With Justice Kannan Ramesh having found Workers’ Party leaders Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim guilty of breaching their fiduciary duties with the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, the next stages in the lawsuit saga will be the outcome of appeal and decisions on the amounts to be recovered from all parties involved. These are the legal aspects of the case. But the AHTC trial has never been just about the law. The whole thing can also be seen as political. There are a number of takeaways from the trial – the repercussions of which will affect the forthcoming general elections and the political scene in Singapore.
The judge said the town councillor is like the director of a company or members of a strata development management company. The councillor has to discharge his fiduciary obligations – even if he is just a volunteer and paid an honorarium of only $300 a month. Justice Ramesh said: “In fact, the analysis which I have adopted means that the fiduciary relationship between town councillors and their town council is entirely distinct from the political relationship between town councillors and their constituents.”
Put simply, politics is politics and duty is duty – whether or not discharging the duty is done, as the WP put it, in good faith, presumably referring to the lapses. Good faith or not, Justice Ramesh was scathing in his description of the WP leaders who, he said, put their own political interests over that of AHTC. The WP politicians will appeal the findings.
Are Singaporeans satisfied with the town council system?
The first outcome of the findings is the intensification of the spotlight on better governance of town councils. No one can quarrel with that. But Singaporeans must not confuse the lapses with offences which are criminal. What took place at AHTC was a civil breach. We now have a clearer picture of what to expect whenever any political party runs an enlarged town council or a number of constituencies.
We can expand vigorously on this expectation. Maybe, we should now make this an issue in the GE. Let us hope that, in all fairness, all town councils – whether run by the PAP or Opposition – will be subject to equal transparency and standard.
And let the same expectation cover all constituency work done by and linked with all government agencies, including the HDB or any organisation involved even in grassroots activities. By standard, fairness and transparency, I mean especially during the transfer of authority, backup services and facilities to any newly elected Opposition party – as a matter of national policy.
Otherwise, the AHTC trial would have been a waste of public time, effort and resources – meant only to put undue pressure on the Opposition. To keep all on their toes, the culture of whistleblowing must be actively encouraged to expose wrongdoing, malpractices, tardiness – at every level and by any political party.
The next question is: What now, WP? Or is it still too early to talk about its situation. I carefully choose the word “situation” because its fate has not been sealed, far from it. They are seeking their lawyers’ advice. As secretary-general Pritam Singh said, work goes on. It has enough goodwill and ground support to tide over its situation. The party raised $1 million in three days in a crowdfunding appeal for help.
I seriously doubt anything is going to stop this well-established party from defending its Aljunied GRC and Hougang seats and contesting strongly in suitable wards in the election. It has enough good calibre candidates besides the big two. It may even benefit from sympathy votes. The backlash against the establishment because of the AHTC trial in addition to the traditional 5 per cent backswing against the incumbent ruling party after its unusually good showing in 2015 – which was part of the swing after 2011 – will probably be the voters’ own verdict of the trial in the GE. Put bluntly, Aljunied and Hougang have not become ghettoes. Few people seriously think Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim are charlatans. Singapore has not collapsed. The Opposition has become institutionalised.
And the takeaway for other Opposition parties hoping to get into Parliament is this: They should learn from the WP’s experience as well as the Chiam See Tong-SDP’s experience (when the SDP was in power in Potong Pasir, Gombak and Nee Soon Central). Be better prepared when and should they take over. If voters are not confident they can do a better job than the WP or, now, Dr Tan Cheng Bock who was a very popular PAP MP in Ayer Rajah and was almost endorsed by the whole country as our President in 2011, theirs would be a lost cause from the start.
Finally, the real monkey in the room has always been: Why are political parties in charge of running town councils? Is this not the job of the HDB? Should not everything be thrown back at the HDB? This is its work and this is what it is good at doing, taking care of the municipal problems at the constituency level. Development work other than these should be the territory of the relevant ministry or agency and they should be answerable to Parliament where the elected representatives can then question their decisions or plans.
There is a blockbuster Netflix series called Stranger Things. I would classify the HDB questioning someone on what itself ought to be doing as one of these Stranger Things. Can only happen in Singapore.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.