AHTC 'surprised' by MND order to recuse Sylvia, Low Thia Khiang

The Workers' Party's former chief Low Thia Khiang and chairman Sylvia Lim attending the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) hearing on 16 October 2018. PHOTO: Wan Ting Koh/Yahoo News Singapore

SINGAPORE — Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) has expressed surprise at the Ministry of National Development’s (MND) order to recuse town councillors Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang from certain financial decisions, questioning the propriety of the order even as it indicated that it would comply with the directive.

In a statement on its website on Friday (17 January), AHTC noted that the order amounted to “a shift by the government from its earlier position in Parliament”. It enclosed its reply to Permanent Secretary (National Development) Ow Foong Pheng, in which it alluded to the debate in November on a parliamentary motion calling on the two Aljunied GRC Members of Parliament (MPs) to recuse themselves from financial matters.

AHTC noted that Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee had directly responded to a query as to why the government was asking Parliament to pass a non-binding resolution, when Lee could force AHTC to recuse the duo under Section 43D of the Town Councils Act (TCA).

In his response, Lee had noted that Section 43D was passed after Lim and Low’s actions in 2011, said AHTC. Furthermore, it empowered him 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. We are thus doubtful as to the propriety of the Rectification Order issued,” said AHTC, which nevertheless said that it would comply with the order.

The AHTC saga

The High Court found in October that Lim, Low and WP chief Pritam Singh were liable for damages suffered by AHTC, which is said to have made millions in improper payments under their watch. WP is currently appealing against the judgement.

In December, MND had said that it “remains concerned” about AHTC’s financial affairs and was considering regulatory action to ensure proper safeguarding of public monies managed by Town Councils.

This followed a decision by AHTC not to recuse Lim and Low from all matters relating to, and oversight over, financial matters of the town council, despite a parliamentary motion in November by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat calling on them to do so.

On 3 January, MND issued the order for Lim and Low’s recusal, pursuant to section 43D(2)(b) of the TCA, in order to prevent a “recurrence of irregularities” caused by Lim and Low.

Explanation to MND

In its statement, AHTC noted that it had told MND in December its reasons for not requiring the recusal of Lim and Low from all matters relating to, and oversight over, financial matters at AHTC.

“Amongst other facts, the Town Council considered whether Ms Lim and Mr Low had benefitted personally from the award of contracts without tender. The Town Council discussed and concluded that this was not the case.” said AHTC.

It added that it had found “no compelling reasons” to insist on the recusal of the duo from financial matters at AHTC, as there were sufficient checks and balances.

But in its latest letter to MND, the Town Council spelled out the steps it had taken to comply with the directive.

For example, with effect from Thursday, Lim has been removed from being an authorised officer to unilaterally incur or approve expenditure on behalf of AHTC.

Lim is no longer authorised to unilaterally accept or waive any quotation or tender for services or work on behalf of the Town Council.

In both instances, Low has no such authority currently.

Lim and Low’s votes at committee meetings involving procurement and expenditure will also not be taken into account. AHTC will also pass a resolution at its next meeting in February to remove the duo as cheque signatories, and will not present cheques to them for signature in the meantime.

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