Singapore’s first town councils

by Lim, Tin Seng

Ang Mo Kio West, East and South are Singapore’s first town councils. They were set up on 1 September 1986 as a pilot project for the town council concept.1 The town council concept was put forward by members of parliament (MPs) Lim Boon Heng, S. Chandra Das and S. Vasoo in December 1984.2 Its objective was to change the way housing estates were managed by giving residents a greater say in the management of housing estates.3

Before town councils
Prior to the introduction of town councils, housing estates were managed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Although the HDB was successful in providing housing for the Singapore population, the standardised rules that were set for all housing estates made HDB towns monotonous.4 By managing housing estates centrally, the HDB was slow in reaching decisions to fix problems faced by residents and addressing their complaints. The HDB’s top-down approach to estate management also did not develop a sense of shared responsibility among residents.5 It was against this backdrop that the town council concept was introduced.

The town council concept aimed to improve the management of housing estates and allow each town to develop a distinctive character by turning over the day-to-day running of estates to the residents.6 The bottom-up approach could also turn HDB estates into a place where shared responsibility could be cultivated. A greater sense of responsibility in residents could also enhance their sense of belonging and pride in their immediate surroundings.7

Pilot project in Ang Mo Kio
To test out the concept, three pilot town councils were set up, namely Ang Mo Kio West, East and South on 1 September 1986.8 Each town council, comprising three constituencies each, was headed by three MPs, with one serving as chairperson.9 The chairperson then appointed a team of councillors to assist the MPs. These councillors were mainly leaders from grassroots bodies in the constituencies such as residents’ committee (RC) and citizens’ consultative committee (CCC).10

The pilot town councils were responsible for the upkeep and management of the constituencies under their purview.11 Some of the works carried out by the three town councils during the trial period included installing ceiling fans at hawker centres, replacing footpaths and creating more parking spaces in the housing estates.12 The councils also initiated landscaping projects such as paintings at void decks and shrub plantings to liven up the surroundings, and to give distinctive features to the neighbourhoods.13 The town councils were also involved in organising community-related activities such as exhibitions and campaigns to promote social responsibility and neighbourliness among residents.14

To carry out these projects, the pilot town councils were responsible for the allocation of their limited funds in ways that would maximise the benefits for all residents in their estates.15 When the councils were first set up, they were only allowed to tap funds from the service and conservancy charges they collected from residents, as well as the grants and operational fees provided by the HDB.16 Following the successful pilot projects in Ang Mo Kio, the government passed the Town Council Act in 1988 to pave the way for the full implementation of the town council concept throughout Singapore.17

Lim Tin Seng

1. Augustine Low, “Town Councils Take over from HDB,” Straits Times, 1 September 1986, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Tommy Koh et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 568. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
3. Low, “Town Councils Take over from HDB.” 
4. Irene Ngoo et al., “My Kind of Town,” Straits Times, 7 April 1987, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Ngoo et al., “My Kind of Town.” 
6. Ngoo et al., “My Kind of Town.” 
7. Low, “Town Councils Take over from HDB.” 
8. Irene Ngoo and Augustine Low, “Ang Mo Kio to Have 3 Town Councils Next Month,” Straits Times, 13 August 1986, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “What Are Town Councils?” Straits Times, 1 July 1986, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Low, “Town Councils Take over from HDB.” 
11. “Town Council Soon?” Straits Times, 18 March 1986, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “What the Three Pilot Councils Have Done,” Straits Times, 10 February 1987, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Andrew Tan, “Come Beautify Your Estate,” Straits Times, 8 April 1988, 23;  Things That Have Improved Life in Ang Mo Kio,” Straits Times, 1 July 1988, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Three Pilot Councils.”
15. “How The Town Councils Will Work,” Straits Times, 29 June 1988, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Cephah Tan, “Pilot Town Councils Report First-Year Surplus,” Straits Times, 21 August 1987, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 568.

The information in this article is valid as of 10 June 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Politics and Government