by Bertha Henson
So the AIM saga was the centre of a rousing debate, more heated than anything seen in recent times. Now that the boxing match is over, who won? Who’s the umpire anyway? That, surely, should be us, the people watching from the sidelines, and the people living in the HDB heartlands. Did any side deliver the knock-out punch? Did any side stay down for the count or throw in the towel?
Now that the match is over, and we’re calculating the points scored, let’s see what’s been settled during the match.
The most important thing: that town councils are inherently “political” in nature. Now, all the political parties aren’t arguing against this. In fact, a “political” town council is good for politicians. They can show that they are not merely talking heads even in an august a platform as Parliament but also administrators responsible for the living conditions of those who voted for them.
Sure, it could be a double-edged sword because you can botch the whole thing.
Nevertheless, it offers the politician in power a base to operate from, with premises that supporters can gather in. And a way to dispense patronage to those supportive of their cause? Now, that’s where the problem/confusion lies. Nothing in the town council rules say that political parties can’t hire their own kind, and it seems that both the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party have done so. The question then is whether the people accept that this is part of the political game that is being played out for them.
The idea is that the politicians and their partisans (even if not members) would do their utmost to remain in power and get through the next election. How will they do this? Now if politics is as dirty as is always said, a politician can:
a) Trip up the other side (the PAP said it would be stupid to use AIM to handicap the Workers’ Party town council)
b) Pander to populist demands by lowering S&C charges or caving in even to the most unreasonable demands of residents (WP’s Aljunied TC actually raised S&C charges which can be seen as incompetence or as taking a hard route to serve a bigger cause)
c) Threaten or bully residents into giving their continued support (by taking note of which voting precincts were “anti” or “pro”)
d) Blame everybody else if shortcomings are pointed out (which was what the PAP said the WP was doing in pointing out the AIM connection only after an unfavourable report card was turned in)
e) Use a bogeyman to rally the people against (now the MND or HDB would be useful scapegoats)
Now, all this assumes that the residents are stupid and can’t tell what is going on. Then again, maybe they really don’t care about games being played and just want to live in peace with appreciating flat prices.
What is clear is that when “politics” is mentioned, they get uncomfortable. That’s because residents have never seen themselves as political players. No one thinks very much about who or how the garbage gets cleared or the corridors are cleaned, whether it is done through open tender or political cronyism. There is a sort of blind faith that everything will carry on as usual.
The Singaporean, however, firmly believes in a level playing field. If one party/group is seen to have an unfair “edge’’ over the other, they will move to the side of the smaller player. In this case, the PAP is handicapped merely because it is a big player with resources on its side (even if AIM is only a $2 company!)
So what happens now?
The Singaporean heartlander should be the guardians of their own fate, and be educated on what it means to be living in a place governed in a “political’’ way. It is true that their best interests might not be served if political parties are only interested in their own future. They would have to wake up to this and act if so.
Of course, they can also ask for neutral parties to act as watchdogs on their behalf.
Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan is leading a strategic review of town councils, to ensure smooth handover in case of leadership changes, adequacy of town council funds and the town councils’ duties in relation to HDB.
So, we’ve moved away from the “fundamental’’ nature of town councils to some nuts and bolts stuff to protect residents’ interests. Time for experts to weigh in.
What has been the impact of AIM saga and the ensuing debate? It has been an interesting exercise in political education, something which Singaporeans lack. Oh, and one question was also definitively answered: AIM is the ONLY company the PAP owns.