Activists from the People’s Action Party (PAP) may soon find themselves facing criminal charges for breaking Singapore’s strict laws against election advertising. Under the Parliamentary Elections Act, campaigning may only begin after the candidates have been nominated and must end one day before the polls are conducted. No election has been called.
On Friday (Mar 13), residents in Aljunied GRC received pamphlets from PAP activists encouraging them to question Workers’ Party (WP) Members of Parliament regarding allegations of financial mismanagement and improper corporate governance. The WP team, led by Low Thia Khiang, had won Aljunied GRC in 2011 by an 11% margin—defeating the team led by then Minister for Foreign Affairs, George Yeo.
Titled “What You Should Ask WP’s Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council,” the flyer highlights the issues raised in the Auditor-General Office’s audit report of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC). Irregularities in AHPETC’s finances had been raised in previous years in response to audits. However, the PAP has only recently stepped up its criticism of the WP, both in Parliament and in the media, as it gears up for a general election that must be called by 2016. This pamphleteering represents its latest effort to call attention once again to alleged cronyism in the WP.
AHPETC audit report
The AGO’s audit report harshly criticised AHPETC for lapses in several areas but did not issue a definitive finding on whether public funds had been misused. Instead, it concluded that “until the weaknesses are addressed, there can be no assurance that AHPETC’s accounts are accurate and reliable, or that public funds are properly spent, accounted for and managed.”
To date, no criminal charges have been filed. However, despite several days of debate in Parliament, and no small amount of theatrics, the issue remains unresolved. The PAP has found a golden opportunity to win back voters in Aljunied GRC and it has tried to milk the issue for all its worth, even in the midst of the budget debate, and perhaps also in ways that may be illegal.
Pamphlet alleges conflict of interest and overpaying
At the heart of the dispute is whether AHPETC has mismanaged taxpayers’ monies by, in effect, awarding the contract to and overpaying themselves. The flyer distributed by PAP activists repeats the claim that AHPETC “overpaid its friends at FMSS by at least S$6.4million.”
Chairman of AHPETC, Sylvia Lim, had previously responded to these allegations. She pointed out that a tender and contracts committee consisting of Members of Parliament and appointed councillors was in charge of awarding these contracts, not the town council’s managing agent. She also said that the higher fees were the result of calculation errors; and because FMSS, unlike the firms that service PAP constituencies, to which it is being compared, does not have the same economies of scale.
Reiterating the same condemnations by PAP MPs, the flyer writes, “This is our ‘lost money’. It means we have less money to clean and maintain our estate.” The flyer inaccurately claims that the WP has “deliberately remained silent” to queries posed by auditors and in Parliament. It then urges residents to raise these questions again.
For example, it suggests that residents should ask, “Why did AHPETC allow the husband and wife team to verify and approve payment on work done by FMSS which is owned by them?” No mention is made of AHPETC’s answers to these questions that can be found in Appendices A and C of the AGO’s report.
In Appendix A, they write, “It is the norm/common practice to have management personnel of Managing Agents hold key positions in the TCs they manage.” The Online Citizen has pointed out that arrangements like these could be found in Aljunied (then under the PAP) and Jurong town councils in 2011. Minister of National Development, Khaw Boon Wan, even stated that such arrangements were not illegal. In Appendix C, AHPETC also details the measures they took to safeguard against potential conflicts of interest.
Pamphlet may be illegal election advertising
PAP Paya Lebar branch chairman K Muralidharan claims that the pamphlets were distributed by PAP activists as a “ground-up” initiative. It is unclear at this point of time whether that means these efforts had the approval of the party’s leadership. Whatever the case, Muralidharan has stated that “there was no difficulty in understanding that (the flyer) was from the PAP,” indicating that the activists were acting in their official capacity as party members.
These pamphlets thus qualify as election advertising under the definition set out in the Parliamentary Elections Act, Part I, Section 2:
“election advertising” means any poster, banner, notice, circular, handbill, illustration, article, advertisement or other material that can reasonably be regarded as intended —
(a) to promote or procure the electoral success at any election for one or more identifiable political parties, candidates or groups of candidates; or
(b) to otherwise enhance the standing of any such political parties, candidates or groups of candidates with the electorate in connection with any election,
and such material shall be election advertising even though it can reasonably be regarded as intended to achieve any other purpose as well and even though it does not expressly mention the name of any political party or candidate, but excludes any button, badge, pen, pencil, balloon and any other thing prescribed by the Minister by notification in the Gazette; [emphasis mine]
This may be illegal. Under the Act, political campaigning may only be carried out within the campaign period, between nomination day and one day before polling day. Furthermore, the content of any material that is published must be disclosed to the returning officer.
“Low blow. Despicable. Shameless.”
Whether or not it is illegal, many Singaporeans have found it utterly distasteful. Kana Gopal commented on Facebook, “Continue doing this PAP and more Aljunied voters will vote in WP at the next elections.” Despite the story being posted at close to midnight, Gopal’s comment has already received over a hundred likes.
Having dominated the political scene for half a century, the PAP had for a long time encouraged Singaporeans to view fervent political activism negatively, mainly because its opponents had always been the ones who had to fight tooth and nail to get a seat in Parliament. However, since the release of the AHPETC report, they have become the most strident voices of criticism — an irony that is not easily lost on Singaporeans such as Ciestera Michael who wrote, “The more u wana stir, the more i’ll support the opposition. Any party, i dont care.”
Others like Swee Heng are happy to see the PAP press the issue, “If WP has nothing to hide, why can’t it simply answer the questions? Don’t answer to Parliament. Don’t answer to residents. Then WP is answerable to no one.”
Although opinions remain divided on the issue of AHPETC’s mismanagement, the PAP’s strategy of capitalising on it has slowly begun to backfire as most people have begun to see it as a big bully—one that has become more concerned with scoring points with the electorate by taking cheap shots at the opposition rather than fixing pressing problems.
Joshua Tan writes, “Signs of desperation? How about spending the resources to fix the broken transport rail system first. Just think of all the productive hours lost by everyone by the numerous delays. That would bring you more votes.”
After the release of the AGO’s audit report, it was no pretty sight — a parliament full of PAP MPs questioning a few opposition MPs for two straight days. Now that issues of national importance such as the recent increase in train breakdowns have come under the spotlight, the PAP’s continued focus on AHPETC — which is essentially a municipal issue that has already been debated extensively — may prove to be politically costly.
The Facebook commenters with a feel for public sentiment have already weighed in. As Au Kah Kay writes, “The more PAP activists do such shameless things like this, the more petty and insecure they are being portrayed to be and the more likely Aljunied GRC voters are likely to vote for WP. Isn’t 2 full days of Parliament debate devoted to this issue enough?” Or more succinctly, “Low blow. Despicable. Shameless,” says Robert Yong. These were the sixth and seventh most-liked comments respectively.
Whatever the merits of its case, the PAP is unlikely to win more supporters than it loses with its latest antic. This may be further proof that the PAP has yet to learn its lesson from the humiliating outcome in the 2011 General Election —it remains out of touch with popular sentiment on the ground. Perhaps it’s time the PAP had party leaders from humbler backgrounds, people who can connect with average Singaporeans. Taking public transport everyday like the rest of the steerage and getting rid of those obscene monthly pay checks would be good starts. Who knows, the PAP might even start attracting the right crowd into its ranks if it lowered ministerial salaries.
Writer’s note: Several people have taken issue with my claim that the pamphlets may constitute an illegal form of election advertising. One of them has pointed out that the SDP and other opposition parties regularly send out newsletters too. However, I see no other way to read the Parliamentary Elections Act. In it, election advertising is specifically defined and I would argue that the pamphlets count as election advertising (see above). The Act also restricts the campaign period to a set number of days, outside of which election advertising is not permitted. Although the law does not explicitly state that election advertising is not allowed before nomination day, I would argue that the intent of the law is to define when election advertising is permissible, not to define when it is not–i.e. the law only says when you can engage in election advertising, and not when you can’t. This then means that if you are outside of the campaign period, you can’t conduct election advertising. I would be happy for someone with legal training to point out any errors in my reading of the law.
Another issue that several people have pointed out is the PAP’s double standard. A few years ago, they tried to bring criminal charges against anti-PAP pamphleteers for sedition. They obviously won’t bring charges against themselves in this case, especially since it makes no sense to claim that you are committing sedition against yourself, the Government–sedition being an attempt “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government.”