Monday, May 23, 2011

A Litmus Test of Public Accountability

The case of the murdered Indonesian maid whose body was dumped into a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat rooftop water tank in Woodlands has raised the ire of residents due to the apparent lack of accountability on the part of the Sembawang Town Council.
With the 2011 general elections still fresh on everyone’s mind, it was no surprise that the residents who were directly affected by the contamination of their water supply have gone to the extreme of petitioning for the resignation of the management of the Town Council for the shocking lapse.
Essentially, the unhappy residents want the Town Council to not only admit culpability for the lapse but also do the honorable thing of stepping down as a sign of their humility for failing in their task.
This comes as no surprise given the current political climate; a climate borne out the 2011 general elections which saw the People’s Action Party (PAP) being on the defensive for the first time in its 52-year rule.
For it was in this election that the people saw no less than the Prime Minister stepping up to apologize for the mistakes of his government, that the people chose to put their trust in the opposition which resulted in the PAP losing a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) along with two Ministers and a potential Speaker of Parliament, that the PAP was humbled into promising to serve the people better.
The fall out from the elections also saw the retirement of five Cabinet members – Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan and Transport Minister Raymond Lim – followed by the reshuffling of almost the entire Cabinet with 11 out of the 14 ministries getting new heads, and the formation of a committee to review ministerial salaries.
Some gains appear to have been made, at least at the national level, in the interest of Singapore and Singaporeans. Some level of appeasement seems to have been achieved, at least for now, but only time will tell if the PAP truly follows through of what is has said or whether this is will just turn out to be political rhetoric by the time the next elections are upon us in 2016.
The Woodlands water tank case, however, is set to test the ruling PAP’s relationship with citizens at the municipal level, and Sembawang GRC via the proxy of the Sembawang Town Council will be the litmus test of the PAP’s promise to serve the people responsibly and humbly and ‘put right what is wrong’.
Looking beyond the grossness of unknowingly drinking and bathing in water from a tank that had been used to hide dead body, residents from the affected block in Woodlands zoomed in on the ineptitude of the town council in relation to how they handled the matter.
Many residents were upset with the Town Council for not immediately informing them to stop using and consuming the water upon the discovery of the body in the morning. Although the water supply had been cut off an hour after the discovery, the lack of transparency meant that some residents had continued to use residual water from the tank into the late afternoon.
And even though it was a matter under police investigation, residents felt that the Town Council should have told them more instead of leaving them in the dark.
Not surprisingly, the residents were in no mood for the quickly cobbled together apology from the Town Council, which claimed that it had been an oversight on their part and that they did not think about the residual water in the pipe system. I wouldn’t have accepted such an apology if it happened to me.
So far, the residents’ petition for the resignation of the Town Council management has only been met with an apology and a $10 rebate on their next utility bill as compensation for their misfortune.
If the apology and $10 rebate is all that is forthcoming, residents are really getting the short end of the stick and the people who are responsible for managing our towns are getting off lightly.
Taking the government’s argument that water is a strategic and vital resource, should the lax attitude in relation to the security of our residential water supply not be dealt with seriously? Should we not be concerned over the ease of access that maintenance workers have to vital installations such as our water supply? Should we not insist on a thorough review of how all our Town Councils are managing the work of their contractors?
In one fell swoop, the incident under the Sembawang Town Council’s watch has brought to bear a number of issues (I shall just highlight three) that should be in the government’s sights: community relations, town council-contractor relations and national security.
Community relations-wise, the elected representatives of Sembawang GRC and the Town Council failed for not being immediately more forthcoming with affected residents.
For all the claims that PAP had made about it extensive grassroots network, why was it not mobilized to work hand-in-hand with the Town Council to communicate the news and also to provide an alternative water supply for the affected residents. I would imagine that the PAP would have scored points with the people if it had made efforts to provide a water truck for the residents while their water supply was shut for the flushing and cleaning of their rooftop water tank.
The Town Council failed for not looking beyond the obvious and for not being upfront with residents. If it had been more forthcoming, it would not now be faced with the loss of confidence from the affected residents.
Secondly, this case has also brought into sharp relief the relations that exist between town councils and their contractors, and a key question that is on many minds is whether the town councils are too lax with entrusting the keys to access to vital installations like water supply tanks to their contractors.
Is it a common practice among town councils to allow maintenance workers to keep keys that rightfully should be held by their supervisors and returned upon completion of task? If the answer is no, then the Woodlands case is damning evidence of mismanagement by the Sembawang Town Council and as rightly demanded by the residents, they should step down. If the answer is yes, it raises serious questions about the level of security and vigilance practiced by our town councils.
Thirdly, I shudder to think that a sense of complacency appears to have settled upon the people who are charged with the duty to manage our towns, a complacency that makes our homes vulnerable to those who may have nefarious intentions.
Given that acts of mischief had been perpetrated on our HDB water supply tanks before – albeit by children – the lack of proper security measures to ensure the safety and cleanliness of our water supply simply smacks of irresponsibility.
If anecdotal evidence from residents is anything to go by, the lack of proper security meant that the maintenance workers, at its most benign, used the rooftop water tank room as their private place to have trysts with women, and may have used the water tank as their own private bath. At its worst, the water tank room has become a murder scene and the water tank a place to hide the body.
There certainly is quite a bit of wrong that needs to be put right, and for the residents who were directly affected, no amount of compensation is going to wash away the stain or the bad taste that this incident has left in their mouth.
And nothing short of full accountability is going to satisfy those who were affected.
Even then, the memory of it all will probably never go away.

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