SINGAPORE: Two Nominated Members of Parliament (MPs) on Tuesday (Nov 5) raised concerns they had about a parliamentary motion that called for the leaders of the Workers’ Party (WP) - Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang - to recuse themselves from all financial matters at the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC).
Speaking in Parliament, nominated MP Anthea Ong affirmed her support for the first part of the motion, which called for MPs to maintain “high standards of integrity and accountability”.
However, she expressed doubts about its purpose.
“I am unsure of the need for this motion which has no legal force when passed, given the powers already vested in the minister through the Town Councils Act to order AHTC to take necessary and swift actions,” she said.
As such, Ms Ong wondered if the motion should have been passed through the Act instead.
She pointed out that Section 43d of the Town Councils Act allows the minister to require AHTC to “take specific remedial action to address the deficiencies and take specified action to correct the irregularity or to guard against the recurrence of irregularities, or both”.
Ms Ong also said she was “uncomfortable” with discussing a court proceeding in Parliament, as any comments made during the session could “potentially fall under contempt of court”.
Fellow nominated MP Walter Theseira was also in support of the motion that holds MPs to high standards of integrity and accountability. However, in this case, he said he “(had) not seen evidence in the judgment that this breach was motivated by personal self-enrichment on the part of the honourable members”.
The Associate Professor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences was concerned instead about the part of the motion calling for the town council to recuse the two WP MPs from all financial matters.
As the town council “is a political entity”, and the motion “essentially calls on the Workers’ Party to undertake a certain course of action”, Assoc Prof Theseira was concerned whether that part of the motion “has the effect of a political resolution”.
He added that as a non-elected MP, he was “uncomfortable” with “participating in what may be a political resolution”.
“Hence I will abstain from the motion if there is a division,” he said.
READ: In full: DPM Heng's motion speech calling for Workers' Party MPs Sylvia Lim, Low Thia Khiang to recuse themselves from financial matters at AHTC
"WHAT IS THE RIGHT AND PROPER THING TO DO?": DESMOND LEE
These points raised by the NMPs prompted a response from Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee.
Rebutting Ms Ong’s suggestion that the matter is sub judice, he said: “I wonder why is it sub judice in her words when we are talking about what ought to happen in the interim between findings of a High Court and (the) point in time when the appeal is heard.”
“I think that really is the crux of the matter (and) is why we are here today,” added Mr Lee.
READ: Parliament passes motion calling for WP's Sylvia Lim, Low Thia Khiang to be recused from AHTC's financial affairs
Sub judice refers to public discussion of a case under judicial consideration which may affect or prejudice the outcome of proceedings.
Mr Lee, who is also Second Minister for National Development, cited an example where a company sues its directors and that the directors have been found by the High Court to be dishonest.
While the directors can indicate their intention to appeal the judgement, it will be better for them to “go on garden leave” and recuse themselves as a matter of proper corporate governance, he said.
Bringing it back to Tuesday’s motion, he continued: “We are not talking about before a suit is filed … We are talking about when a judgement has been made, what should a person in the shoes of a director of a company, the head of a charitable institution (or) trustee, a town councillor elected by the public holding statutory responsibilities (and) having fiduciary duties sitting in this very House, what is the right and proper thing to do?”
Mr Lee also addressed the discomfort that both NMPs expressed in their speeches.
“I do not blame the two NMPs or members of the public if they may perceive this to have partisanship colours.
“But actually if you strip it down to its very core, what should fiduciaries do? And in this case not any fiduciary. One sitting amongst us held to certain standards by members of the public - what do we have to do?" he said.
Continuing, he asked what the public or the WP would have expected or requested to be done, if such a High Court finding applied to a member of the ruling party in this House.
“So, I think we should be very clear that this is not about partisanship,” said Mr Lee.
READ: Workers' Party MPs to appeal AHTC judgment; calls on House to reject 'premature' motion by DPM Heng
Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah also sought a clarification from Ms Ong, who reiterated that her discomfort stemmed from the detailed discussion of the court judgement in Parliament.
“There could be potential interference, or perceived to be interference given that,” Ms Ong explained, although she stressed that she was not disputing a need for action and that was why she mooted the idea for the motion to be taken through the Town Councils Act instead.
READ: Concealed facts, untruths: PAP spells out its reasons why WP MPs should be recused from AHTC financial affairs
Tuesday’s motion was introduced by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat who, in a lengthy opening speech, called on the Opposition Party to break its silence on the matter and “take action”.
This was followed by a debate lasting more than four hours involving ministers and MPs from both sides of the House.
During which, WP’s Ms Lim said that she and her 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 - a view echoed by Mr Singh who also 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 in Parliament.
The motion was eventually passed with 52 MPs supporting it and nine voting against it. There were two abstentions.