Friday, June 07, 2013

Beyond the Smokescreen: NEA-Hawkers-WP AHPeTC Saga

The peculiar timing of this NEA-Hawkers-WP AHPeTC saga right after the AIM-FMSS issue has definitely given rise to suspicion that it is politically motivated attack on WP's core competency in Town Council management.

But this is politics and PAP has no qualms in making it known that Town Council management IS POLITICAL! This has been done right from the start when the Town Council system has been enacted way back in the late 1980s.

Singaporeans, especially those who are too young to understand how Town Council system comes about, should do some research and not bear any delusions about it. Thus for all opposition parties from then till now, are always very careful in managing the Town Councils because it is potentially where PAP's fixing will come.

But past history has shown that if opposition parties run their Town Councils properly, even PAP can't fix you that easily.  The only thing they could do is to deprive your town all those upgrading.

The latest saga is slightly different here. PAP has used a different technique here. Hawkers are on the frontline while NEA is the support fire base. It started with an "innocent looking" report on a dispute between hawkers and AHPeTC, the Town Council run by Workers Party. Information reported on Straits Time is incomplete and sketchy. I suspect that information has been kept minimum for strategic purpose.

Sure enough we have prompt response from AHPeTC staff and the various statements start to shoot from all sides: NEA, Hawkers and WP MPs.

Many people are pretty confused what the whole saga is about. Worse, some people, in their eagerness to defend their political party, has dealt into misinformation and even WP MP Pritam was totally confused in NEA's accusation when he tried to reply.

The following are some simple facts gathered from press statements and news reports so far:

1) Hawkers claim they were asked to pay for the scaffolding during the March cleaning.

2) When they refused to pay, the contractor just did general cleaning without cleaning the ceiling. Instead of cleaning for the scheduled 5 days, they only cleaned for 1 day.

3) NEA stepped in and reminded that it is the responsibility of TC to clean the ceiling AT LEAST ONCE A YEAR without additional cost to hawkers.

4) AHPeTC claimed that they did not ask for extra cost and it was NEA which sent them an email to state that hawkers would arrange for the erection and dismantle of scaffolding

5) Hawkers disputed and said that Mr Tai, the property manager from AHPeTC has approached them to pay extra for the scaffolding.

6) NEA put up a statement to say that the hawkers have actually sent a letter to their WP MP to complain about the extra charges on 8 May.

7) WP Pritam put up statements to reiterate that they have followed the regulation and had cleaned the ceiling back in 2012. However, he made an error because what NEA said was that the AHPeTC did not pay for the scaffolding in its cleaning in 2012, not that they did not clean the ceiling.

8) It was further revealed that the contractor ATL has put up a quotation for scaffolding to the hawkers which they rejected and referred it to AHPeTC.

9) AHPeTC rebutted that it was the hawkers who ask for the quotation for the scaffoldng from ATL.

10) NEA further claimed that the quotation to WP AHPeTC by ATL include all equipment and scaffolding for the cleaning.

 11) WP AHPeTC has insisted that it will only meet up with NEA officials instead with hawkers and that is why NEA didn't want to attend the first meeting. 

There are reasons to believe that there are lies being told here, the question is who lied? There are contradictions all over the place.

When I first read about this news, my first thought is, how come the contractor did not provide the necessary equipment like scaffolding to do the cleaning? Why would they expect hawkers to pay and provide the scaffolding?

I guess this is basically why NEA has reiterated that it is the Town Council's responsibility to provide the scaffolding. The Town Council has acknowledged that responsibility and they keep saying they didn't ask the hawkers for extra charges. However, the puzzling thing is that since the hawkers have already sent their complain letter to their WP MP, why didn't the Town Council act on that? If Mr. Tai is not the "authorized personnel" from Town Council, why did he attend the 6 June meeting?

Even though Mr Tai was said to have communicated about this extra charges on scaffolding, AHPeTC still insisted that it did not know about the dealings between its contractor and ATL and the hawkers. It becomes the words of hawkers against ATL.

What I am interested to know are the following:

1) Does the contract given to AHPeTC contractor include the clause on providing the necessary equipment and scaffolding?

2) If the Contract contains that clause, why would AHPeTC expect the hawkers to pay for the scaffolding when NEA emailed them to say hawkers will make necessary arrangement to erect and dismantle the scaffolding?

3) Can AHPeTC list out on which cleaning session in the past years did AHPeTC or its contractor had paid for the scaffolding?

4) AHPeTC apparently knew or expected that the Hawkers were to pay for the scaffolding. Did they stop them from paying as this was already included in its contract to its contractor ATL?

5) When ATL only did the general cleaning without cleaning the ceiling, why didn't AHPeTC take its contractor to task as its contract included the scaffolding?

6) Did AHPeTC take the guideline of "cleaning AT LEAST ONCE" as "cleaning only once"? This is apparently the attitude or position that Pritam has demonstrated in his two statements.

7) If that is so, has AHPeTC communicated such arrangement to the hawkers officially?

8) Did AHPeTC expect the hawkers to pay for scaffolding for all but one cleaning session in the whole year?

Although AHPeTC keeps saying that they have not asked hawkers to pay extra for cleaning the ceiling but so far, AHPeTC has not put up any example or cleaning sessions that they have paid for the scaffolding, instead of hawkers paying for that.

The only "plausible defence" WP AHPeTC has put up is that NEA has emailed them to say hawkers will arrange for erection and dismantling of scaffolding. It may seem to be a good point but upon closer inspection, it doesn't make sense at all. If there is a basic understanding that hawkers are not required to pay for anything extra, including the scaffolding, why should WP AHPeTC assumed that the hawkers will pay for it? A parallel can be drawn for an employee who agrees to make arrangement for food catering for company function, would anyone assumes that he will be paying for the food? Of course not! The Company would be expected to pay for it as the employee is just helping to coordinate with the arrangement! Thus, it is a total mystery why WP AHPeTC would come to that conclusion. 

Another mystery points to what really happen to the letter of complaint sent to WP MP with regards to Mr Tai asking hawkers to pay for scaffolding. Has it been ignored totally?

The biggest mystery is why WP AHPeTC refused to have direct communication with the hawkers after the issue has been reported. If this issue is just a matter of "miscommunication" as reported, then what it needs is to improve its communications with the hawkers! It is counter-intuitive for WP AHPeTC to leave out its DIRECT CLIENTS out of the meeting or communication system!

What WP and its AHPeTC have done so far was beating around the bushes without giving any concrete facts to prove that AHPeTC has indeed paid for scaffolding in past cleaning sessions. WP may keep insisting that it has not asked hawkers to pay extra but it is not clear whether it has closed both eyes for its contractor to ask the hawkers to pay extra for the scaffolding. It should know that the contractor has contractual obligations to supply the scaffolding. It is thus a mystery why it didn't stop the hawkers to pay for something which has already been contractually included for its own contractor.

While WP has issued a defensive press statement about NEA playing politics that may have certain merits but playing victim to the whole saga will only score some brownie points which may not woo the middle ground voters. Such political rhetoric is unhelpful for voters to understand what has really happened. 

WP Sylvia Lim has stated in her Press Statement that her party will work towards the benefits and welfare of residents and stallholders. I do not see how leaving its clients, i.e. hawkers out of communication would be beneficial to anybody. I also cannot understand how it could be beneficial to the hawkers when WP just closed its eyes, shut its mouth and making assumptions when it is apparent that the hawkers did not need to pay for the scaffolding as it was included in the contract to ATL Maintenance.

What is more telling is that although ATL Maintenance knows about its contractual obligations in providing the scaffolding, it has kept quiet about it and happily quoted the hawkers the price of putting up the scaffolding!

All finer details have pointed to some bigger problem if we look beyond those smokescreen and political rhetoric from both sides. Unfortunately I would say that integrity is somehow lacking somewhere but I am not a bit surprised at all.

What appears to be a storm in a cup has blown out of proportions. This issue would not have developed to this stage if proper media management and common sense have been put in place. If WP really believed in its rhetoric about not asking hawkers to pay extra for cleaning, then if there is such complaint being made, the first response should apologize for the non-delivery of service (wasted 4 days of income plus cost) and promise to investigate. It should send representatives to communicate directly with hawkers and find out more of the problems. That may be the end of the problem instead allowing the issue to snowball.

For whatever reasons that the hawker centre has not been thoroughly clean, the hawkers will naturally be angry. Apparently WP AHPeTC lacks the empathy to understand such frustration of hawkers in losing income plus cost for nothing. It has unwittingly to take every criticism or attack at its service as "politically motivated" and thus put up defensive postures since day one. Even if this is a politically motivated incident, one should not loose his sense of balance and reasoning when managing such issues which involve public interests. Such "SMART ALEC" mentality will and has done more harm than good to its overall image.

Goh Meng Seng

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