If you haven’t been paying close attention to the news recently, you might have missed Senior Minister of State, Desmond Lee, putting up a bill targeting Town Councils (TCs) at Parliament last week.

Straits Times and Today reported on it.

The proposed changes to the bill include:

  • Clarifying the TC’s roles and functions
  • Improving the governance and accountability of TCs
  • Strengthening financial management in TCs
  • Enhancing MND’s regulatory oversight

What this means:

MND is cracking its whip.

Town councils were set up in 1989 to give MPs the autonomy to run their TCs, including  deciding how best to serve their residents’ needs. They are also accountable to their residents for the performance of the TCs.

Currently, MND has no power to force town councils to give information on its finances, and town councils would not be penalised if they refused to do so. An example of this was Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), which was found by AGO to have major governance and financial lapses in 2015. AHPETC failed to submit clean accounts, and have missed the deadline of submitting statements set by MND for four times since WP took over in 2011.

If the bill has been passed, this would mean that TCs will have to be subjected to tighter regulatory oversight.

Examples include: TCs having to submit audited financial reports within six months of the end of the financial year, keep a registry of conflict of interest disclosures, and MND may be able to appoint inspectors to conduct reviews and investigations to check if the TC has flouted regulations.

TCs could also be fined, and key decision makers could be taken to task if they fail to comply with the regulations stated out in the bill.

Yay or nay?

Since the TCs’ set up 28 years ago – it is definitely about time to review the Act.

Better transparency and accountability to residents. Given that town councils manage huge sums of public money and government grants (millions of dollars no less), the proposed changes will ensure more transparency and help residents hold the MPs (and those running the councils) accountable.

Autonomy of TCs versus Regulation: In MND’s words, they “seek to ensure that town councils deliver essential public services in a consistent, fair, and sustainable way that serves the interest of residents, while retaining the autonomous nature of town councils”. TCs, while autonomous, should not be left to ownself check ownself. They need a regulatory framework in order to protect the residents’ interests – mismanagement of funds should not be tolerated.

Gov’s attempt at fixing opposition? One can’t help but feel that the proposed amendments are targeted at fixing the opposition. But there is only one thing to say: if the TCs have done nothing wrong and the house has been kept in good order, the proposed amendments should not ruffle any feathers.

Penalties: If the proposed amendments were passed, MND would be able to flog the TCs if they were found to have flouted regulations (through fines). But this inadvertently may mean that residents would end up having to foot the bill for the town councillors’ mistakes.

We can foresee an exciting parliamentary debate when this amendment bill comes up for debate.