AIM debate in Parliament: (Round 4) – Revisiting conflicts of interest?

theonlinecitizen May 18, 2013

By Leong Sze Hian

3.5 pages in the newspapers

I refer to the articles “Tidying up town council politics”, “Tussle over town councils”, “Revamping the town councils” and forum letters “Time for managing to come clean”, “Town council contracts: Where’s the accountability” (Straits Times, May 18) (About three and a half pages in total).

“To distract the public by casting aspersions”?

According to the article “WP to PAP: Put up or shut up!” (TR Emeritus, May 17) –

“WP’s latest statement deserves to be read in full by every Singaporean but here are some salient bits:

It is most regrettable that Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan and Dr Teo Ho Pin have decided to distract the public by casting aspersions on WP’s management of the Town Council and on its Managing Agent, FM Solutions and Services Pte Ltd (FMSS). It is disappointing that the Ministry, too, has been drawn into the fray.

Many of Dr Teo’s latest allegations and questions have already been addressed in Parliament or in media statements issued by Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council.

If the Minister, Dr Teo or the Ministry believe there was any wrongdoing in WP’s management of the Town Council, we invite them to make a report to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau or other relevant agencies to investigate the matter, rather than to make these suggestions and insinuations. We assure these agencies of our full co-operation.”

Re-visiting conflict of interest?

According to the article “GM of Jurong TC is the MD of its contractor for managing township services” (TR Emeritus, May 16, 2011) – “The General Manager of Jurong Town Council Ho Thian Poh is also the Managing Director of UGL Premas Limited which owns Esmaco Township Management Services, the contractor employed by Jurong Town Council itself. (Source: ULG Premas)

Netizens have been asking if this duo role of Mr Ho may have led to a possible conflict of interest. Besides Jurong, UGL Premas Limited manages Marine Parade, West Coast and Hong Kah Town Councils well.

It turns out that Mr Ho is also the PAP branch secretary of Bukit Batok East.

Another possible case of conflict of interest involves Aljunied Town Council which is managed by CPG Facilities Management. The General Manager of Aljunied Town Council Mr Jeffrey Chua is also the Managing Director of CPF Facilities Management. It is not known if he is a PAP member as well.”

I just looked at Jurong Town Council’s (JTC) web site – he is now still the General Manager of JTC.

Conflict of interest galore?

According to the article “More transparency needed in our Town Councils” (Article 14, May 30, 2011) – “Is there or is there not any conflict of interest in the management of our Town Councils?

The following article has appeared in Todayonline:

MPs: No conflict of interest …

by Cheow Xin Yi 04:46 AM May 30, 2011SINGAPORE –

They are general managers accountable for the day-to-day administrative functions of town councils. Some of them are also employees of managing agents who win contracts from the town councils to service the estate.

This arrangement – known to occur in at least four town councils in Singapore – has raised the issue of conflict of interest in town council management.

At Aljunied and Jurong town councils, the respective GMs, Mr Jeffrey Chua and Mr Ho Thian Poh, in fact also hold the position of managing directors at CPG Facilities Management and UGL Premas.

CPG is currently the managing agent of Aljunied Town Council, although it is not clear if the agreement will continue following the Workers’ Party taking over of Aljunied and the subsequent merger to form Aljunied-Hougang Town Council .

UGL Premas, meanwhile, is the parent company of Emasco Township management, the managing agent of Jurong Town Council.

To National University of Singapore business school associate professor Mak Yuen Teen, the first issue to establish is how the GMs of town councils are appointed. “Are they appointed after the facilities management company has been selected? If so, there would not be a conflict in terms of someone being put in a position to recommend or award a contract to his own firm,” he said.

“There will, of course, still be the issue of who evaluates the performance of the facilities management company – it certainly should not be the GM of the town council if they are related parties,” he added.

When contacted, former chairman of Jurong Town Council Halimah Yacob confirmed that was the case: Mr Ho was only appointed GM after the town council contracted Emasco as the managing agent. His salary is also paid by Emasco.

“The Council pays the managing agent the fee agreed upon under the contract which the managing agent uses to cover its costs of providing service to the council including staff salaries,” she said.

Mr Ho is also not authorised to approve any tender, said Mdm Halimah, who is a Member of Parliament in Jurong Group Representation Constituency.

“We have a transparent and rigorous system in place where all tenders, including the appointment of the managing agent, are evaluated by the Tenders and Contracts Committee comprising Councillors. This committee’s recommendations are then reviewed by the full Council,” she said.

At Holland-Bukit Panjang Town Council, its secretary Albert Teng is also an employee of its managing agent, EM Services. Bukit Panjang MP Teo Ho Pin, who has been the coordinating chairman among PAP town councils, reiterated: “We must comply with the Ministry of National Development (MND) guidelines if there is a conflict of interest among our councillors or staff when tendering for contracts.”

Still, given the close working proximity between the GM and the councillors, isn’t there the chance of the committee favouring contractors of their own working partners?

An ex-town councillor at a town council, who declined to be named, said the possibility is mitigated by the diverse groups of people making decisions on the tenders.

At his town council for instance, where the general manager is in fact an employee of the managing agent, there would be at least 10 councillors in subcommittees making recommendations for particular contracts for a total panel of more than 40 councillors to approve.

Weighing in on the issue, the MND said there are safeguards within town council financial rules to prevent a conflict of interest, even as the ministry stressed that it monitors the award of tenders to ensure they comply with the financial provisions.

If a managing agent intends to participate in a tender for works or services called by the town council, the managing agent is required to declare its interest to the town council and is prohibited from participating in the evaluation of the tenders received, said a MND spokesperson, adding that the independent tender committee must ensure that the” tender specifications do not favour any particular tenderer.”

Yours or mine?

So, when we talk about conflicts of interest – are we talking about “yours or mine”?

If we want to give it a sense of proportion, the above possible conflicts of interest may be “peanuts” compared to what may arguably be the mother of all conflicts of interest – AIM!

Back to the debate in Parliament – shall we?

So, let’s get back to the main subject of the debate in Parliament – AIM – which I believe may have been the main reason for devoting about 4 hours of the 6 hours (only 1.5 hours was allotted to the 90 Parliamentary Questions in that 1.5 hours)  for a one-day only Parliamentary sitting on 13 May to deliver the Ministerial Statement and debate on the MND Town Council Review Report.

One thing at a time please.

If I may again quote what WP’s Silvia Lim said “If the Minister, Dr Teo or the Ministry believe there was any wrongdoing in WP’s management of the Town Council, we invite them to make a report to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau or other relevant agencies to investigate the matter, rather than to make these suggestions and insinuations. We assure these agencies of our full co-operation.” – I think what she may be hinting at (without actually saying the words – well, she did say “to distract the public by casting aspersions”) may be – no more diversionary tactics please.

About the Author

Leong
Leong Sze Hian has served as president of 4 professional bodies, honorary consul of 2 countries, an alumnus of Harvard University, authored 4 books, quoted over 1500 times in the media , has been a radio talkshow host, a newspaper daily columnist, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow, columnist for theonlinecitizen and Malaysiakini, executive producer of Ilo Ilo (40 international awards), invited to speak more than 200 times in over 30 countries, CIFA advisory board member, founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of Indonesia and Brunei. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional  qualifications.