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Did residents get the town council they deserve?

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Several reported HDB lift accidents including one death occurred at the same time when the Ministry of National Development (MND) issued a glowing report for all 16 town councils for FY 2015, raising the issue on accountability and safety of residents.  JAMES LEONG turns the spotlight on town councils and asks what residents should do before it’s all too late.
By: James Leong
It’s been said that the government is as good as the people it serves.
I ran into my elderly neighbour along the common corridor after my lift broke down again, so I had to take another lift to get down. After expressing my exasperations at the repeated lift malfunctions, the resident of 30 years politely nodded her head in acknowledgement and went her way.
On 31 May 2016 and in the thick of these lift accidents, the MND gave a glowing report of all 16 town councils for FY 2015, based on estate cleanliness, maintenance, lift performance and the management of arrears in the payment of service and conservancy fee charges.
But just a week after this illy timed glowing report card, a 77-year-old wheelchair-bound resident, just five days short of his birthday, fell backwards, cracked his skull in a fall in Pasir Ris. The lift he took was misaligned by a good 25cm above the ground when it opened at the ground floor.
He died.
Just last week alone saw two lift accidents, which caused a 59-year-old cleaner to injure her spine after the lift she took in Petir Road suddenly shot up to the 11th, and then down to the 3rd, before shooting back-up to the 12th. The other accident in Sengkang involved a lift jerking to a sudden halt and then plunging a couple of floors before coming to a complete stop.
The resident lived to tell.
But were these horrible accidents “walking time bombs” waiting to happen and could the town councils have seen this coming and prevented this?
A few intriguing exchanges with my own town council in Jalan Besar led me to ask if they really care.
For the last three years, I’ve been writing to them over repeated lift breakdowns, poorly executed recycling programmes, postboxes left wide open and more recently residents smoking inside lifts.
The entire experience is quite similar to getting a child to see the dentist for a tooth-extraction—much patience is required.
My complaints on lift breakdowns were quickly dismissed as untrue but not before I was fed motherhood statements of how the “town council is still checking and monitoring the performance of the lifts.” (I did wonder how they could be so sure there were no breakdowns unless the town council staff lives in my block and takes the same lift.)
Complaints filed against residents smoking inside lifts were more revealing.
No charges could be made even after I provided the town council the date, time and the colour of the offender’s t-shirt. I was told that surveillance cameras installed in lifts were unable identify the culprit. In fact the town council asked me to provide the unit number of the offender!
So why install surveillance cameras and implement anti-smoking laws when you can’t enforce them?
The Town Councils Act empowers them to control, manage, maintain and improve the common property of housing estates of the Housing and Development Board. One might argue that this translates strictly to estate management but estates are not estates without residents and improving common properties cannot be divorced from improving residents’ well being.
After incessantly pressing the town council for an outcome to my complaints, they conveniently redirected them to the National Environment Agency (NEA) for which I was asked to wait some more.
How long more did I have to wait because it was a NEA generic enquiries email address for the general publics of the world to write to? Surely the town council would have developed a relationship by now with a particular NEA staff for his immediate attention and action?
I finally heard from a junior staff from NEA after two long months but only because I persisted and cc’ed my MP in all the emails. Her reply was even more perplexing.
Working under the auspices of the NEA tasked with fighting dengue, the haze and keeping Singapore clean and green, the junior executive confidently assured me that she would not hesitate to take enforcement actions against anyone found smoking in the lift but later admitted the cameras were unable to identify the person. And, yes, the junior NEA staff asked me for the offender’s unit number, too.
Apparently for anti-smoking laws to be enforced in this particular case, residents not only have to provide the time, date and address of the offence but also the home address of the offender, assuming he is a resident and not a visitor.
I recognise that bureaucracies and red tape exist can slow things down especially in large organisations, but incompetence and a seemingly uncaring attitude at the expense of residents’ well-being and, yes, even their lives are quite something else.
On 11 Jun 2016, after more reports of HDB lift accidents surfaced, Channel NewsAsia (CNA) filed a story on how several Members of Parliament (MPs) are now calling for authorities to review the heavy use of lifts and whether they should be replaced before their 28-year expiry date
But just how many accidents does it take before such checks are made?
According to the then Minister of National Development Khaw Boon Wan, town councils are set up to make MPs accountable to their voters for the running of the estate, as these voters can take the MPs’ performance into account when they next go to the polls.
Wasn’t it not so long ago at GE2015 that the ruling party raised a major stinker against the opposition over the running of its town councils, and essentially making themselves out to be the undisputed leader in running town councils?
All five accidents occurred in PAP-run constituencies where voters gave them a resounding “yes” at GE 2015.
We can only hope the respective town councils will come clean in return for the residents’ votes of confidence.
Until that happens and if it happens, it’s up to HDB residents across Singapore to start asking the hard questions—like their lives depend on it.
“Were checks made at the first signs of lifts showing wear and tear?  Was the higher conservancy fee charged over the years spent in getting managing agents to better maintain their lifts, which could have prevented these accidents?”
Or do we turn a blind eye to it all and continue to live our lives hoping and praying we get home in one piece and our lungs stay smoke-free? Perhaps there are many like my elderly neighbour, who obediently pays her monthly conservancy fees, as long as her corridors are kept clean and rubbish disposed?
In a town council email reply to me, I was asked to “trust” them to do their job. But trust is earned and not demanded.
Growing signs of potential terror attacks in our own backyard have led to measures to install more cameras at up to 10,000 Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks and multi-storey carparks.
As we await another round of possible increased conservancy fees to fund these measures, I can’t help but ask the biggest question of them all:
“How can the town council and relevant authorities enforce the laws of the land and manage estates effectively when existing surveillance cameras can’t even catch my cigarette- smoking resident much less terrorists?
Wouldn’t you want to know too?
And that is why we have to start asking and keep asking—before it’s all too late.

James Leong is a media consultant and a counsellor in training. He awoke to his own political consciousness after reading about the relentless power of the Internal Security Act against the country’s political exiles. He hopes for Singaporeans to be more questioning so they can live in a more progressive and compassionate society.
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