June 25, 2017

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Photo By Shawn Danker
A worker walks by the Bedok Reservoir office of the Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council.

by Danielle Goh

WHAT did you make of the PwC report on the finances of the Workers’ Party (WP) town council while it had charge of Punggol East? Did it look like same-old, same-old? Poor PwC. Its limelight had been stolen by KPMG, which released its report on the whole town council administration and finances in October last year.

PwC was put in charge of auditing the Punggol East single-seat ward which was incorporated into the Aljunied-Hougang town council after the by-election in May 2013.

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The WP had a short two years running the ward before it reverted to People’s Action Party control in the last general election. According to the auditors, there was plenty of foot-dragging and procrastination on the part of WP, hence, the lateness of the 94 page report, which was peppered with phrases like “no documentation’’ and “unsatisfactory overall”.

But the report is interesting for some insights into how a handover of town councils is done. The WP took over Hougang in 1991 and Aljunied in 2011. The Punggol East handover meant that both sides would have some experience to fall back on. Clearly, the WP operates a “new broom sweeps clean’’ strategy when it came into power, turfing out vendors even though their contracts had yet to expire. That, of course, is the town council’s prerogative. The question is whether the change led to better services or lower costs.

The chief beneficiary appears to be FMSS, the incumbent managing agent for Aljunied and Hougang, which went on to manage Punggol East. It charged a rate that is 17 per cent higher than the old vendor CPG, which had yet to finish its contract.

According to the PwC, the WP said that the managing agent contract went to FMSS because CPG wanted to terminate the arrangement. PwC said CPG could have been made to stay.

The PwC report had an interesting list of companies which seemed to have done well bidding for work in the WP’s Punggol East ward. According to the auditors, they won contracts even though they charged higher rates than competitors, or because there were no other bidders, or were simply handed the job.

Here’s what the auditors said about the way they were hired.

1. Rentokil Initial Singapore, which does inspection and extermination of termites, bee’s nests, rodents and other pests

Rentokil was awarded the contract from Sept 1, 2013 to Aug 31 last year. It was not the lowest bidder, and received 71.8 per cent on the Price Quality Method (PQM) score, falling behind Pest-Pro Management, which achieved 90 per cent on the PQM score. The PQM score measures the price and quality of a tender, and is the method of choice to help the G with its selection of contractors for the town council.

The Tender Evaluation Report submitted by the Aljunied-Hougang Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) did not explain why it awarded the tender to Rentokil.

“In our view, neither the circumstances and reasons for not accepting the lowest tender in this case were fully justified, nor the reasons for not doing so properly recorded,” PwC said.

Rentokil was paid $10,385.42 in total. If the contract was awarded to Pest-Pro, the lowest bidder, it would have saved $2,700.21.

2. Red-Power Electrical Engineering, which maintains booster pumps, automatic refuse chute flushing system and roller shutters

Red-Power was hired for work in the Hougang and Aljunied estates in 2012, before the town council absorbed Punggol East in 2013. It was the sole bidder then. Instead of calling for a new tender for Punggol East or extending existing contracts with incumbent vendors, WP handed the work to Red-Power. The WP town council said the work went to Red-Power so that it would have greater leverage when the main contract for the whole AHPETC ran out. PwC, however, noted that when compared to other vendors who do the same kind of work, Red-Power was expensive. One comparison showed that its rate was higher by 775 per cent.

If the town council had chosen to extend the contracts of existing contractors by 12 months, it would have saved $25,920.

“Exercising [such] options would have allowed the Town Council to enjoy the significantly lower rates for a further year, while, at the same time, providing the Town Council with the additional time required to call for a second tender,’’ said the PwC.

3. Neela Electrical System, which maintains the electrically operated roller shutter doors at bin compounds and centralised refuse chute chambers

Neela was the sole bidder for a tender for the work in Punggol East.  It was given the job although its rates were 10 per cent higher than what other vendors charged and Neela itself had acknowledged to the town council during an interview that it had no experience in such repair and maintenance work.

The Finance Department of AHPETC was unable to provide the necessary payment documents and information to verify the work done by Neela, which was paid $27,545.65 in total.

4. Titan Facilities Management, which does conservancy and cleaning works

Titan was hired by the old PAP town council. When WP took over Punggol East, AHPETC could have extended Titan’s contract term by an additional 12 months. It did not do so but chose to call a new tender. While Titan had the lowest tender price of three bidders, it was charging 67 per cent more than before. If its contract had simply been extended for 12 months, the town council could have saved $423,147.

5. J. Keart Alliances, which maintains the fire protection systems including standby generator sets

Like Titan’s contract, the AHPETC could have extended J. Keart’s contract for another 12 months for the same rates.

Instead, the AHPETC called for a new tender for this too. J Keart won but with a new rate that amounted to a 400 per cent rise of rates for the weekly maintenance of generator sets, and a 2,567 per cent increase for the annual maintenance of fire extinguishers. If J Keart had stayed on, PwC estimated that the town council could have saved $27, 249.20 from April 1, 2015 to March last year.

Now that the town council is back in PAP’s hands, we wonder if it also adopted a new broom sweeps clean approach. We asked and we are waiting for an answer.

PS. The PAP town council has declined to comment.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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Black clock showing 8.30.

HOPES are up after the manufacturing sector posted its fifth straight month of growth. The trend also continued for much of the global economy, including the USA, Europe, Japan and China.

The Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI), a measure of manufacturing growth, came in at 51 for January, even higher than the 50.6 recorded in December. Scores above 50 indicate growth. The USA’s PMI for January was 56.

Does that mean we are looking at an economic recovery? It seems that this depends somewhat on how President Donald Trump decides he wants to relate to Singapore. Word is that he’s had a less-than-pleasant phone call with Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull. And he tweeted about it. Is that rude?

Hopefully the USA will continue to invest here. The Economic Development Board said that foreign investment into Singapore in 2017 is likely to match 2016’s: S$8 to S$10 billion in fixed assets investments. The investments are expected to create 19,000 to 21,000 jobs.

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Town Council coffers will get a $63 million boost from the G, with $13 million going into the Lift Maintenance Grant and $50 million into the Lift Replacement Fund. This is on top of the $450 million Lift Enhancement Programme announced last year.

What does it mean for residents? With Town Councils now having to set aside 14 per cent of their funds for lifts, a conservancy fee hike was on the cards. Now any fee hike would probably be pushed back or at least the hike will not be as steep as anticipated.

The Senior Counsel’s son that defaulted on National Service has been sentenced to four months in jail.  Jonathan Tan Huai En, 28, had migrated to Canada and taken up citizenship there but was still liable for NS. His father, Senior Counsel Tan Chee Meng, had stayed in Singapore due to a lack of employment opportunities.

And please don’t believe the hype about NTUC FairPrice selling fake rice. FairPrice has lodged a police report about the rumour, which is circulating on social media and in private messages.

FairPrice says that its rice has passed inspections by the authorities. Those who don’t believe their rice is real can send a sample to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority for testing. Testing got to pay money or not?

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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Black clock showing 8.30.

AFTER the sweltering heat, comes the rain. This would have been welcomed if it didn’t rain so hard and for so long. The Meteorological Service Singapore warned last Monday that the two weeks of this month from Jan 16 are expected to be wetter than the first fortnight, even though the overall rainfall for January is forecast to be slightly below normal.

So that might mean wading through flash floods when you go visiting relatives this Chinese New Year weekend.

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To not dampen your spirits further, here’s a twist to today’s round-up of the news. Note that it is not post-truth, fake news or alternative facts that we’re putting across. We’re just having some fun in the coming year of the rooster:

a. Alternative facts, by the way, are the words made up by a Donald Trump aide who argued with a journalist about the number of people who had attended the US presidential inauguration. When told that alternative facts are really, hmm, falsehoods, she responded by threatening a “re-think” of the relationship between the media and the White House. American media are all a-flutter; there’s a fox in the hen house.

b. Town councils have been told to set aside 14 per cent of income for a special lift replacement fund. That’s a lot of money, given that they already have to set aside 26 per cent of income for the sinking fund to pay for major repairs. Can we expect a rise in service and conservancy fees? It depends on the amount of G grants that will be given out to town councils for this. Please do not start cackling yet.

c. But we bet there will be plenty of cackling and clucking over Education Minister Ong Ye Kung’s thesis that a one-party political system might be the best system for Singapore given the smallness of its size. “Imagine, if we have a multi-party system back in 1965, will we have come so far so quickly?” said the man who is among the front-runners for the post of Prime Minister.

d. The courts have a dilemma: It has to decide whether a man was merely talking cock when he claimed that a botched penis enlargement procedure he had undergone made it impossible for him to sexually abuse his daughter. There was plenty of discussion about exactly when he went for the operation in Johor and what was really injected into him. Paraffin? Silicone? Collagen?

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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Black clock showing 8.30

SOMETHING is rotten in the estate of Ang Mo Kio. A general manager and secretary of the neighbourhood’s town council has been put on forced leave and is now under investigation by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).

Mr Victor Wong works for CPG Facilities Management, the managing agent of the town council, which is helmed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. No details were given of the case, but the town council’s chairman Ang Hin Kee told The Straits Times (ST) yesterday (Dec 29) that a complaint was made against Mr Wong in September. Mr Wong was removed from his duties last month.

As to nature of the complaint, Mr Ang, who is also a Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio GRC, said it had to do with “the way he handles contracts and dealings in the town council”, reported ST.

The complaint “arose out of his dealings which relates to probable behaviour needing investigation done by CPIB”, he said. “Needless to say, the town council ourselves will render all assistance needed to ensure zero tolerance for corruption.”

“We will render all assistance needed to ensure zero tolerance for corruption.”

What exactly are we talking about here?

Clues from Mr Ang’s brief interview with ST point to contracts being handled by Mr Wong and potential conflicts of interests which were possibly undeclared.

Mr Ang declined to give any more details of the investigation, but said that town council staff are constantly reminded to declare any interests concerning tenders being awarded by the council, said ST.

He also said that staff from the managing agent were also reminded that “if there are declarations to be made, if there are interests to declare, the people involved (must) make those declarations”.

Meanwhile, an acting general manager, Mr Lim Kian Chiong, has been asked to replace Mr Wong, who could not be reached for comment yesterday. Mr Lim is also an employee of CPG.

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In other news, two Indonesians have been deported to Batam after they were found to be planning to go to Syria via Singapore, possibly to join Islamic State (IS) militants there.

This is the second such incident this year – in February, four male Indonesians were also deported for similar reasons.

Confirming the report in The Jakarta Post, the Republic’s Ministry of Home Affairs said it had alerted Indonesian authorities before the man and woman, both 40 years old, were deported.

“MHA confirms that two Indonesians were deported to Indonesia after it was established that one of them intended to travel to Syria via Singapore with the assistance of the second individual.”

Speaking of sudden departures, about 120 employees from a car distribution company will be let go in the first weeks of 2017 in one of the largest downsizing exercises in the local motor industry, reported ST.

The employees are from Borneo Motors, a Toyota agent; and Champion Motors, a Suzuki agent. Both are subsidiaries of the parent company Inchcape. The retrenchments represent about 12 to 14 per cent of Inchcape’s overall staff strength in Singapore.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Andrea Wang

SCARED every time you take the lift these days? As it turns out, our concern that there has been an increase in lift breakdowns recently has been incorrect – despite the string of high profile cases that suggests that this has been the case.

In Parliament today (July 11), Minister of National Development Lawrence Wong prefaced his response to questions with respect to the recent spate of lift related incidents by clarifying that there has not been a sudden surge in lift mishaps as has been perceived.

In fact, there have been more cases of unruly lifts in previous years. In 2015 and the first half of 2016, there has been an average of 20 breakdowns for every 1000 lifts per month. This is a decrease from 2013 and 2014 figures, which were cited as 30 breakdowns for every 1000 lifts per month.

While highlighting this statistic, Mr Wong added that every serious incident is one too many – while going over the tighter lift maintenance regimes and regulatory requirements that the BCA intends to put into place. This includes two new maintenance requirements to ensure lifts only move when the doors are closed, and that lifts only stop within 10mm of the ground.

With the decreased number of malfunctioning lifts, any subsequent flare ups will have dire consequences.

 

Town Councils to set aside sinking funds for lift replacement

Aside from discussing regulatory standards, Mr Wong added that Town Councils (TCs) have the responsibility to conduct maintenance and engage in cyclical lift replacement. As they have access to real time analytics, TCs should identify problem lifts and keep them in check. He also said that TCs needed to plan ahead, and set aside a larger proportion of their Service and Conservancy Charges (S&CC) into sinking funds.

Mr Wong didn’t say much to clarify how much funds should be set aside for lift replacement, even after Worker’s Party’s Pritam Singh questioned when lifts should be upgraded or replaced so that TCs could project funds. Mr Wong said such information will be provided as soon as possible.

This isn’t the first time TCs have been told that they should set aside a portion of their sinking funds for lift replacement.

In March, plans were announced for lift checks to be ramped up, and MP Chong Kee Hiong questioned if TCs had sufficient funds for such plans. In response, Mr Wong said that: “we are also considering ring-fencing part of the Town Councils’ Sinking Funds to cater for such expenditures.”

He said this again today, telling MPs that: “A more comprehensive lift maintenance and replacement programme will cost more. For example, with more rigorous checks over time, Town Councils are likely to draw more on their sinking funds to replace worn out lift parts or to carry out a complete replacement of older lifts.”

Well, what exactly are sinking funds and how are they allocated?

The BCA explains a sinking fund as “a fund collected to provide for future capital needs“. This includes the funds that go towards replacing lifts along with the expenses of painting common property and replacing fixtures on it among other capital expenses. It is also intended to be used for long term and occasionally unexpected costs.

Lift repair costs are charged to the maintenance fund, which is intended to cover predictable and recurring costs. Whether funds are to go into the sinking fund or the maintenance fund is decided each year at the AGM, and while it’s not rocket science, it’s certainly not easy. Variables to be considered include the nature of the estate as well as the market cost of contractors and the likelihood of funds needing to be allocated to future large-cost events.

 

Issues with new lifts are only “teething problems”

Not only do our lifts have a tendency to throw temper tantrums, they can also go through “teething problems” in their first year, which Mr Wong says can be attributed to user habits. Residents and contractors are constantly moving in and conducting renovations – so issues tend to stabilise after the first year has passed.

This was in response to MP Tin Pei Ling, who said that new lifts in Built-To-Order flats are failing to meet requirements.

Mr Wong also added that the industry’s competitive forces should be harnessed to benefit residents. Currently, eight lift contractors maintain 70 per cent of lifts, he said.

 

What about manpower shortages?

MP Alex Yam Ziming asked if the BCA is aware of the manpower shortage, and questioned what they were going to do about it. Mr Wong responded by stating, in the short term they are attentive of the industries immediate needs and will work to correct any shortages. In the long term, the BCA will work to build a “healthy pipeline” of engineers and technicians with the requisite skills and competency.

Mr Wong added that he was aware of the manpower shortages. At least we’re doing better than Japan, who have less lift technicians per lift than we do, he added. But, have Japanese lifts been breaking down at the same regularity as those closer to home?

 

Featured image LUP-Interior by Wikicommons media user Mailer Diablo (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Morning Call, 0830, clock

MINISTER Heng Swee Keat is conscious and recovering well after his stroke, said PM Lee in a Facebook post. The PM described him as fully lucid, communicative, and cheerful. Mr Heng, 54, suffered a stroke due to an aneurysm on May 12 and has been in the ICU at Tan Tock Seng hospital for the last few weeks.

 

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan wants Singapore’s rail system to be like the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation’s (TRTC), which clocked an average of 800,000 km between delays longer than five minutes. Singapore’s rail operators achieved just 130,000 km last year, and preliminary numbers for Q1 this year are at 160,000 km. Mr Khaw has set targets of 200,000 km for this year and 400,000 km by 2018 – something he called a “very, very high target”.

Speaking at a rail engineering forum, Mr Khaw put the MRT’s downfall down to “maybe due to complacency and certainly distracted management attention”. The TRTC used to study Singapore’s MRT system in the early days but now the tables have turned – LTA staff and staff form the two rail operators will be going to learn from TRTC. Alamak.

The Town Council management report card is out, and Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council did as well as most other Town Councils, if you discount the “pending” rating for its S&CC arrears management. The Town Councils are banded green, yellow or red on four criteria. Eleven of them scored a ‘yellow” for estate maintenance, including AHPETC, and Potong Pasir scored “yellow” for both estate maintenance and S&CC arrears management. Everything else was “green” for all TCs, including estate cleanliness and lift performance, in spite of a number of high-profile lift accidents in recent months. People dying/losing limbs in lift accidents ought to score a yellow somewhere, perhaps?

Yang Yin, the former tour guide from China who is accused of cheating an elderly widow and falsifying documents, is expected to plead guilty to the 347 charges of faking $450,000 of receipts, cheating and immigration offences laid against him. Two more serious charges of criminal breach of trust for cheating Madam Chung Khin Chun of $1.1 million will be heard in June.

 

Featured image by Kong Chong Yew.

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by Bertha Henson

WHEN I was growing up, the earth was flat. The first time the term “lift” entered my consciousness was when the Robinson Department store caught fire in 1972. This little girl recalled her parents talking about shoppers trapped in a lift while the building was ablaze. The image that took hold in my mind was that of a metal coffin with charred bodies.

It was nice to live on a flat earth. There weren’t many tall buildings in the 70s. There was a lift in my primary school which reached to the fourth floor but not many of us girls used it. We preferred the faster way of running up and down the stairs which also meant that we won’t run into teachers. When my family moved to a HDB flat located on the fifth floor, our home was just one flight from the lift landing. Again, it was faster to run down the five flights of stairs to the ground floor. My late grandmother, however, had lift phobia. They were new structures to her and looked like, yes, metal coffins.

How uplifting the times have been!

Now I use lifts that seem to be smarter than me, requiring me to press all sorts of buttons before getting me to where I want to be. Then the express lifts which make your ears pop – and the lifts which require passes to deter intruders. I used to think the lift which services our office building was some kind of horror chamber. It is big because it doubles as a cargo lift, and opens and closes oh so slowly – with a blood-curdling death rattle. It has since been upgraded so the insides are shinier. The rattle is still there though.

Truth to tell, I sometimes think I put my life at risk by being in the enclosed space of a lift. This is probably the result of watching too many movies of people stuck in lifts in blackouts and having to climb out into the lift shaft.  Come to think of it, do lifts have standby lights? Can you suffocate in a lift? I’m glad most HDB lifts have got little peek-a-boo windows on the doors, although it must be bad for courting couples for whom the lift is the only form of privacy for goodnight kisses.

Because we use lifts all the time, every time there is trouble with one, we get particularly concerned. The recent lift incidents are just too scary to contemplate: a severed hand, an accelerating lift, a man who died because his mobility vehicle fell over a step that shouldn’t be there. These are just a handful of incidents given the thousands of lifts in Singapore. But they all happened in HDB blocks. Is there some reason they don’t happen to office blocks? Are they better maintained or do they just go unreported?

The authorities are having a hard time convincing people that old lifts don’t mean they are un-usable provided they have been maintained properly. On average, lifts are replaced every 28 years. Given the lift upgrading programme, most HDB lifts have already been replaced at least once. But you never know with malfunctioning parts, right? Or blind spots which sensors cannot detect and the lift door closes on you because of a thin leash? Or thinking it’s safe to move backwards out of a lift because it is level with the landing. Or having to belt yourself to something because the lift decides to accelerate.

Under the Town Councils Act and Rules, each town council is required to set aside a minimum portion of their service and conservancy charges collected, and grants-in-aid received to fund its cyclical works, which include the replacement of lifts and lift parts. This portion is 30 per cent for one- to three-room flats, and 35 per cent for larger flats. The G is thinking of “ring-fencing” the lift portion.

Now what about maintenance?

You know, I used to spend my time reading and re-reading that notice that is pasted on the inside of the lift telling occupants when it was last serviced. A few years ago, these notices disappeared. It seems town councils have taken over and there’s no need for such reading material anymore. Maybe they should resurrect the practice, just to tell residents when the lift was last serviced. It would give some degree of comfort even if there’s no guarantee that the lift won’t break down.

We never really think very much about lift maintenance do we? We grumble and complain when the lift is dirty of course but how many of us actually bother to check when the lift was last serviced or the parts replaced? In fact, we’re more likely to grumble when the lift is out of action for maintenance purposes because it means we have to leg it.

It is easy to say that it is somebody else’s job. We pay service and conservancy fees after all. And there’s the law to make sure things go right. In fact, I’m going to say it: It is somebody else’s job. Clean surroundings and safe, functioning lifts are the least residents can expect of their town council. There should be no return of lift-phobia.

In this column, consulting editor Bertha Henson muses about life and living – and makan – through the scenes she witnesses in her neighbourhood.

 

Featured Image by Natassya Diana.

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by Bertha Henson

QUIETLY does it. The Murali Method worked. And rather than the by-election effect helping the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), it had to contend with the Tharman effect.

That’s a guess, of course.

Back to the news.

So Mr Murali, 49, a lawyer, has come full circle. The former People’s Action Party (PAP) branch secretary for Bukit Batok who became a member of the PAP suicide squad in Aljunied GRC in the last GE was declared MP for Bukit Batok at about 11.30pm last night (May 7). He took 61.2 per cent of the vote while his rival, SDP’s Chee Soon Juan, secured 38.8 per cent.

It was not a nail-biting finish. Indications came when the sample vote count of the 25,727 votes was announced at 9.24pm. Mr Murali had 61 per cent of the vote compared to Dr Chee’s 39 per cent. With a 4 percentage point error margin either way, it was clear that Mr Murali would take the prize.

At a press conference after the final tally was announced, Mr Murali said he was humbled by – not triumphant about – his victory. He thanked the SDP for putting up a well-organised campaign as it helped him articulate his plans for the ward “much better”. He would start work immediately.

The press conference was held at the party branch premises at the void deck of Block 148, Bukit Batok West Ave 6. Asked why he eschewed the open field allotted for PAP supporters at Bukit Batok Industrial Park A and decided on the void deck office, he said: “This was where it all began 15 years ago when I started serving in this branch.”

Over at Bukit Gombak Stadium, Dr Chee stood next to his wife on a podium to thank his supporters and congratulate Mr Murali. He said: “I said before that I wanted to win with honour and lose with grace.”

At 38 per cent, Dr Chee did better than his party colleague, Mr Sadasivam Veriyah, who secured 26 per cent of the vote in GE2015. He managed to shave the PAP margin by 12 percentage points. This was also also his best electoral showing since he started his political career by taking part in another by-election, for Marine Parade GRC in 1992.

Mr Murali said he was encouraged by the vote and when asked about the thinner margin, he quipped that he was used to razor-thin margins after being a candidate for Aljunied GRC.

The two men’s respective choice of venues reflected their different campaign styles which would doubtless be dissected over the next few days for signs of what worked to swing voters. While Dr Chee stood for change and challenge, Mr Murali was about stability and effectiveness.

By-elections tend to favour the opposition, as evidenced by the wins of the Workers’ Party in the Punggol East and Hougang elections in 2012. The argument works this way: With the PAP already in power, why not vote in the opposition to check on the G?

Dr Chee, who spoke at four rallies in nine days, told Bukit Batok residents he would be their full-time MP and their “voice in Parliament”. He spoke on national issues, such as retrenchment insurance, while assuring residents that he could run their town council effectively. He kept a high profile, with the media trailing his every move, and his party churning out information on social media.

Mr Murali ran a muted campaign. His pitch to voters: Trust the PAP’s track record of running a town council and his own record of community service.

Was this what kept Bukit Batok in the PAP fold?

Bukit Batok is not a new estate teeming with young families complaining about lack of facilities or demanding transparency or freedom of expression. It is a mature estate with one elderly voter in 10, who are more likely than young people to be in the PAP camp. They need ramps and easy access to facilities, which the PAP and its grassroots network are more likely able to provide than the SDP.

Mr Murali had big hitters on his side including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who last weekend lambasted Dr Chee for being hypocritical in allowing SDP speakers to malign Mr David Ong, while he declared himself to be above the fray. Whether this had an effect on voters is uncertain, given that Dr Chee’s history of run-ins with the law and his old mentor Chiam See Tong would be lost on younger voters. It could also have turned off some voters who view the remarks as a character smear – something that the SDP made much of.

No one, however, should underestimate Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shamugaratnam’s pulling power. His Jurong GRC team scored an impressive 79 per cent of the vote in GE2015. Mr Tharman has been ever-present during the campaign, saying many times that the single-seat ward of Bukit Batok will be part of “the Jurong family” – and get priority treatment too. Unless there is great discontent with the work of the Jurong-Clementi Town Council, there is little reason for the residents to cut themselves off and come under an untested SDP regime.

His speech at the last PAP rally on Thursday night was a tour de force. He picked apart the SDP’s policy proposals and threw his weight behind Mr Murali’s candidacy. He was a man you can trust, said Mr Tharman.

The DPM was not there at the press conference. Instead Mr Murali was flanked by PAP branch leaders. Whatever cover the DPM had provided for Mr Murali, it was clear that the stage was for Mr Murali. The win went to him, and his party helpers.

There’s another thing, an undercurrent, about this by-election: race.

In a straight fight between an Indian and a Chinese, the Indian won. This is despite the ward having a higher proportion of Chinese residents than other wards. You can read the results either way: Race had nothing to do with the election or Mr Murali would have scored less.

Or, that race had something to do with it or he would scored more.

Perhaps, it doesn’t matter. In the end, Mr Murali won.

And Mr Tharman is not Chinese either.

 

Featured Image by Natassya Diana. 

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by Bertha Henson

A COUPLE of months ago, my mother attended a talk on the Home Improvement Programme (HIP). This is the one where the basic plan includes getting pipes replaced and spalling concrete fixed in the flat. Her block had been included in the Housing Board (HDB) scheme which required three-quarters of the residents to get the green light.

There is an enhanced version as well, which has grab bars and non-slip floor tiles in toilets. What would happen if most of the residents didn’t vote for this more expensive version? Could she still get them installed, she wanted to know?

It’s a pity that an elderly gentleman was dominating the floor which left the others no time for questions for the Member of Parliament (MP) and the HDB officers. So she didn’t get to ask about whether she could pay her share in instalments. (My mother belongs to a generation which likes to keep as much money in the bank for as long as possible, never mind the near-zero interest rate.)

I was thinking about how lucky HDB residents are, to have access to such upgrades with the G footing 95 per cent of the cost. That amounts to residents paying only between $125 and $313, depending of flat type, for the Enhancement for Active Seniors (Ease) programme that my mother is eyeing.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed so many infrastructural changes in her neighbourhood that I wonder if someone was being too cavalier with money. Old playgrounds get replaced and suddenly there are ramps for the wheelchair-bound. Void decks have a new flooring of cement and covered porches pop up for drivers to pick up and drop off passengers.

Somehow, these things just seem to happen automatically. For a few days or several weeks, hoardings will go up and foreign workers will be within them with their wheelbarrows. Then the hoardings come down and…voila!

Like magic.

In my private estate, there would be endless tangles about adding to the sinking fund and so forth, and how much each household will have to pay.

Frankly, I don’t think HDB residents think much about the amenities that sprout up in their neighbourhood… They just happen.

It says much about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the running of a housing estate. But whether it’s the HDB, the town council, or the grassroots groups that were behind the improvements, people probably don’t know – and don’t care.

Where is the money coming from? The G? The town council? The grassroots groups? The mysterious Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC)? Who proposes and who disposes? Who approves? Then again, who cares anyway but politicians, especially opposition politicians? Do residents care?

Just think about what happened in the case of the Workers’ Party’s Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC). After more than a year of the G (and the PAP) trashing its accounts and threatening to withhold grants, as well as rumblings about illegal activities, all seems to have been forgiven or at least settled amicably. The AHTC got its grants and the G got an accountant in to look at its books. So much time (including parliamentary and court time), money, and energy has been spent on an outcome that is a damp squib. And residents didn’t care enough to kick up a fuss in the meantime.

What most HDB residents know enough of, however, is to call the town council when things go wrong – like a void deck that hasn’t been swept for two days or a common corridor which hasn’t been hosed over by cleaners in a week. They sort of know that an MP is behind most of the developments because it has been drummed into them that they must elect a candidate who is able to run a housing estate. Besides this basic understanding, the nitty gritty is beyond them.

So I have been thinking about Bukit Batok and how the two candidates are going on and on about the upgrading projects. Whether residents have been consulted or whether it was a carry-over project or whether they were already “a given”. As for the money, it seems to have been set aside already from last election. So it’s $1.9 million for the town council to spend.

Will residents care? Methinks people will only care if they have to foot the bill in some kind of co-payment like the HIP scheme.

The Neighbourhood Renewal Project (NRP) in Bukit Batok is fully government-funded. So the PAP’s tentative opening lines about how the project might not go through if the PAP is not elected has no practical effect. It’s a question of who can get the projects like sheltered walkways and other amenities off the ground more effectively.

I was thinking that it was a bad move by the PAP to talk about the NRP, especially since the plan had been in the works since before the last General Election under former MP David Ong. While it’s nice to announce a ready inheritance, it sure looks like a windfall for the SDP, with some money already committed and at the disposal of whoever gets elected.

It might have been better for the PAP to trot out its grassroots network, which can apply for the use of CIPC money from the Ministry of National Development (MND). The ministry pays out 90 per cent for minor town improvement projects such as fitness corners and drop-off points. The town council picks up the rest of the tab. Then again, PAP probably thinks this would be imprudent as it only highlights the power of a constituency’s grassroots adviser, a role not open to elected opposition MPs.

It was interesting, however, to witness the verbal gymnastics about the role of town councils. The PAP denigrated SDP’s assumption that the NRP is a URA project – but that’s about it really.

The SDP tried to make an issue of the NRP being part of a $24 million plan that is already in the works – and that’s about it really.

So the issue is… what then? That the SDP knows nothing about how town councils work, and the PAP hasn’t been upfront?

Ah well. Not my problem. It’s for Bukit Batok residents to figure out.

 

Featured image P3230122 by Flickr user stufffroggyCC BY-ND 2.0. 

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Illustration by Guet Ghee Pang

By Felix Cheong

HOW do you kill an ant? With a sledgehammer, of course.

Yes, I’m referring to the Marine Parade Town Council, which had put up posters last week banning chess at the void deck of a HDB block in Haig Road. This arose after residents complained about rowdy Ah Peks gathering there to play checkers.

I’m not sure which took my breath away, the fact that the good people at the town council couldn’t tell chess from checkers (the same 64-square board, no?), or that these Ah Peks still have enough lung capacity to raise hell (active ageing, no?). In any case, with Yangtze Cinema in Chinatown having screened its last softcore flick on March 1, where do you expect them to have good, clean fun? Thankfully, on Monday (March 14), the town council gostan and apologised for its draconian action.

That officials these days swing a sledgehammer when a flyswatter would do isn’t all that surprising, really. Recall Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s famous “Wanna fight?” speech, which I actually quoted once to stop a couple of robbers: “Everybody knows that in my bag, I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul–de-sac.”

The robbers took one look at me and gostan-ed.

This feistiness, of course, comes from an inferiority complex about size. Size matters and we’ve sized up the matter. Singapore may be the smallest boy in class but we sure as hell know we’re also the brightest bulb (and happiest in the Asia-Pacific too, according to a recent survey by the UN).

It’s an evolutionary trait we share with the T. Rex. This week, researchers studying bones of the Timurlengia Euotica (sounds like an exotic dancer) say the T. Rex’s cousin (which lived about 90 million years ago, round the same time Donald Trump was born) was about the size of a human but already had a large, developed brain (unlike Trump). Over time, by sheer intelligence, it found a way to grow to its ginormous T. Rex size.

Ditto with Singapore. But what has kept us back is this crazy little thing called ‘face’. When the act should be big, we ironically play it small. We don’t want to be nouveau-riche flashy, like our neighbours up north who, despite shaky foundations, is still going ahead to build a 118-storey skyscraper to trump Petronas Towers.

This explains our ambiguity about honouring the late Mr Lee. While he had steadfastly refused to let a personality cult grow around him, you can’t help but wonder what the authorities are thinking of with some odd tributes.

For instance, on Thursday, the Prime Minister’s Office said artillery shell casings from the 21-gun salute at Mr Lee’s state funeral would be given to institutions like the National Parks Board and PUB.

Why these casings were not given out immediately after the state funeral is unclear (were they kept in a secret vault till they mature like wine?) How about next year, giving away the queue dividers to ordinary citizens who had turned up in millions to pay their last respects?

Here’s a thought: Instead of being in denial, let’s collectively admit there is a personality cult around Mr Lee. That come March 23 every year, there’ll be remembrances, books, collectibles, etc. Let’s not be coy and pretend this national hero worship doesn’t exist. So, instead of scrambling around for a Founders’ Memorial site, why don’t we simply make the tribute big, as in Mount Rushmore-big?

Imagine: On one of the cliff faces of Xiao Guilin, carved out of stone, the benign visages of Mr Lee, Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr S Rajaratnam and Dr Toh Chin Chye.

Day in, night out, they’ll watch over you, making sure things still work like clockwork, that what they had built won’t be lost in one generation. Maybe then, with the founding PAP leaders watching him in Bukit Batok, its erstwhile MP would have thought twice about engaging in any hanky panky.

 

 

Featured Image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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