25 August 2011

Much ado about an Elected President

We hereby state our disinterest and lack of interest in the current election for the Elected President of Singapore.

We might as well vote for a potted plant or a mascot

As the minister of law Mr K Shanmugam has pointed out, the president can be very easily rendered powerless by the cabinet. If the minister - who speaks presumably for the prime minister on this issue - sees the eventual winner of Saturday's election as unsuitable for the post, all respect can go out of the window. The full letter of the law can be ridiculously and unreasonably applied to ensure the president doesn't even have leave to speak to the public on any issue, thank you very much.

Mr K Shanmugam is either the cleverest man in Singapore or its most stupidest man alive. In one single stroke, the minister of law shows any leaders of a future 'rogue government' how to bypass that famed "guardian of the reserves". Either the president is a superman with the power to clamp down the government or he is a potted plant whose presence and function is tolerated by the government. There are no two ways about it - and the law minister and the Ministry of Law has weighed in his legal interpretation that the president is as good as a potted plant. Or a merlion mascot.

The President is guardian of nothing

Once the elected president was the guardian of the reserves of Singapore. Then the constitution was changed so that the president is the guardian of only the current reserves. In one fell swoop, the government negated the meaning of the presidency - though the citizens of Singapore and even the candidates for its 4th election/selection seem unaware.

As 'defined' by the constitution, the current reserves is whatever the sitting government of the day has put in and the past reserves is whatever the government put in the previous parliamentary sessions. Even though the reserves are in fact the earnings of all Singaporeans, the president is only allowed to safeguard, have power and cognizance over the 'past reserves'.

That is all and well if you assume that 'reserves' are money that are locked up safely in a bank. They are not. A large part of our past reserves are in the form of physical assets (like state land) and investments (like shares bought by GIC). Yet investment income and interest is treated as current income, and so are proceeds from sales of land.

In practice, the distinction between past reserves and current reserves is a weak and manufactured one. Need to sell land to keep up or push down property prices? GIC sells off its stake in a bank? You just helped to convert past reserves to current reserves and now the president is guardian of less before the sale.

What does it matter that a president is not guardian of the current reserves? One can imagine a scenario where a rogue government comes into power tomorrow. Why should it rob the entire reserves, killing the goose that laid the golden egg? Why not use the current reserves to ensure that every 5 years come election time, it'll have a private war chest of pork barrel projects to throw at voters? While in between elections, its MPs vote themselves comfortable a pay raise that it will no doubt find some stupid reason to justify? Why should we even assume this isn't already done by the ruling PAP?

My friends, the president is either guardian of all the reserves or he is guardian of nothing. I would have endorsed any candidate who would fight for this in his election platform. No candidate has!

07 August 2011

Bringing the gavel down on Workers Party I

MSN builds campaign against WP and Sylvia Lim

There is an unfolding situation over at Aljunied-Hougang Town Council. No doubt it's been angled ever so subtly by the government-owned media in Singapore as the B plot and convenient distraction to its presidential election due to take place on 27 August. Like a carefully plotted campaign, Singapore's news media is content to put its citizens on a drip on this story, calibrating the slow release of information that may build up to an implied allegation of mismanagement or corruption in the AHTC as well as the original HTC.

The reporters have the full story but they will not release all of it, not all at once - even though they have the fullest access to the information for a long time. Their cynical exercise may be rightly dismissed as a ploy but what if the story does have legs?

Non-transparency? Improper procedures? Or something far worse?

Consider this: Almost immediately after winning the ward of Aljunied, the Workers Party's town council HATC employed a new managing agent without a tender. The managing agent is FM Solutions (FMSS).

What is even more peculiar is how Ms Sylvia Lim, the incoming MP for Aljunied and concurrently the chairman of AHTC and HTC before that, defends this decision. She alleges "the decision to award FMSS the contract without calling for a tender was due to the deadline set by the Ministry of National Development".

That's bizarre logic there, Sherlock! If there's a deadline that the town council can't meet, the most obvious thing to do is to retain the old managing agent temporarily for a year - not replacing the incumbent with a new managing agent!

We see no logic for WP to claim grounds for its extraordinary measures. During the last election, the Aljunied ward had the least amount of redrawing. We do not hear of other town councils having to enact such measures despite their greater turmoil and reorganisation.

What's even more bizarre is how the managing agent was formed and registered with ACRA only just - on 15 May 2011, to be precise. Yes, AHTC terminated the ongoing incumbent whose contract was still in existence so they could hire a managing agent that is literally brand new. According to ACRA reports, this entity was formed not long before the elections with a paid up capital of $500,000 for the expressed sole purpose of providing town council services.

Let's say anyone with access to competent polling would have known Aljunied would fall to the Workers Party. Let's say someone is enterprising enough to do pre-emptively sink half a million to form a company whose sole business activity is "town councils" to bid for the managing agent position with the new Aljunied Town Council. And hire 77 people on short notice. But that doesn't really make sense unless they're very certain they'd get the contract. And it makes even less sense if FMSS was formed just to contest for the sole tender of AHTC.

None of us would believe that a newly established, costly venture will be content to get a one year contract by the back door. For all intents and purposes, FMSS will be awarded the full contract next year by the AHTC and hence help the press build up its allegations of procurement corruption.

One director, five directors, how many key directors?

Now Sylvia assures us that its managing agent's "key directors have been in the field for an average of 20 years". I don't know what this sentence means. No one can know what it means because it means nothing. It's nonsense, gobbledegook, balderdash. Here, I'll hold your hand in this exercise.

What is an "average" and why is it a meaningful number? An average is the sum total of the attributes of all the units divided by the total number of units there are.

The statement "FMSS's directors have been in the field for an average of 20 years" would make sense in this case. But to say that its key directors (i.e. not all directors) have an average of 20 years tells you exactly nothing. It's an intellectually dishonest and cynical statement. It's intellectually dishonest because an average of a subset of a population says nothing about the population, and cynical because legally speaking, all the directors of a company are jointly accountable - key directors or otherwise.

FMSS has 6 directors in total. Which are its "key directors"? What is the average experience of all the directors in FMSS? These are questions we want answered!

Of course ACRA has all this on record. You'll also notice how FMSS suddenly increased from its original sole director, Mr Danny Loh Chong Meng, registering 4 more directors hurriedly on 16 June just after the press started reporting on WP town councils. Who are these mysterious men? Are they normal directors or key directors? Where did they work previously and how much experience do they have in town council management?

Of interest to us is of the 4 new directors found their way into FMSS, a certain How Weng Fan also happens to be a former secretary of HTC, the direct precursor of AHTC. Is this not already a conflict of interest? When did How Weng Fan stop being a secretary of HTC? Was that before or after the formation of FMSS? How many other directors of FMSS have rendered services for HTC in the past? How many of them have rendered exclusive services for HTC?

Now you see why the news media is preparing the ground with the initial charge of non-transparent procedure in the Workers Party's management of the Aljunied-Hougang town council? It's so it can lead to the eventual allegation of corruption in public procurement.

Love me tender, WP

In fact, Sylvia's logic is even more warped if you take into account the fact that AHTC did have the time anyway to call for a tender for four other contracts on 17 June, barely weeks after winning the ward. And again, it made this decision over the option of holding on to its existing contractors temporarily for a year. Yes, AHTC had so little time that it found the time to call for a tender for everything but a managing agent in this Classifieds ad.

It has so little time that the tender period from announcement to closing date is just 2 weeks - a quickie compared to PAP-held town council project tenders, which are normally 3 weeks to 1 month.

To town council service providers and managers, this should set off alarm bells. Players in the town council services industry need at least 3 weeks to compete competently for a tender because of the time frames involved to get the necessary documentation, certificates, and licenses from the Building and Construction Authority.

In a more bizarre note, the AHTC tender insists on a "pay first" scheme. Ordinarily (i.e. how PAP town councils do things), interested contractors attend the tender briefing to get an idea of the scope of work, the coverage and condition of the town council's area. Then if they feel they are up for it and are still interested, they'll pay the money for the tender documents.

In contrast, AHTC demands that interested contractors pay first to attend the tender briefing. Under what circumstances would any contractor take part in this ridiculous process? Your guess is as good as mine, dear readers.

If we assume procurement corruption, AHTC's shortened and backwards tender process will certainly benefit players who are certain they'll get the awards, i.e. players who have links to the town council. It would be interesting to note which companies won the tenders and who heads them. It would fit in with the same shortened and illogical awarding of the management agent contract to FMSS too.