SINGAPORE: A parliamentary motion calling upon Workers’ Party (WP) Members of Parliament (MPs) Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang to recuse themselves from all financial matters at Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) was passed on Tuesday (Nov 5).
This followed a debate lasting more than four hours involving ministers and MPs from both sides of the House. The vote saw 52 MPs supporting the motion and nine voting against it. There were two abstentions.
At the start of the debate, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat called on WP to “take action” after a High Court judge found Mr Low and Ms Lim liable in a landmark case investigating misuse of town council funds.
Given that it has been almost four weeks since the Oct 11 judgement, the Opposition Party “cannot stay silent”, he said in an hour-long speech to move the parliamentary motion on the governance of the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC).
In full: DPM Heng's motion calling for Workers' Party MPs Sylvia Lim, Low Thia Khiang to recuse themselves from financial matters at AHTC
READ: Workers' Party MPs to appeal AHTC judgment, call on House to reject 'premature' motion by DPM Heng
“Close to four weeks have passed since the judgment was published. In all that time, the Workers’ Party have said nothing,” Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, said in Parliament.
“They have not apologised for the shortcomings that the Courts – and before the Courts, AGO (Auditor-General's Office) and KPMG – have established. They have not accounted for their dishonesties and untruths.
“Nor have they have said whether they intend to put right the many wrongs that the Court has uncovered, and if so how,” he added in moving the motion.
To that, WP chairman Sylvia Lim said in a clarification later on that she and co-defendants Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Low have reviewed the judgment with their lawyers and will appeal against it at the Court of Appeal.
She added that Mr Heng had acted "prematurely" in his decision to file the motion and asked the House to reject it.
Echoing that, WP chief Pritam Singh described the motion as "hurried and premature".
"The Workers’ Party have read the motion carefully and all the Workers’ Party MPs will unanimously vote against it," he said.
High Court judge Kannan Ramesh, in his written judgement on Oct 11, had said there is "serious doubt" about the integrity of Ms Lim and Mr Low, and that they had breached their fiduciary duties in appointing FM Solutions and Services (FMSS) as managing agent of AHTC.
Tuesday's motion, citing the court judgement which found the WP leaders “had acted dishonestly” with conduct that “lacked integrity and candour”, called on the House to affirm “the vital importance of MPs maintaining high standards of integrity and accountability”.
It also called on the two MPs to recuse themselves from all financial matters at AHTC, where Ms Lim remains vice-chairman and Mr Low is an elected member.
“All that this House is asking, is for Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang to recuse themselves from dealing with or having oversight over financial matters, until the court case is concluded,” said Mr Heng, adding that “this is the least they can do” given the court’s findings.
The Deputy Prime Minister also directed his questions at AHTC’s chairman Faisal Manap and other WP members.
Specifically, he asked Mr Faisal if he would, at the minimum, apologise to the residents of Aljunied and Hougang for letting them down and remove Ms Lim from her post as vice-chairman, among other things.
“An apology would be the first step, a belated recognition that they had let residents down, and an intention to put things right,” he said.
Turning to the other WP MPs and Non-constituency MPs, Mr Heng asked: “Will they at long last be conducting their own investigation? Or will they continue to duck, dodge and deny?”
“If nothing is done from now till the appeal is concluded, we will be forced to conclude that the Workers’ Party, by its inaction, in fact endorses the dishonest conduct and the breach of the fiduciary duties that has already occurred, and is complicit in the wrongdoing.”
Explaining why he is moving the motion, Mr Heng said this is because “integrity is of the utmost importance in elected officials”.
He noted that Singapore has succeeded only because it has maintained a culture of honesty and integrity in the public service.
“Those who participate in politics must be honest, upright people who can be trusted to uphold the public interest, speak the truth even at a cost to themselves, and admit their mistakes when they have done wrong.
“They have to uphold these principles even when it is politically inconvenient to do so and we need to do this, whether you are a government or opposition MP, whether you represent a constituency in Parliament, or are an NCMP or NMP,” added Mr Heng.
In response to WP’s decision to appeal the judgment, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong wondered “what should happen in the interim”, pending an appeal.
“Should those found to have engaged in egregious conduct recuse themselves from financial oversight and control?” he asked.
On this point, Mr Tong had a short exchange with WP’s Mr Faisal, who had earlier stated that he thinks it is not appropriate to consider this motion now.
Mr Tong pressed Mr Faisal for an explanation, adding that there are actions that should be taken now to safeguard residents’ interest.
To that, the latter replied that it is his responsibility to weigh and evaluate the best action for residents of Aljunied and Hougang. He also has to take into consideration the mandate given by residents at the elections in 2015 despite that taking place amid the AHTC saga.
“Personally, it would be improper for me to cancel this mandate,” said Mr Faisal. He also reiterated his point that while he respects the court judgement, it is subject to an appeal.
“So, I stand firm on my call to wait until the outcome of the Court of Appeal has been made before I take any action.”
Tuesday’s parliamentary motion marked the latest development in the long-running AHTC saga.
Setting out at length the developments over the past eight years, Mr Heng highlighted a number of key issues at the heart of the case.
READ: AHTC trial: Defendants used residents' hard-earned money to improve political standing, claims Davinder Singh
First, that the WP had “appointed their friends to manage the town council, at a higher cost than the previous managing agent”, a decision which caused the town council to incur “deficits of up to S$2 million by the third year”.
Citing a court judgment, Mr Heng noted that “there had never been any intention to call a tender in the first place”.
“The two WP MPs had already decided on FMSS within days of the 2011 General Election… They also admitted that they had rejected other parties who were interested in providing Managing Agent services,” said the Deputy Prime Minister.
He added that Mr Low “said that he would have appointed FMSS, even if a cheaper, more experienced contractor had put in a bid”.
“To guarantee FMSS’s appointment, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang waived the tender, even though the law required it,” said Mr Heng.
To conceal the “real facts” of the case, Ms Lim and Mr Low “manipulated the circumstances of this appointment, even to the extent of misleading their fellow Town Councillors”, he added.
He noted that Ms Lim and the WP Town Council Chairman “hid details of the transactions with their friends” in 2014, and “refused to give the documents and information to their own auditors”.
In addition, they “knowingly allowed Mr Pritam Singh to mislead Parliament”, said Mr Heng.
He referred to Mr Singh’s declaration that FMSS was “kept at an arm’s length” from the town council.
“We now know this to be false. The Court found that How Weng Fan had been heavily involved since early May 2011,” said Mr Heng.
Ms How Weng Fan had been the general manager of the AHTC, and also held the position of director with the FMSS.
The WP had also failed to produce “critical documents” to the AGO, he added.
When Parliament debated the 2015 AGO report which “uncovered serious shortcomings”, “the WP MPs - and Ms Sylvia Lim in particular - made excuses”, said Mr Heng.
“I do not know what they were expecting. Perhaps they felt that somehow the public would forget and give them a free pass since they were an opposition party. They were not used to running a Group Representative Constituency (GRC), so the public would ‘give chance’?”
As a result, Mr Heng said residents have borne the consequences of what the WP Town Councillors have done.
He pointed to how under the management of FMSS, the town council ran deficits of up to S$2 million by the third year.
On the other hand, FMSS made a profit of $3.2 million in their second year.
All this displays a “clear, consistent pattern of behaviour, designed to block disclosure of the relevant documents and information”, said Mr Tong.
Finding that the WP was “shifting from one untenable excuse to another”, he said:
“This itself is set amidst a backdrop of constantly refusing disclosure to auditors, your own, as well as those from the AGO's office and KPMG, fobbing off inquiry at every turn, refusing to do interviews, so that the real reason could remain suppressed until, as we see, their own IPs decided to bring this action, and it unraveled in Court.”
Yet, even after all this has been made public, the WP has stayed silent, said Mr Heng.
“Maybe they hope that Singaporeans will forget or forgive them,” he told the House.
“Playing the victim or the underdog may be par for the course in politics, but there are important matters at stake – public funds, residents’ monies, the estates that Singaporeans come home to. We cannot sweep things under the carpet.”
OPPOSITION MUST HOLD THEMSELVES TO SAME STANDARDS
Mr Heng said the Government has always taken any accusations of dishonesty against political leaders “very seriously”.
And the fourth-generation leaders of the People’s Action Party (PAP) intend to continue maintaining the high standards it has achieved and upheld for so many years since the party first formed the government in 1959.
He added: “If any PAP Minister or MP is accused of lying, the Prime Minister and I would do a thorough investigation. And if they were found dishonest, serious consequences would inevitably follow.”
The court has since made “very serious and severe statements” about Mr Low and Ms Lim, by concluding that their conduct of town council matters “lacked candour and transparency, and that they had not acted honestly”.
“Imagine if a court had made such findings against PAP town councillors. Is it even conceivable that a PAP MP whom the Court has described in these terms, can remain in the Town Council, and continue handling public funds, as if nothing has happened?
"At the very least, he would have been asked to go on leave pending any effort to clear his name through an Appeal," he said.
He added: "What sort of questions would the Workers’ Party be asking the PAP? What sort of demands would they be making of the Government?"
To that, Mr Heng said: “The Opposition must hold themselves to the same standards that they rightly impose on the Government."