COMMENT: How AHTC verdict will play out at the General Elections

Former Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang and WP chairperson Sylvia Lim seen outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday (16 October). (PHOTO: Wan Ting Koh / Yahoo News Singapore)
Former Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang and WP chairperson Sylvia Lim seen outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday (16 October). (PHOTO: Wan Ting Koh / Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Way back in 1986, the ever-cunning Lee Kuan Yew came up with a plan to erect one more hurdle for the opposition. The Town Council concept, which made Members of Parliament responsible for the upkeep of public housing estates, was born. Tied to that concept was an overt message that if voters were to elect politicians without the right credentials, the estates might become unliveable as rubbish piled up and other basic necessities like lifts, lighting and water supply were disrupted.

That was the nightmare scenario painted by Lee. As he said in the 1988 National Day Rally, "If your MP is not honest, or not competent, you will know it soon enough. And if your estate is poorly run, repairs slow, and lift maintenance poor, you will be inconvenienced and worse, the resale value of your flat will be affected... Your personal well-being will be at stake when you choose your MP."

Some 33 years later, a very different scenario is playing out. The dominant opposition Workers’ Party (WP) is on the brink of losing two of its top leaders, as the High Court found them guilty of a conflict of interest in employing “conflicted persons” to run the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) and overpaying the managing agent, possibly to the tune of millions.

Many had expected the verdict but what was damning was Justice Kannan Ramesh’s strong language. His judgement was sprinkled with words like “inexcusable” and “egregious” in describing the actions taken by then secretary-general Low Thia Khiang and chairman Sylvia Lim. They had kept other party comrades in the dark when they got FM Solutions and Services to take over as managing agent without calling for a tender.

Low must have expected the court verdict; that is why he handed the leadership baton to Pritam Singh, who was also implicated in the AHTC case but was not found to have breached his fiduciary duties, two years ago. The natural choice should have been Lim, but she was too deeply involved in the town council case to take over the reins.

The verdict comes at a crucial time for WP as it prepares for the soon-to-be held general elections. First, the party has to decide if it should appeal against the judgment. If the appeal fails, there will be another hearing to decide how much the WP leaders will have to pay back to the town council. The worst-case scenario is that the leaders will be asked to pay back the $33.7 million in improper payments made to FM Solutions, with Low and Lim staring bankruptcy in the face if they can’t pay up. Under Section 45 of the Singapore Constitution, an undischarged bankrupt cannot run for Parliament.

How will WP and the People’s Action Party (PAP) spin this as the election battle hots up? The opposition party is likely to play the underdog card and tell voters that it had a mountain to climb in appointing a town council agent. It did do a tender exercise but there was hardly any interest from prospective clients. It couldn’t afford to wait as the hellish scenario that LKY had painted might just come to pass with the opposition being shown to be inefficient administrators.

And if Low and Lim are bankrupted and thus prevented from contesting the elections, a wave of sympathy among voters could be whipped up for an opposition party that has moved slowly and tirelessly to make itself relevant, responsible and powerful in what is essentially a one-party Parliament. But whether the WP leadership can address the Judge’s tough statement accompanying the verdict to the satisfaction of voters will be watched closely.

The party is at a disadvantage here because it will be bound by the rules of contempt of court, and saying anything that questions the verdict may result in it being hauled back to court.

The PAP has a trickier path ahead. If voters think there is a plot to fix the WP and if the ruling party pushes too hard at the hustings and says the opposition party has unreliable and untrustworthy leaders, then it is likely to be seen as the Goliath going all out to kill David in an uneven battle.

With the 4G leaders trying to establish their credentials in the elections and some members of the Old Guard wanting to go for the jugular, how the PAP pushes forward will show the shape of politics to come. With the new PAP leadership taking charge after the next election, will the LKY knuckle-duster approach to politics become irrelevant? The way Education Minister Ong Ye Kung tried to destroy the credibility of respected poet and playwright Alfian Sa’at in the recent Yale-NUS Affair doesn’t offer much hope that politics will change under the new PAP leadership.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant and author of the best-selling “Reluctant Editor: The Singapore Media as Seen through the Eyes of a Veteran Newspaper Journalist”. The views expressed are his own.

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