The Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) said that Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong’s accusations of the town council was “surprising and puzzling”, which led to town council chairman Sylvia Lim issuing a statement to “correct the misconceptions”.
Mr Wong’s opinion piece, published in The Straits Times of 5 June, had identified areas where he felt AHPETC has did wrong.
His comments came after the High Court has thrown out a demand filed by the Ministry of National Development (MND) for independent auditors to audit AHPETC’s accounts before government grants can be released to the town council, following MND’s charge that AHPETC has been dishonest in managing residents’ service and conservancy charges (S&CC).
Mr Wong highlighted that the High Court found AHPETC’s conduct to be “the height of financial irresponsibility”, as it did not transfer funds to its sinking fund for the last two quarters of FY14/15.
Mr Wong said that these were “serious breaches” which were not rectified at the time of judgement, and the Workers’ Party, managing the town council, had not said when it would be rectified.
Mr Wong also accused Ms Lim of lying in Parliament, as she had told Parliament on 12 February 2015 that AHPETC has been making these transfers, but did not mention that the transfers were late, with one still outstanding.
Mr Wong also cited the judgement as saying that the government would not step in to bail out a town council should the “Town Councillors turn rogue and run off with funds”.
“This is the crux of the entire saga. When there is dishonesty in the town council, it is the residents who suffer,” said Mr Wong. “An irresponsible or dishonest party can meet its current obligations by using the monies to meet immediate expenses, and not transfer monies to the sinking fund.”
However, Ms Lim pointed out that the High Court’s key judgement was chiefly on a legal matter – whether the court had power to entertain the MND’s request for the court to appoint and authorise independent accountants to co-sign cheques for the disbursement of the FY 14/15 and FY 15/16 $14m Town Council grants which the MND had withheld; and to look into AHPETC’s past transactions.
“The High Court accepted the arguments of AHPETC’s lawyers that there were no legal bases whatsoever for the MND’s request, and accordingly, threw out the government’s entire case,” said Ms Lim.
Ms Lim also said that the case was not a trial and the High Court did not go on any fact-find exercise. In particular, the finds by the High Court were based principally on the findings of the earlier Auditor-General’s Office (AGO) Report on AHPETC.
Ms Lim denied that she lied to Parliament, and noted that Parliament has avenues such as the Committee of Privileges to ensure that MPs’ conduct meets the standards expected.
She also said that AHPETC not transferring monies into the sinking funds from its operating funds does not mean that monies are missing, and up to Financial Year 13/14, AHPETC has done the necessary transfers.
However, Ms Lim cautioned that with MND withholding $14 million in grants to AHPETC, the situation could get worse. “If MND continues to withhold the grants from AHPETC that every Town Council should receive, AHPETC will not be able to fulfill its obligations to make the necessary sinking fund transfers,” she said.
Ms Lim also said that AHPETC does not understand why Mr Wong accuse AHPETC or the Workers’ Party of “dishonesty” or “irresponsible” behaviour, as all town councils are required to be audited, and the audit reports are presented to Parliament for public scrutiny.
Town council contractors are also required to comply with rules on the calling of public tenders, and any illegal act or corrupt practice means they have to “face the full consequences of the law”, she said.