions of their sinking funds in bonds and derivatives. With proper guidelines and protocols with regard to the management of the sinking funds, the MND should make it compulsory for Town Councils to separately release concise versions of their financial reports to allow for greater comprehension amongst residents. Since current reports are convoluted and overloaded with jargon, the MND can go further to render future reports – both full versions and summaries – more standardised. With that, there would be established fiscal benchmarks for more proper basis of comparison, holds the agencies more responsible, and makes for efficient assessment and tracking.
On The Key Performance Indicators (KPI). MND needs to determine if the non-financial factors currently are satisfactory in the bigger picture of gauging the Town Councils’ performance, as well as the façade of the housing estates. Even as residents reflect that the macro observations are not in tandem with the day-to-day experience, it must be conceded that no fair report would be satisfactory to every single individual. Moving forward, a greater diversity of factors – such as public safety and perhaps even aesthetic enhancements – should be considered; and a clear line should be established in terms of what the Town Councils are directly involved in, and what are left for various contractors and managers to deal with.
While many might contend that the entire evaluation process is a mere exercise in bureaucracy, the ball is back in MND’s court to retain the reports’ relevance, usability and overall credibility.