Aljunied-Hougang Town Council has removed Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang — both Members of Parliament for Aljunied GRC — from financial oversight of the town council, with effect from Thursday (16 January) after receiving a rectification order from the the Minister of National Development, Lawrence Wong on 3 January 2020.
In a statement published on the town council’s website, AHTC voiced its surprise that the Minister Wong is invoking Section 43D(2) of the Town Councils Act (TCA) to compel the Town Council to comply with the Ministry’s orders.
Under the section, the Minister, may by order given in writing to the Town Council, require the directed
Town Council —
- to take specified remedial action to address the deficiencies within a specified period and to report to the Minister, at the end of the specified period, on the action taken to give effect to the requirement; or
- to take specified action to correct the irregularity or to guard against the recurrence of irregularities (or both) at the end of the specified period.
If a Town Council fails to comply with a rectification order by the compliance date, the Town Council shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000 and in the case of a continuing offence, to a further fine not exceeding $50 for every day or part of a day during which the offence continues after conviction.
The town council notes that this is a shift by the government from its earlier position in Parliament.
AHTC notes that the Second Minister for Finance lndranee Rajah had — during the debate on the Parliamentary Motion filed by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Heng Swee Keat on 5 November 2019 — affirmed that it was the Town Council who had jurisdiction to decide on whether recusal of Ms Lim and Mr Low from financial oversight of Town Council matters was required and that Parliament was not in a position to compel the Town Council to take any action.
The motion filed by DPM Heng called for Ms Lim and Mr Low to recuse themselves from dealing with or having oversight over financial matters of the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) until the court case has ended.
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. The motion was eventually passed with the majority of People’s Action Party MPs.
AHTC also pointed out that Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee directly addressed a query raised by a Nominated MP in the same debate, as to why the Government was asking Parliament to pass a resolution with no legal force, when the Minister for National Development could conceivably use his powers under Section 43D of the TCA.
In response, Minister Lee told the House that he was familiar with the provision, and noted that Section 43D was passed years after the actions taken by MP Lim and MP Low in 2011. He further highlighted that Section 43D gave powers to the Minister to act after a report or compliance review had been undertaken under the amended Act or after an investigation.
AHTC voiced agreement with the Minister’s opinion that Section 43D is not applicable to the facts due to concerns about retroactivity and the pre-conditions not being met.
“We are thus doubtful as to the propriety of the Rectification Order issued under Section 430(2).” states AHTC.
But as the letter from the ministry warned about the penalty of non-compliance, AHTC noted that it will comply despite its reservations to the order so that it can direct its energies towards fulfilling its core functions of managing and maintaining the HDB estates in Aljunied-Hougang Town for the residents.
According to AHTC,
- With effect from 16 January 2020, Ms Lim has been removed from being an authorised officer to unilaterally incur or approve expenditure on behalf of the Town Council, and no longer authorised to unilaterally accept or waive any quotation or tender for any stores, services or works on behalf of the Town Council.
- With effect from 16 January 2020, Ms Lim’s and Mr Low’s votes at committee meetings involving procurement and expenditure will not be taken into account;
- The Town Council will pass a resolution at its next meeting in February 2020 to remove Ms Lim and Mr Low as cheque signatories. In the meantime, the Town Council will not present cheques to them for signature.
On 4 December 2019, the Ministry of National Development (MND) wrote a letter to AHTC to request for information on AHTC’s reasons for not requiring Ms Lim and Mr Low’s recusal on AHTC’s financial matters, and whether AHTC intends to implement other interim measures or safeguards if Ms Lim and Mr Low were to continue to be involved with AHTC’s financial affairs.
In AHTC’s response to MND dated 13 December 2019, AHTC explained the reasons for not requiring the recusal of Ms Lim and Mr Low from all matters relating to, and oversight over, financial matters at AHTC.
Amongst other facts, the Town Council considered whether Ms Lim and Mr Low had benefitted personally from the award of contracts without tender.
The Town Council discussed and concluded that this was not the case. The Town Council further noted that the judgment did not pass any comment or establish a view that Ms Lim and Mr Low were incapable of handling financial matters.
Over the years, both Ms Lim and Mr Low did not show that they were incapable of handling financial matters at AHTC, a fact that town councillors said that they could vouch for; and AHTC found no compelling reasons to insist on the recusal of Ms Lim and Mr Low from financial matters at AHTC solely on the basis of political decisions taken by Mr Low and Ms Lim in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 general elections.
With the various internal control procedures in place, AHTC is of the view that there are sufficient checks and balances in place.