SINGAPORE — Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat fumbled while defending a parliamentary motion on the conduct of Workers’ Party (WP) Members of Parliament (MP) in the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) saga, even as WP chairperson Sylvia Lim labelled his move “premature”.
“Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's filing of this motion at this point in time is telling but premature,” said Lim, MP for Aljunied GRC. “The PAP government is clearly excited about certain findings and comments contained in the High Court judgment issued on the 11th of October.
“We have been studying the judgment with our lawyer since it was released and I can inform the House today that we have decided to appeal the judgment to the Court of Appeal...(which) may affirm, reverse or vary the findings.”
In a lengthy speech, Heng had called for Lim and Aljunied MP Low Thia Khiang to recuse themselves from all financial matters and oversight in relation to AHTC, given that the duo still hold their respective positions on the town council as vice-chairman and member, respectively.
He cited the High Court judgement, which found Lim, Low and WP chief Pritam Singh to be liable for damages suffered by AHTC, which is said to have made millions in improper payments under their watch.
Heng noted that the judgement said Lim and Low had been “dishonest and deceptive, and to have failed in their duty to the Town Council.”
Following Lim’s request that Heng clarify his apparent remarks that “millions have been lost” - he later noted that he had actually said “millions of dollars in public funds are involved” - Heng hesitated in his response and flipped through his folder at length, before moving on to the rest of Lim’s queries.
He also addressed a request for clarification from Hougang MP Png Eng Huat, who said that the DPM seemed to imply in his speech that only one signatory was needed to encash a cheque under AHTC. Png noted that two signatories are required, including the AHTC chairperson or vice-chair.
Heng replied, “Let me get back to why I moved this motion. This is a question of integrity...I have asked very serious questions about how the transactions were done...but both of you have just stood up to ask me a series of little questions.”
This prompted a heated response from Png, who said, “It’s a question of integrity, sir.”
But just minutes into the debate on the motion, Heng asked Speaker Tan Chuan-jin for an adjournment. "Because Ms Sylvia Lim...has made the point that it was improper for me to raise this, and I would like an adjournment for us to consider the matter and respond to you,” explained Heng.
Singh protested against the request, noting that the House had already taken a 20-minute break. But the Speaker granted the DPM a 10-minute adjournment.
PAP comes out fighting
Following the adjournment, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong addressed the rest of Lim and Png’s questions, dwelling on the finer details of the eight-year long AHTC saga at length.
On Png’s query about the co-signing of cheques, Tong said, “I think the position is very clear: it's not about one signatory or two signatories, it's about the entire system that you have set up as a result of what you have done...That entire system has been completely subverted, a proper system has been subverted by the way in which you've done this.
“Don't penny pinch a dime with us.”
Tong also alluded to the “serious and grave findings” of the High Court judgement against the WP MPs, calling it a “serious and grave indictment of their conduct”.
He accused the WP of propagating a “misleading narrative repeatedly put out to the public over several years”: that there was an “immediate and urgent need” to appoint a replacement managing agent, due to Action Information Management (AIM) abruptly terminating a specialised computing and financing system for town councils.
Heng also pressed Aljunied MP Faisal Manap, who is now AHTC chairman, on whether he supported the motion. “There is a judgment of the High Court, which stands until the appeal is heard. The question is, what should be done? What should happen between now and the time when the appeal is decided? And that could be some time yet.”
He added, “So in the interim, my question is, should the Workers Party town councillors who have been found to have acted dishonestly, and have been found to be in breach of their duties, whose conduct was found to be egregious, should they continue to have access to and control of public funds?”
Responding in Malay, Faisal said that he did not support the motion as he said that Low and Lim had acted in good faith. “I have full confidence and trust in the integrity of Mr Low Thia Khiang and Miss Sylvia Lim.”
He added that the motion was “not proper” since an appeal against the High Court judgement was pending, and that he had not received any advice from the AHTC independent panel on the matter.
The motion was passed with 52 PAP MPs for and all nine WP MPs and NCMPs against it while NMPs Associate Professor Walter Theseira and Anthea Ong abstained from voting.