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Changes to Town Councils Act ‘should retain its spirit’

SINGAPORE — The ongoing review of the Town Councils Act (TCA) could aim to give authorities the power to intervene should potential wrongdoings surface and clearly spell out what is required of town councils in terms of governance, said political watchers and experts.

SINGAPORE — The ongoing review of the Town Councils Act (TCA) could aim to give authorities the power to intervene should potential wrongdoings surface and clearly spell out what is required of town councils in terms of governance, said political watchers and experts.

Despite the need for greater oversight, the observers said the statute should keep to its original intent, which was to give elected Members of Parliament a degree of autonomy over the running of a town.

Their comments came after National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said last Sunday that the review of the statute — announced in 2013 — could be finalised by the end of the year.

A “strategic review” of the TCA — specifically, the roles and functions of town councils, in view of their politicised nature — was proposed by a Ministry of National Development team that looked into the sale of Town Council Management System software belonging to People’s Action Party town councils.

The observers TODAY interviewed said the current TCA lacked details and clarity, such as on the duties of town councillors.

National University of Singapore’s (NUS) corporate governance expert Mak Yuen Teen also said the proposed changes to the Act should spell out town council members’ duties and liabilities, which should be on a par with those for company directors.

But determining the level of accountability required would be a balancing act, given that some of these town council members are politicians who were not elected specifically for their ability to oversee or manage town councils.

“For example, should town council members be prosecuted if there is poor lift maintenance leading to serious injury or death to residents, on the basis that they did not do enough to ensure proper lift maintenance?” he asked.

Strengthening corporate governance standards, such as for conflicts of interest and related party transactions, is another area to deal with, said Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan.

But the proposed changes should not result in excessive control by the government, he added.

“I think it would be going too far if the proposed amendments to the Town Councils Act make each town council operate as if they are mini HDBs (Housing and Development Board) ... The whole idea of the Act is to give town councils the latitude to decide how best they want to serve their residents,” said Assoc Prof Tan.

He added that the proposed amendments should still retain that “intimate connection” between how residents exercise their vote and the political party they trust to run their town councils.

Assistant Professor Woo Jun Jie from Nanyang Technological University said the TCA currently does not give the authorities sufficient power to step in when lapses surface. The lapses uncovered in the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC), for instance, resulted in a tortuous legal tussle before external auditors were appointed to recommend remedies.

Asst Prof Woo said, however, that the proposed changes should not lead to intrusive supervision, such as making town councils submit reports more frequently or raising the amounts they should keep in sinking funds.

“Mandating information disclosure could provide a good way for regulators to monitor the daily operations of town councils without having to intercede unnecessarily,” he said, adding that creating an open database for all town councils to post their finances and accounts would make it easier to access and compare the various town councils’ accounts.

On whether the amendments would disadvantage smaller political parties’ running of town councils, Institute of Policy Studies deputy director (research) Gillian Koh said there would not be any issue of privilege, since the Act would apply equally to all.

“It is better to ensure that things are run with a high level of accountability and integrity and pay the necessary cost of compliance than allow public monies to be misused for lack of good governance,” Dr Koh added.

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