SINGAPORE — Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in Parliament on Tuesday (5 November) asked Workers’ Party (WP) MPs Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang to recuse themselves from dealing with, or having oversight over, financial matters at Aljunied Hougang Town Council (AHTC).
Heng made reference to a High Court verdict last month, which found that the two MPs had breached their fiduciary duties in the hiring of the town council’s managing agent FM Solutions & Services (FMSS) and were liable for damages suffered by AHTC in making improper payments under their watch.
The court has yet to hear parties and make a decision on the quantum of damages. Faisal Manap is currently the town council’s chairman, while Lim and Pritam Singh are its vice-chairmen. Low is a town councillor.
Said Heng, “Will the Workers’ Party provide the House with any guarantees to uphold accountability and transparency between now and the appeal?”
He added, “This Motion is also about the integrity and character expected of public officials and MPs. It pains me to move this motion, in particular because one of the two MPs named in it is Mr Low Thia Khiang. If I may be permitted a personal note at the outset, he is someone for whom I have always had a high regard. I think many on both sides of the House share my sentiment.”
‘A Third World tale’
Heng took MPs through the long running saga at length, distributing three annexes to his speech: an 11-page summary of the 329-page High Court judgment, 18 pages of quotes from the judgment and four pages of misleading statements made by the WP MPs regarding the town council case.
He added, “That is how we got here today. The Workers’ Party has persistently refused over eight years to be transparent about what it had done.”
He also noted that while the town council had a surplus of $3.3 million under the previous management, it had a deficit of $2 million by the fourth year under the Workers’ Party.
“Meanwhile, their friends made big profits running into millions of dollars,” said Heng. “Allowing your friends to help themselves to public funds - that is a tale that belongs to the Third World, not Singapore,” he added.
‘A fait accompli’
Last month, High Court judge Kannan Ramesh ruled that Lim and Low had breached their fiduciary duties, while Singh had breached his duties of skill and care in the hiring of FMSS. This resulted in the town council paying at least $33.7 million to FMSS from July 2011 to July 2015.
During that period, Lim was chairman of the town council, while Low was the WP secretary-general. Singh was a member of the town council’s tenders and contracts committee. The breaches occurred as a result of awarding managing agent contracts and essential maintenance services contracts to FMSS.
In 2011, FMSS was awarded the contracts without a tender being called. According to the WP town councillors, this was due to urgent and very special circumstances which allowed for a waiver for such tenders under the Town Council Financial Rules.
But Justice Ramesh said there was no urgency of circumstances to justify the waiver; it was instead a fait accompli. “Not only was there no real urgency or necessity in the public interest to waive tender, it would appear that the waiver was really motivated by extraneous considerations, including politics and a misguided sense of loyalty,” he said.
“I am not suggesting that Mr Low Thia Khiang and Ms Sylvia Lim were expected to have no regard to any political considerations in making their decisions, which would surely be unrealistic. However, they were expected to not subordinate the interests of AHTC, not to mention their statutory and fiduciary duties, to their own political interests,” the judge added.
‘Duck, dodge, deny?’
Heng on Tuesday noted that it has been more than three weeks since the High Court judgement, but the WP and AHTC have been “totally silent on this matter”.
He said, “That is why I have to ask in Parliament, what does the current chairman of AHTC Mr Faisal Manap intend to do? At the minimum, will he apologise to the residents of Aljunied and Hougang for letting them down?”
“An apology would be the first step, a belated recognition that they had let residents down, and an intention to put things right,” he added.
If the town council were a company, Heng said, Lim and Low would have been at least interdicted, pending an appeal of the court verdict. “Most likely, they would have been forced to leave the company a long time ago”, when the auditor-general’s office and KPMG made adverse findings against them in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
“If they were members of a professional body, their acts of dishonesty would have brought them before a disciplinary tribunal,” Heng added.
Turning to other WP MPs and NCMPs, Heng asked if they would conduct their own investigation, in light of the misleading statements made by Lim and Low in the House and the lack of response by AHTC. “Or will they continue to duck, dodge and deny?” Heng asked.
If nothing is done until the appeal is concluded, Heng said, the WP would, by its inaction, not just be endorsing dishonest conduct and the breach of fiduciary duties, but also complicit in the wrongdoing.
‘Integrity of utmost importance’
Heng ended his speech by touching on integrity in elected officials, saying Singapore has succeeded only due to a culture of honesty and integrity in 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,” said Heng.
“Because if we cannot trust a politician to tell the truth, we cannot trust him to safeguard public funds, to put the public interest ahead of personal gain, or to make decisions in the best interests of Singapore and Singaporeans,” he added.
Heng named former MPs David Marshall, A. P. Rajah and Chiam See Tong as “such upright, honourable men among the Opposition”, adding that Low, too, ran his own town council well as MP for Hougang previously.
Said Heng, “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.”