Set up an independent committee to review town councils, suggested Gillian Koh, senior reseach fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.

Koh said that the government must be seen to be even-handed in dealing with town councils as a result of the Workers’ Party-run town council saga. National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan told Parliament on March 3 that his ministry was re-examining the framework governing Town Councils. The move was to ensure better protection of public money.

Khaw has listed three key areas for review – the town council’s duties and responsibilities, its sinking funds and long-term financial sustainability and the hand-over arrangement when MPs change.

Responding to Khaw’s action plan, Koh said: “I wonder if we are all better served by a parallel group that reviews these three key points.”

She added that the independent committee should consist of respected leaders in their appropriate professional groups.

She said: “They should receive as much feedback as possible about the practical difficulties faced, review the rules attending if they exist, and give their best thoughts on how to proceed.

“All parties [involved] should be heard, the public should see this as an occasion to better understand how town councils should be managed, and know how each team should be assessed at the ballot box when the time comes.” The independent committee should submit its report to both the MND and the public.

However Koh’s concern was who should call together the independent committee.

“They can be called together by the government, which might be ideal as it can also have the authority to call on relevant information from government agencies.”

A ground-up initiative is possible. She said: “They may not get the official information but then their advantage would be the stronger sense of representation, although the public would then need them to declare their political and professional interests [for a fairer assessment].”

To ensure public accountability, there should also be more disclosure of town councils’ financial statements to the public, said Eugene Tan, associate law professor at the Singapore Management University.

“There is no such thing for any town council to be immune to such disclosure. This move would allow for more accountability of the town councils to their residents,” he said.

The biggest challenge for the MND was to prove they could hold all town councils accountable, not just the opposition town council, another political commentator, Bridget Welsh, associate professor (political science) at the SMU, said.

“Otherwise, it would be seen as an attempt to discredit WP. It would backfire on the government because the public would only see it as a political manoeuvre to systematically attack WP,” she explained.

Tan said it was inevitable for the situation to be seen as a political spat between the two parties.

“So in these disputes, whoever has swayed public opinion and influenced public perceptions will come out looking better,” he said.

On the flipside, Gillian Koh said WP’s move to avoid “petty politicking” by not engaging with the PAP when the latter raised queries left many questions unanswered in the public’s mind.

She said: “At the end of the day, Singaporeans are pragmatic; so whatever rules exist must work and serve the direct stakeholders’ interests. These would be the residents, the traders, the hawkers in the local areas. Singaporeans will want to know how the ordinary man in the street is served as they make up their minds about who are the leaders, who are sincere, whom they can trust and vote for.” And these direct stakeholders would include long-time PAP supporters within the WP’s constituencies.

“These people are used to how things work in the GRC run by the PAP. So the WP has to be prepared to meet their expectations and exceed them if they want to continue in Singapore politics; it does not help Singapore and the direct stakeholders that any group wishes to ride on sympathy votes alone at the end of the day.”