By Kumaran Pillai
In a strange twist of fate, the independent panel appointed by Workers’ Party is charging WP councillors, Low Thia Khiang, Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh for fiduciary breaches. “It is a grave setback for the opposition movement, we need to close ranks and support each other in a time like this,” said former presidential candidate Tan Jee Say.
In a rare show of solidarity in the otherwise fragmented opposition, Jeanette Chong Aruldoss former sec-gen of National Solidarity Party, commenting in her personal capacity, said Philip Jeyaretnam is conflicted for being a member of the Independent Panel. Posting on her Facebook, she said,
“It is a well-documented fact that JBJ, WP’s long-standing secretary-general quit the party in 2001 after a serious falling out with its leaders, in particular, Low Thia Khiang, who replaced him as secretary-general. Given this factual backdrop, isn’t there an appearance of a conflict of interest for the son of JBJ to chair the panel investigating the actions taken by the present WP party leaders? Won’t it have been more ideal for the panel not to comprise anyone personally related to a past or present WP office-bearer?”
Former treasurer of WP, Mr Eric Tan said that Mr Jeyaretnam would have discharged his duties impartially and it is unlikely that he would have taken sides.
Was this an own goal?
Leong Hze Hian, president of Maruah, said he is puzzled and confused and asked, “Did my town council ownself appoint own panel to sue ownself using ownself money for the legal costs?”
Sounds odd, but it does seem that WP might have made a tactical error in appointing an independent panel.
However, some believe that this is an opportunity for WP to put their side of the story to the public. But this is not just a public opinion battle. If charges of breaches hold, the implications for the three office bearers is grave and it may be difficult for them to exonerate themselves from this saga.
More worrisome is the fact that it may set the beleaguered opposition further behind. A bad outcome for those who believe in WP’s “First World Parliament” and their call for greater transparency and accountability from the ruling party.
“Were they tripped up by others who oversaw the management of the town council?” asked one of our regular commentator. “It doesn’t augur well for the party,” said another.
Ex GIC chief, Yeoh Lam Keong, made a rather pedantic observation on Facebook that there needs to be a separation of roles – i.e. between being a parliamentarian and an estate manager. Eric Tan said that opposition members have been making this point all along and there is nothing new or novel about it.
Remember AIM? That $2 company held by former NTUC chairman Chandra Das, providing IT systems to PAP town councils in Singapore. The government was quick to wash its hands from it by appointing another vendor. Some pertinent questions need to be asked – why didn’t the auditor general or HDB raise any issues with the lapses in fiduciary duties all these years? Why are they let off the hook?
And there are numerous other instances where it was okay to appoint people connected to the PAP in key positions in government and business. So, why is it a problem now?
Need to be whiter than white?
Some personalities like Goh Meng Seng, former WP candidate in 2006, argue that opposition needs to be whiter than white to earn the respect and confidence of the electorate. While others say that the likes of GMS are just a bunch of purist and not aligned to the norms of our society.
We need to look at this issue not just plainly from whether the “rules” were breached but also need to bear in mind how organisations, both commercial and pollical, operate.
Leong Hze Hian argues that perhaps having a more diverse panel, comprising not just lawyers and accountants, would have yielded a different result because it would have a broader and different perspective.
Democracies thrive on clientelism
It is normal even in mature democracies, like in the USA, for people to be appointed along party lines but, the key to this is transparency and accountability. One way to do this is for parties contesting in the elections to be upfront about the executives and managers that they’ll be appointing and declaring any conflict of interest that they have.
While some hold the view that separation of roles and powers is ideal, we can also argue that managing town councils is also a good exercise for the opposition parties, in this case, the Workers’ Party to build essential capabilities in administration.
They now have the capacity to hire and train their own team. Separating the function of law-making and governance, while it’s idealistic, will preclude the opposition from all forms of administration. The outcome of this separation of roles, one can argue, will only tilt in PAP’s favour.
The other suggestion by Eric Tan was to have a separate municipality election. We need to bear in mind that this will add another layer of administration and cost to the governance of this tiny city-state. And lawmakers will lose their essential feedback channels and touch points with the grassroots organisations or worse there will be duplication of efforts.
They are all good suggestions, I must say, but it needs to be thoroughly debated in the public sphere, which is sorely lacking in Singapore.
Finally, it’s all about electoral accountability
Let’s not forget that one of the key features of democracy is electoral accountability. Those in power are ultimately accountable to the electorate. We, the people, have the ultimate power to dictate the social norms through the electoral process.
In the same vein, the Workers’ Party is ultimately responsible and accountable to the constituents of Hougang and Aljunied, and not be judged by a select group of individuals or panel. If the three councillors survive this, they still need to account to the electorate and that would be their biggest test in the next general election. Only time will tell!
Kumaran Pillai is the publisher and edior-in-chief of this publication