SINGAPORE: The Workers’ Party (WP) secretary-general Pritam Singh on Thursday (Oct 25) contested the view that not calling a tender for the first managing agent contract in 2011 signalled to the wider market that the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) is only open for business from its supporters.
Mr Pritam Singh, who took to the witness stand for the first time in the landmark trial, was cross-examined by Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, the lead lawyer for Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council (PRPTC), on this point.
Mr Davinder Singh asked the WP Member of Parliament (MP) if it occurred to him that the wider industry would know that no tender was called prior to the appointment of FM Solutions and Services (FMSS) as managing agent in 2011, to which the latter said yes.
He also asked if it occurred to Mr Pritam Singh that others would know that Ms How Weng Fan, then appointed general manager of AHTC, is a shareholder of FMSS.
“Of course. It would cost S$5.15 to do an ACRA (Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority) search,” the WP MP replied.
The PRPTC lawyer then posited that waiving the tender process at this point signalled to the others in the wider industry that there was no hope in getting a managing agent contract from this town council. He backed this up with passages from Mr Pritam Singh’s affidavit, which stated how “many eligible contractors avoid submitting tender bids for AHTC term contracts” due to it being an opposition ward.
“So, when you waive a tender, appoint someone associated with Hougang Town Council and the world finds out about it, what you are doing is effectively telling the world: Don’t bother to come and try and get a contract with us. We will go with our own,” Mr Davinder Singh suggested.
“I disagree, Mr Singh,” the WP MP said.
“And it is because of that objective and that message that it couldn’t have surprised you that in the second (managing agent) and second EMSU contracts, nobody bid except FMSS,” the lawyer carried on.
“I disagree with that.”
The PRPTC lawyer then asked Mr Pritam Singh whether he agreed that if the elected councillors believed they had “good grounds” to waive calling a tender then, it would be the “responsible thing to do” to lock in the new managing agent to existing rates for the next two years, instead of leaving itself open to another round of price negotiations one year on.
To this, Mr Pritam Singh disagreed and said his understanding was the contract was based on the rates agreed with the previous managing agent, CPG Facilities Management. “It was not done in the shadow of darkness to benefit FMSS.”
He added: “I disagree with you, and I disagree because I think it was a better idea to give FMSS - which was awarded the (managing agent) contract without tender - only one year, so after that, a tender can be called and there may be other players who may bid and may come with better rates.”
“You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say nobody is going to touch us, and then one year later, say the market is suddenly going to embrace us,” Mr Davinder Singh countered, in a charge he had similarly made against fellow WP member in the lawsuit, Mr Low Thia Khiang.
“The market has money to make from (a managing agent) contract. They have to make a business consideration,” Mr Pritam Singh said.
“You’ve made the decision for the market when you sent that message loud and clear when you waived the tender and went with someone associated with WP,” Mr Davinder Singh parried back.
“I disagree,” Mr Pritam Singh said.
The judge, Justice Kannan Ramesh, later asked for clarification on whether the same outcome of having more bidders and consequently better rates may have happened if the elected councillors did not waive calling for a tender in 2011.
The WP sec-gen agreed with the judge on that possibility, but said the MPs were “labouring to take over the entirety of the town council quickly, stabilise the operations then move forward”.
Mr Pritam Singh, along with fellow WP MPs Low and Sylvia Lim, and AHTC councillors Kenneth Foo and Chua Zhi Hon, are being sued by AHTC and PRPTC for alleged breaches of fiduciary duty relating to the appointment of FMSS.
This, along with “flawed governance” of the town council and “improper” payments of more than S$33 million made mostly to FMSS, is the subject of two lawsuits that are also aimed at FMSS employees How and Danny Loh, who held positions at AHTC.
“TWO WRONGS DON’T MAKE A RIGHT”
Mr Davinder Singh also questioned the process of calling a tender to appoint a panel of consultants and leaving it to the managing agent to choose which contractor on that panel would do specific jobs, suggesting that AHTC could and should have approved of the choice at least.
Mr Pritam Singh said that they had proceeded on the basis of precedent, noting that the previous town council’s managing agents had engaged in the same practice.
“But two wrongs don’t make a right,” Mr Davinder Singh countered.
“I hold a different view,” Mr Pritam Singh said, adding that he would expect the managing agent to decide “which is the best person to do the job”.
When it was put to the WP MP that they did not follow the rules, or the “rationale and spirit of the rules” of the Town Councils Financial Rules (TCFR), Mr Pritam Singh disagreed.
“I believe we followed it. We appointed the consultants properly … they were then reviewed on their ability to take on the scope of works and the appropriate consultant was awarded the job,” he said.
The mood in Thursday’s hearing appeared markedly different from the preceding days, when Ms Lim was on the stand. Where the exchanges between Ms Lim and Mr Davinder Singh were fraught with tension at times, Mr Pritam Singh’s cross-examination was largely conducted in a more cordial manner.
The WP sec-gen was allowed to step down from the witness stand on the same afternoon, to be replaced by AHTC councillor Kenneth Foo Seck Guan.
KENNETH FOO "WENT ALONG UNQUESTIONINGLY" WITH ELECTED MEMBERS
In cross-examining Mr Foo on the witness stand, PRPTC lawyer Mr Singh charged that he had "gone along unquestioningly" with the decisions made by the elected members.
On one occasion, during the first town council meeting on Jun 9, 2011, incumbent managing agent CPG Facilities Management had, according to Mr Foo, asked to be released from its contract with the town council by Aug 1.
Mr Foo also explained that as he had heard nothing about the matter, he had thought that CPG was continuing as the managing agent right up till the second town council meeting on Aug 4, 2011. It was during that meeting that FMSS was introduced.
He agreed that to the best of his recollection, neither he nor anyone else at the meeting had asked any questions during the meeting about why a tender had not been called for a new managing agent, a point that Mr Singh picked up on and asked him about.
Mr Foo said that he believed it was "challenging" to do a tender within two months, pointing out that from his experience in his own organisation, the entire process could take as long as three to four months.
"I believed it had been considered by the elected MPs ... and the timeframe, the critical things that had been done ... and the decision had been made not to call a tender," he said.
"So you believed the elected MPs had considered the matter, you were prepared to go along with it unquestioningly," Mr Singh shot back.
"I believed they had given deep thought about it at that point in time," Mr Foo responded, adding that the town council had delegated authority to WP chairman Lim to make decisions on the council's behalf.
He also disagreed that he had "gone along unquestioningly", stressing that independently, he felt that it was a "short time frame" for a tender.
The trial will resume on Monday (Oct 29) with Mr Foo continuing on the stand.