Saturday, June 17, 2006

Transparency in upgrading policy needed.

An incisive letter arguing for the need for transparency in upgrading projects.

Reproduced here for my own record.


June 16, 2006
Extend transparency to lift upgrading by posting past and future upgradings on MND website

THE report on National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan's HDB lift upgrading policy ('Upgrading for all wards, but PAP first'; ST, June 11) reinforces the need for inherent checks and balances in government. In commerce and the professions, there are inherent checks and balances. What more of the serious business of government? Barring the unforeseen, Singaporeans will now have to live with a 82:2 parliamentary composition for up to five years.

As a Singaporean, I have been perturbed since 1997 by the People's Action Party's conditional upgrading of HDB estates pegged to electoral support for the PAP. I have no vested interest in this issue as I live in a residential district not near any HDB estate (so no spillover benefits) and I do not live in an HDB flat (so no direct benefits either). Hence, this letter is an appeal in the spirit of active citizenry.

Ideological agreement HDB lift upgrading is one area where all political parties are in perfect ideological agreement. Hence, this effectively demolishes the basis for the PAP (as the winning party forming the present government) to assert that a vote for the opposition means a vote against lift upgrading.

Party funds vs national funds Unlike the setting-up of PAP kindergartens using PAP party funds, lift upgrading does not use PAP party funds. If the PAP chooses to make upgrading a partisan issue it is perfectly acceptable, but the PAP must then use its party funds for such upgrading.

With widespread public housing ownership one of the tenets of our social legacy (the result of Singapore's societal evolution guided by the vision of our founding father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew), HDB upgrading is now a national issue tapping significantly the national budget. In fact, the scale of Singapore's public housing even pre-empts lift upgrading from being kept at a municipal level (which it should be), using municipal funds.

For better or worse, we are now locked into this national issue as a result of past government policy. But a national issue using national funds cannot continue to be bound into the future fortune of any one political party. What kind of dangerous precedent are we setting for Singapore?

Citizens of Hougang and Potong Pasir pay taxes Mr Mah said funds for lift upgrading come from national funds accumulated (or dissipated) by the effects of government policy. Government policy is driven by, among others, ministers and parliamentary secretaries whose salaries are paid by all Singaporeans (including those in Hougang and Potong Pasir) who are taxed directly and indirectly.

Last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said we must now all unite post-GE 2006. But Mr Mah's recent pronouncement is not only 'not unifying' but also 'reinforcing divisiveness'. It is a red herring to talk about 'being fair' or 'levelling the playing field' - it is only natural that the PAP as a political party will do its utmost to reinforce its own survival and strength. This is as it should be. Singaporeans were not born yesterday. However, let's be precise and publicly accountable to all Singaporeans in the use of national funds.

Missing 'people factor' in upgrading criteria Mr Mah said that the age and physical state of HDB estates are two of three objective yardsticks applied in upgrading prioritisation (the third is the PAP support criterion). Strangely enough, despite the PAP efforts of the past 15 years or so to project a more caring image, the 'people factor' is jarringly missing in the proclaimed objective yardsticks. If such a caring image is not to remain a mirage, the PAP must 'walk the talk' and include estate demographics as an additional objective yardstick in this upgrading prioritisation. Lifts are more essential for the infirm, the elderly and the disabled.

Call for transparency Mr Mah announced 2015 as the latest year when opposition wards will be upgraded based on the PAP's present upgrading prioritisation criteria. As Singaporeans, most of us share with the PAP a national pride in our largely transparent track record to date. Since the PAP made upgrading a major electoral issue, this same transparency must be extended to upgrading prioritisation.

The Ministry of National Development needs to emulate the efforts of the Ministry of Health and post on its website the following upgrading information in a matrix for, one, past upgradings (that is, from the time upgrading was first effected to date) and, two, future upgradings (that is, projects confirmed within the next 12 months and projected within the next 12 to 60 months subject to budget availability):

- Type of upgrading (for example, lifts, walkways)

- Location of upgrading (for example, Marine Parade blocks 123 to 128)

- For past upgradings: date and amount of national funds spent on each

- For future upgradings: projected date and amount of national funds to be spent on each

- Present criteria for each of upgrading (for example, Marine Parade blocks 123 to 128: age, physical state, PAP support)

- Add a new 'people factor' criterion for each of such upgrading (for example, Marine Parade blocks 123 to 128: number of residents aged 55 to 59, 60 to 64 and so on, and residents registered as disabled or chronically ill which can be easily culled from the MOH database)

This proposal is viable because the age of HDB estates is a fixed factor, the physical state of estates is generally stable as Singapore is not prone to natural disasters, and constituency demographics do not fluctuate wildly given that land usage is fairly intense.

The year 2015 is a long time away if you see an arthritic 70-year-old 'ah soh' struggling with pain, going down the stairs to make her way to the polyclinic because she lives in Hougang, even though she is a Singaporean and paid taxes in her younger working days and has contributed to Singapore's development in her own way.

Khoo Meng Kuan (Ms)

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