Not just a case of parking fees, but of double-standards leading to erosion of trust

The news that Members of Parliament (MPs) receive what appears to be special and cheaper car parking rates have caused an uproar online.

The revelation on 26 June follows the news weeks earlier of the Ministry of Education decreeing that teachers would also have to pay for parking, at market rates, in school premises, ending a longstanding practice of free parking for educators.

Many have compared the parking rates for the two groups – teachers paying $960 per year for a sheltered lot, while MPs pay only $365. The MND said the rate “is a proportion of the prevailing HDB season parking rate… because MPs do not park overnight or full day at their constituencies.”

MPs are given a special permit to park in Parliament House, ministries, government agencies and HDB estates.

The MOE’s decision to require teachers to pay for parking was made after the Auditor General’s Office found in an audit that schools were letting teachers park for free in school compounds, and it said this was against the Civil Service’s “clean wage” policy.

The policy is to ensure that salaries are “all-in”, and that there are no hidden perks or privileges.

The AGO said teachers parking for free amounted to a “taxable benefit”.

Both opposition MPs and MPs from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), along with letters to the press, had urged the authorities not to charge teachers for parking, arguing that there ought to be recognition of the contribution of educators who often give from their own pockets to their students and in the course of their work.

The Minister for Education, Ong Ye Kung, however, insisted that it was necessary for the MOE to abide by the findings and recommendations of the AGO. He said that this was a matter of “self discipline” within the government.

The incident led to questions of whether MPs themselves paid for parking when carrying out their work such as attending parliamentary sittings and doing constituency work, or other official business.

Parliament and ministries give contradictory answers

The Straits Times attempted to find out the answers to these questions.

On 3 June, it reported the clerk of Parliament as having clarified that all MPs do not pay for parking.

The Straits Times’ Chua Mui Hoong reported:

Is it true that they get to park for free at Parliament House?

Intrigued, I asked the Clerk of Parliament. Answer: Yes.

MPs – elected MPs as well as Non-Constituency and Nominated MPs – get to park at the restricted staff carpark at Parliament House, which is not open to the public, but only for staff, and authorised visitors and persons.

Staff pay $139.10 for a monthly season parking ticket. Like other civil servants, they pay for parking at their work premises.

In contrast, MPs park for free. The rationale is this: “Members of Parliament (MPs) do not have offices in Parliament House and do not require full-time parking here. As authorised persons to Parliament House on sitting days or when they are here for meetings to perform their official duties, MPs park their vehicles at the restricted carpark at no charge.”

It would therefore appear that the mystery was solved. But no. Later on the same day, the Minister of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), Grace Fu, wrote to the Straits Times to say that in fact elected MPs do pay for parking.

However, Ms Fu, writing in her capacity as Leader of the House, was rather curiously vague in her letter.

She wrote (emphasis mine):

Elected MPs who drive pay for an annual permit that allows them to park in Housing Board carparks, in order to do their constituency work.

“This payment, which Parliament deducts from the MPs’ allowances, is deemed to cover the occasions when they park at Parliament House to fulfil their duties.”

She added:

“Political office holders, like civil servants, also pay for parking at their ministries and agencies.

“This payment generally covers the occasions when they visit other ministries and agencies on official business; and if they have to pay for public or commercial carparks in the vicinity, they are reimbursed.”

There are a few observations to be made about Ms Fu’s letter:

  1. It contradicts what the clerk of Parliament had said. Ms Fu did not explain why this is so. Who, in fact, is correct?
  2. It is puzzling why Ms Fu chose to use the term “is deemed”, rather than to outright say MPs do pay for parking and provide the schedule of the charges or fees. The word “deemed” would be akin to “supposed” or “presumed”, rather than one representing certainty. In other words, it appears that Ms Fu herself was unsure if MPs indeed do pay for parking, or whether Parliament in fact deducts their charges from their MP honorariums.
  3. Ms Fu reveals that MPs are also “reimbursed” if they parked at car parks within the vicinity of the ministries and government agencies they are visiting. She, however, did not disclose what the conditions for this reimbursement are.
  4. Ms Fu did not disclose the parking rate of $365 which MPs pay as annual fees.
  5. Ms Fu’s letter only refers to elected MPs. What about NMPs and NCMPs? How are they charged for parking in Parliament? Are the rates fair to them? We do not know.

MND is the one to release the bombshell

Following the attempted clarifications from the clerk of Parliament and Ms Fu, the MND disclosed that MPs pay only $365 per year as parking fees.

This, as earlier mentioned, is because MPs do not park overnight or full day at their work place.

It was a bombshell which caused further uproar.

What should have been a simple matter of clarification thus turned into an unnecessary fiasco, with what appears to be wrong and incomplete information being given, obfuscation, and double standards applied to teachers (and the general public), and MPs.

Teachers pay $960, the public pay $1,440, while MPs pay a mere $365.

However one tries to spin the $365 into an argument that it is a reasonable rate because MPs only spend a limited time at the place they visit, the fact of the matter is that they could and should be charged as everyone else is – pay as you park, by the half-hour, as is the common practice.

Why should MPs get such special treatment – pay a flat annual rate (and a ridiculously low one at that), and be allowed to park virtually anywhere in Singapore?

Does this not constitute a hidden perk, or as the AGO said in the case of the teachers, “hidden subsidies” which are against the civil service’s clean wage policy?

Where is the self-discipline? Ownself check ownself again?

And where is this “self discipline” which the Education Minister spoke of? Isn’t it the height of irony, and of hypocrisy, that the Education Minister himself receive special parking rates while he decrees that teachers pay normal, market rates?

How would he explain this to teachers? How does he have the moral authority to do so with a straight face?

His boast that requiring teachers to pay for parking is a matter of “self discipline” is also, pardon my honesty, bogus.

It was the AGO which made the discovery of schools not charging teachers for parking and suggesting that schools should do so – it was not Mr Ong’s ministry which made the discovery or had by itself required teachers to pay up.

Again, it was the AGo which did so.

To then frame it the way he did – that it was a matter of “self discipline” – is quite misleading.

Where was this “self discipline” when it came to MPs’ parking? Did this “self discipline” dictate that MPs be given a special parking rate, and a ludicrously low rate?

Lessons

If there are any lessons to be learnt here by the authorities and those like Ms Fu and Mr Ong, it is this: don’t hide information, be upfront, speak plainly and don’t obfuscate with vague terms and bombastic boasts.

You should have revealed that MPs paid only $365 as annual parking fees, and not wait for another ministry to disclose this later on.

You should have been upfront and explain how MPs are “reimbursed” for their parking; and you should also explain how NMPs and NCMPs, who do not get a special parking permit as elected MPs, are charged for parking in Parliament House.

And certainly you yourself should adhere to the standards and rules you set for others – if others are not to receive hidden perks and special privileges, then you should not as well, especially when you are already handsomely paid.

Is it any wonder that some are calling you out for hypocrisy?

This entire episode is a sad reflection of exactly what PAP MP Seah Kian Peng said, in a speech imploring the government not to charge teachers for parking.

Mr Seah said to do so would be an “insult” to teachers.

For too long we’ve made decisions that is more on an economic compass, as if the use of one dollar is the moral equivalence of the loss of another. Sir, it is time we recongnise that money is merely a proxy for value. And at times, a very bad one.”

Unfortunately, Mr Seah’s sagely advice has apparently fallen on deaf ears.

While the MOE minister preached about “self discipline” and decreed teachers pay for parking at market rates, it has sadly turned out that he and his fellow MPs have been getting special parking rates all this while.

Mr Ong, as Education Minister, should lead by example and forego the special rates and pay like everyone else, or he should revoke his earlier decision and grant all teachers the same special rates which he receives.

Otherwise, such double standards cannot but lead to an erosion of trust between the government and the public.

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