SINGAPORE: Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) said on Friday (Jan 17) it would comply with the order by the Ministry of National Development (MND) to restrict town councillors Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang's powers over financial matters.
AHTC, however, also expressed its reservations over the order, calling it a "U-turn" on the statements made in Parliament in November last year about the matter.
In October 2019, Workers' Party (WP) leaders Ms Lim and Mr Low were found liable by the High Court in a landmark case investigating the misuse of tens of millions of dollars in AHTC funds, following which Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat introduced a parliamentary motion calling for the town council to require the two Members of Parliament to recuse themselves from financial matters.
On Nov 30, AHTC announced it had decided against the recusal by majority vote. MND expressed concern over this decision and in January this year, issued an order requiring AHTC to take action against the duo, saying that the town council had made its resolution despite the High Court's "serious and grave findings".
In AHTC's letter to MND following the order, AHTC said: "We wish to record our surprise that the minister is invoking Section 43D(2) of the Town Councils Act (TCA) to compel the town council to comply with the ministry's orders, a shift by the Government from its earlier position in Parliament."
READ: Parliamentary motion to call on AHTC to require Sylvia Lim, Low Thia Khiang to recuse themselves from financial matters
This section in the TCA states that the minister "may order ... given in writing to the town council, require the town council to take specified remedial action to address the deficiencies within a specified period and to report to the minister, at the end of the specified period ... on the action taken to give effect to the requirement".
It also states that the minister may order the town council to "take specified action to correct the irregularity or to guard against the recurrence of irregularities ... at the end of the specified period".
AHTC argued in its letter that during the debate on the parliamentary motion in November, Second Minister for Finance Indranee Rajah "had affirmed that it was the town council who had jurisdiction to decide" on the recusal of Ms Lim and Mr Low.
Ms Indranee also said that "Parliament was not in a position to compel the town council to take any action", wrote AHTC.
The town council also pointed out that during the same debate, Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee had said that Section 43D was "passed years after the actions taken by MP Lim and MP Low in 2011" and that the section "gave powers to the minister to act after a report or compliance review had been undertaken under the amended Act or after an investigation".
"We share these opinions of the minister that Section 43D is not applicable to the facts due to concerns about retroactivity and the pre-conditions not being met," said AHTC in its letter to MND.
READ: MND issues order requiring AHTC to "restrict" Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang's powers over financial matters
"We are thus doubtful as to the propriety of the rectification order issued under Section 43D(2)."
The town council said it noted MND's letter, which warned that "failure by the town council, the chairman or the secretary to the town council" to comply with the order is an offence under the Act.
"More importantly, the town council wishes to direct its energies towards fulfilling its core functions of managing and maintaining the HDB estates in Aljunied-Hougang Town for our residents," AHTC added.
"As such, the town council will comply with the rectification order."
STEPS TAKEN TO COMPLY
In its letter to MND, AHTC spelled out the steps it had taken to comply with the ministry's order, which included removing Ms Lim from being an authorised officer to unilaterally incur or approve expenditure on behalf of the town council.
Ms Lim is also no longer authorised to unilaterally accept or waive any quotation or tender for any stores, services or works on behalf of the town council.
Ms Lim and Mr Low's votes at committee meetings involving procurement and expenditure will also not be taken into account.
All these took effect on Thursday, said AHTC, adding that the town council will pass a resolution at its next meeting in February to remove the duo as cheque signatories. Meanwhile, the town council will not present cheques to them to sign.