SINGAPORE: Parliament was "prematurely hijacked" to debate the recusal of Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang from financial matters at the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) before the court case was resolved, Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh said on Tuesday (Nov 5).
This was after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Tuesday introduced a motion calling on AHTC to require Ms Lim and Mr Low to “recuse themselves” from all financial matters related to the town council.
Parliament passed the motion after a vote saw 52 Members of Parliament support the motion and nine oppose it. There were two abstentions.
Mr Singh said that "natural justice" dictates that any question of a recusal from their roles at the town council must “surely” be considered after the court case is concluded.
“There is no reason for Parliament to be prematurely hijacked as a substitute for the judicial process when the window for appeal on the judgment has not closed,” he said during the debate before the vote.
This echoes what WP chairman Ms Lim said earlier, that the motion was “premature” and that it had not been decided as to whether any loss has been caused to AHTC.
She also said that she and and co-defendants Mr Singh and Mr Low will appeal against the judgment at the Court of Appeal.
On Oct 11, High Court Judge Kannan Ramesh found the three of them liable for the misuse of AHTC funds, adding that there is "serious doubt" about the integrity of Ms Lim and Mr Low.
Mr Singh pointed out that the plaintiffs in the case, an AHTC independent panel and Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council, might also appeal against the High Court judgment.
“This is because the plaintiffs did not succeed in many courses of action, some of which were either rejected or dismissed by the judge," he said. “That the judgment referred to in the motion is evidently a very live issue is stating the obvious.”
The WP chief called the timing of Mr Heng’s motion “highly unusual for a legal system that places an exacting premium on the rule of law as a defining characteristic of the country”.
“The window for appeal remains open and the PAP (People’s Action Party) must explain truthfully what is its motive in hurriedly filing this motion before the case is concluded,” he stated.
READ: Parliament passes motion calling for WP's Sylvia Lim, Low Thia Khiang to be recused from AHTC's financial affairs
Speaking before the vote, Mr Singh also said: “If Parliament passes the motion, the councillors of AHTC, not the Workers’ Party, will discuss the matter and vote on it.”
He added that Ms Lim and Mr Low will abstain from any potential vote on their recusal. If the council determines that a recusal is in order, he said Ms Lim and Mr Low will have to abide by the decision.
“That must be how the system works,” he added.
PAP GOVERNMENT "CLEARLY EXCITED"
Earlier, Ms Lim said the “PAP Government is clearly excited about certain findings and comments contained in the High Court judgment issued on Oct 11”. “And these are findings in relation to certain actions taken by some of us in the aftermath of the 2011 General Election,” she added.
But Ms Lim pointed out that Singapore has a "court structure" that enables parties who are aggrieved by High Court judgments to seek review of the findings by the Court of Appeal.
"The Court of Appeal … will review the findings at the trial and may affirm, reverse or vary the findings," she stated.
When Mr Heng clarified with Ms Lim whether she was saying that what was being discussed was subjudice, Ms Lim said that was not her “principal” objection. She reiterated that the motion was premature, given that there could still be appeal.
To that, Mr Heng said: "There are serious issues of probity, accountability and the handling of public funds that must be addressed now even while the appeal is being dealt with. There is a judgement of the High Court which stands until the appeal is heard."
INAPPROPRIATE TO TAKE ACTION NOW: FAISAL MANAP
However, AHTC chairman Faisal Manap said he would still reject the motion because it was “not appropriate” to move it given the case was still within the period allowed for appeal.
“As Ms Sylvia Lim said earlier, she will be filing an appeal so it is not proper to discuss this motion right now,” he said.
Mr Faisal said he has known Ms Lim and Mr Low since 2006 and has been administering AHTC with them since 2011, adding that he has full confidence and trust in their integrity.
The decisions that Ms Lim and Mr Low have taken since they took up senior roles at WP have been in good faith, and to do the best for the people of Aljunied-Hougang town, he stated.
In full: DPM Heng's motion calling for Workers' Party MPs Sylvia Lim, Low Thia Khiang to recuse themselves from financial matters at AHTC
Mr Faisal continued that as AHTC chairman, he has not received any advice from the independent panel appointed by AHTC on any matters related to the court judgment.
“The independent panel has taken notice of the court judgment,” he said. “However, I will be moving the court judgment at the next town council meeting."
EDWIN TONG, FAISAL MANAP CROSS SWORDS
Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong then responded to Mr Faisal’s speech, starting a terse to-and-fro between the two men.
Mr Tong asked at which stage it would be appropriate to consider the motion, and why was it not appropriate to take action now to ensure that “your residents’ interests come first”.
He said the motion does not require anyone to resign, step down or refrain from all functions of a town council, but only those that relates to financial oversight and control.
“Can Mr Manap explain why that is not in the best interests of the town council and the residents? Why that is not the proper and decent thing to do?” he asked.
Concealed facts, untruths: PAP spells out its reasons why WP MPs should be recused from AHTC financial affairs
In response, Mr Faisal said it was his responsibility as AHTC chairman to weigh and determine what the best action is for the residents of the town.
“I have to take into consideration the mandate given by Aljunied residents at GE 2015 amid the AHTC saga,” he said. “Personally, it would be improper for me to cancel this mandate."
He added that his call would be to wait till the appeal result is out before deciding on any action.
Mr Tong then said there is no suggestion for him to reverse the mandate.
“You heard me very clearly,” he said. “We’re asking for a narrow recusal over financial oversight. Why financial oversight? Because these are the very same issues that the court in this case has made very serious and egregious pronouncements.”
He added that while the mandate was given in 2015, it is now 2019, and the judgment has been released.
“I’d like to ask Mr Manap - does he not recognise that those findings are very serious, egregious, grave findings?” he asked.
In response, Mr Manap said he respects the judgment, but that is still subject to appeal.
“I stand firm on my call to wait until the outcome of the appeal to the Court of Appeal has been made before I decide to take any actions,” he said.
Mr Tong asked again if Mr Faisal was saying that “absolutely nothing at all will be done by AHTC notwithstanding the grave and serious judgment that has been released by the High Court”.
Mr Faisal then repeated that he has stated clearly that he does not support the motion.