Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat put forth a motion in Parliament on Tuesday (5 November) calling for Worker’s Party (WP) MPs Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang to recuse themselves from dealing with or having oversight over financial matters of the Aljunied-Huogang Town Council (AHTC) until the court case has ended.
In his long speech calling for the motion, Mr Heng referred to the High Court judgement which found Ms Lim, Mr Low, and WP chief Pritam Singh liable for damages suffered by AHTC, which it has been said made improper payments under their watch amounting to millions.
As Mr Heng delivered his motion, he claimed that Ms Lim and Mr Low had been “dishonest and deceptive and have failed in their duty to the Town Council”.
Mr Heng asked, “Will the Workers’ Party provide the House with any guarantees to uphold accountability and transparency between now and the appeal?”
Millions of dollars
After his lengthy speech in which the DPM recounted in detail the entire saga, Ms Lim sought clarification on a remark made by Mr Heng in his speech. She asked, “In his speech, he mentioned that millions have been lost, if I heard him correctly, and my question for him is, is this a finding of the Court or does this remain an allegation?”
In response, Mr Heng said, “I have mentioned in my speech that the Court’s finding has been very clear that you have contracts worth millions of dollars which have been awarded under circumstances for which it was not quite justified and the findings have been very clear in the auditor’s report, in two auditor’s report, and in the Court findings.”
He continued to explain that he did not exactly say that millions of dollars have been, hesitating slightly and cutting himself off as he flipped through his folders before dropping the point entirely, for now. Instead, he moved on to the other queries raised by Ms Lim.
In the beginning of his speech, Mr Heng said that the motion he has raised is also “about the integrity and character expect of public officials and MPs” and that it “pained” him to move this motion particularly because he has “always had a high regard” for Mr Low Thia Khiang.
He continued, “But there are important questions of public interest to consider. I will mention just a few at the outset. Millions of dollars of public funds are involved”
Immediately after coming back from the break he requested, Mr Heng clarified: “So I checked my file. The exact words that I’ve used is: ‘there are important questions of public interest to consider, I’ll just mention a few at the outset. Millions of dollars in public funds are involved’. That is the exact words that I’ve used.”
Claims that WP has not been transparent
Ms Lim had also asked Mr Heng to clarify his remark on the AHTC not cooperating with the AGO in its investigation. She asked, “The third clarification is he seemed to suggest that we had obstructed the AGO in its work. I hope he can clarify that because I do not think that the AGO actually said anything of that nature.”
She noted that Mr Heng repeatedly said that the AHTC “had hidden documents from auditors which if produced would have revealed the truth”. She asked, “Can he explain what exactly is he talking about?”
On these two points, just before requesting for a break, Mr Heng said, “The fact is there were many documents that were asked for but the town council did not provide but despite that, the AGO has important findings that merited action. So there were documents which we asked for which you did not provide.”
He later added, “Many documents were produced during the Court of Appeal hearing and also the various court procedures and it was only when those emails were produced that we revealed the truth on how FMSS was appointed.”
Later, after coming back from the break, Mr Heng passed on those queries for further clarification to Senior Minister of State Edwin Tong instead who first addressed the issue of documentations that the auditors requested but was not made available.
He said, “They [The Auditors] sought documents in relation to transactions that were entered into after WP took over in the town council. They were not made available. In the following year in 2013, the same qualifiers were made.”
He then quoted from the Price Waterhouse Cooper report that said “no single email on matters in relation to the takeover of the MA and EMSU contract services by FMSS including the termination of CPG, the award of contracts to FMSS, and or FMSS performance of works was given to us for review. Though in our view, such emails ought to exist.”
A question of integrity
There was also a point in the debate when WP MP Png Eng Huat sought clarification for something Mr Heng said about cosignatories on cheques relating to AHTC. he asked, “So is the minister implying that the cheque can be cashed with just one signature even though we set it up so that two signatures must be there before we can the cheque under AHTC?”
Deflecting, Mr Heng said: “Well the WP members have asked a whole series of questions on details but let me get back to why I moved this motion. I moved this motion because this is a question of integrity, this is a question of the way that we deal honestly in parliament with our residents, with the public, and with our fellow town councillors.”
He went on to ask Ms Lim and Mr Low again if they would recuse themselves and if Chairman of the AHTC Mr Faisal Manap will take any action on the matter. He also asked what Secretary General of WP Mr Pritam Singh intends to do given these findings.
Mr Png retorted, “If you say that someone can cash a cheque with one signature instead of two like what we have said, it’s a question of integrity. Come on.”
Mr Tong later spoke on the issue of the cheques, saying, “You just have to look at the summary of the judgement to know that we are not talking about one cheque here or two signatories there. Don’t penny pinch your dime with us.”
The AHTC case
On 11 October, Judge Kannan Ramesh, in his written judgement, ruled that Lim and Low as town councillors had acted in breach of their fiduciary duties to AHTC, reasoning that the breach was evident in the waiver of tender leading to the award of the first managing agent contract to FM Solutions & Services (FMSS).
The waiver, said the judge, was “not justified under the Town Council Financial Rules (TCFR), and that subsequently, Lim and Low had “failed to act in AHTC’s best interests and had acted for extraneous purposes”.
“The evidence shows that there was a clear plan for FMSS to replace the incumbent MA CPG regardless of CPG’s intention as regards the existing MA contract, and that this decision was made by Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang shortly after the 2011 General Elections,” said Justice Kannan.
“There was no urgency of circumstances that would have justified the waiver of tender, particularly since CPG was contractually obliged to continue serving as the MA under the existing MA contract, and the defendants should have held CPG to that contractual obligation, at least for such time as was necessary for a tender to be called,” he added.
As for Mr Singh, the judge said that while “it cannot be said that he has breached his fiduciary duties to AHTC” based on the available evidence, the former had breached his “duties of skill and care” to the Town Council in relation to the award of the first MA contract.