- The Straits Times
Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 5) voted for a motion that called on Workers’ Party (WP) MPs Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang to recuse themselves from all financial matters at the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC).
The vote, which came after four hours of debate, saw 52 MPs supporting the motion.
All nine WP MPs voted against it, while Nominated MPs Walter Theseira and Anthea Ong abstained, citing concerns over parts of the motion.
In moving the motion, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat asked the WP what it planned to “put its own house in order”, noting it has remained “totally silent” since a High Court verdict released last month found Low and Lim had acted dishonestly in awarding a managing agent contract for AHTC to a company set up by their supporters without calling a tender.
“Will they at long last be conducting their own investigation? Or will they continue to duck, dodge and deny?” Heng said.
Heng said he introduced the motion because “integrity is of the utmost importance in elected officials”.
“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.”
Setting out at length the developments in the saga, Heng said the WP has persistently refused over eight years to be transparent about what it had done.
Addressing current AHTC chairman Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC), Heng asked if he would, at the minimum, apologise to Aljunied and Hougang residents for letting them down.
He also asked Faisal if he would remove Lim from her post as AHTC vice-chairman, among other things.
In a judgment released on Oct 11, High Court Judge Kannan Ramesh had found that Lim and Low had breached their fiduciary duties and were liable for damages suffered by the town council, which is said to have made millions of dollars in improper payments under their watch.
In awarding contracts to FM Solutions & Services (FMSS) and FM Solutions and Integrated Services (FMSI) without calling a tender, they had put their own political interests above the interests of their residents, the judge said.
Heng noted that Lim and Low would have been interdicted at the very least, pending their appeal, if AHTC were a company.
If they were members of a professional body, their acts of dishonesty would have brought them before a disciplinary tribunal, he added.
“If nothing is done from now till the appeal is concluded, we will be forced to conclude that the Workers’ Party, by its inaction, in fact endorses the dishonest conduct and the breach of the fiduciary duties that has already occurred, and is complicit in the wrongdoing.”
Heng also stressed that it was an independent panel appointed by the AHTC to act on its behalf that sued Low, Lim and Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh, not the National Development Ministry or HDB.
Heng said it was “lamentable” that the WP had consistently and repeatedly refused to take responsibility for the problems in its town council.
“The Workers’ Party town councillors have persistently resisted disclosure, offered countless excuses, and made a litany of misleading statements – to the public, in Parliament and before the Courts. They have not been transparent in their dealings.”
Heng added: “It pains me to move this motion, in particular because one of the two MPs named in it is Low Thia Khiang… He is someone for whom I have always had a high regard. I think many on both sides of the House share my sentiment.”
But there are important questions of public interest to consider, he added.
In essence, the WP wanted their friends to manage the town council, he said.
The honest and honourable thing to do under such circumstances would have been to call an open tender so that one’s friends would compete with the market, he noted.
But to guarantee FMSS’ appointment, Lim and Low waived the tender even though the law required it, removed the existing managing agent and appointed their friends in FMSS, he said, though FMSS had less experience and charged more.
This overcharging and abuse of funds was “inexcusable”, said Heng.
FMSS was brought in by the WP MPs after the 2011 General Election to provide estate management services. It was owned by the late Danny Loh and his wife How Weng Fan, later revealed to be the secretary and general manager of the town council respectively.
Justice Ramesh also found the owners of FMSS and FMSI had breached their fiduciary duty, and three other town councillors, including Singh, had breached their duty of skill and care.
Referring to the court judgment, Heng said the Aljunied GRC MPs had knowingly sacrificed their residents’ interest in favour of their friends.
They then misled the public and Parliament on why they had hired their friends in this manner, he said, adding they also misled their own auditors by refusing to give them documents, to cover up their wrongdoing.
Under their management, the town council ran up deficits, he said, noting that a surplus of $3.3 million under the previous management became a deficit of $2 million by the third year of the new regime.
“Allowing your friends to help themselves to public funds – that is a tale that belongs to the Third World, not Singapore,” said Heng.
Recounting how the saga unfolded over a period of eight years, Heng reminded the House that it was AHTC’s own auditors who first issued a disclaimer of opinion on its accounts in 2013.
In the next audit in 2014, he said, the MPs hid details of the transactions with their friends, and refused to give the documents and information to their own auditors.
The same year, the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO) carried out an audit because of the serious problems identified by AHTC’s own auditors, but it too was obstructed by the town council.
The 2015 AGO report uncovered serious shortcomings, which cast doubt on whether the town council was properly managing public funds.
When the issue was debated in Parliament, Heng recalled that Lim’s response was to shout “rubbish” – and refuse to acknowledge the issues.
Noting that the WP did not do anything to resolve the problems, he said: “I do not know what (the WP) were expecting. Perhaps they felt that somehow the public would forget and give them a free pass since they were an opposition party. They were not used to running a GRC, so the public would ‘give chance’?
“Indeed, shortcomings resulting from inexperience can be forgiven. But dishonesty, deliberate and repeated deception, to profit one’s friends, cannot be forgotten, or swept under the carpet.”
Heng added that Parliament would not be debating the court judgment on Tuesday, had the WP MPs been serious about correcting the problems and getting their friends to make good the losses.
Tuesday’s motion is similar to that in 2015 by then Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan. Khaw had introduced a motion in Parliament then to discuss control and financial lapses discovered at the WP-run town council by the AGO in a special audit.
Concluding his speech, Heng made the point that residents have borne the consequences of what the WP town councillors have done.
“Even after all this has been made public, the Workers’ Party has stayed silent. Maybe they hope that Singaporeans will forget, or forgive them,” he said.
“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.”
Here is Heng’s speech in full.