The Workers’ Party (WP) revealed in a statement yesterday that Aljunied GRC Members of Parliament (MPs) Low Thia Khiang, Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh have filed a joint defence through their lawyers in the Ajunied-Hougang Town Council lawsuit that was initiated last month.
The lawsuit was filed by an independent panel that was set up to investigate governance lapses and improper payments using public funds in the town council. The panel was appointed by the AHTC at the behest of Housing & Development Board, and is seeking to claim a total of S$4,790,095.49 in court comprising S$622,593.78 in liquidated claims and S$4,167,501.71 in unliquidated claims.
The independent panel was set up in February 2017 after audit firm KPMG released a report last year that AHTC had put millions of dollars from public funds at risk of improper use due to governance lapses from 2011-2015. KPMG had flagged payments to the town council’s then-managing agent FM Solutions and Services (FMSS) as ‘improper’ since the owners of FMSS held key management and financial control positions in the town council at the same time.
The KPMG report asserted that this meant that FMSS effectively approved and made payments to itself using public funds.
In a statement released on the WP website, the three MPs maintained that they have always acted in good faith and in the best interests of their constituents:
“We maintain that, at all times, we had acted in good faith and in accordance with our duties as Town Councillors. Our actions had the best interests of the residents of AHTC at heart and sought to ensure that AHTC was able to fulfil all its functions and duties, notwithstanding the difficult circumstances that we were faced with.”
The MPs, who are represented by law firm Tan Rajah & Cheah, also released two annexes, outlining the circumstances and context for their appointment of FMSS.
The first annex delved into the “huge challenge” Low was faced with when he took over the Hougang constituency after the 1991 general election. It is also said that Low had heard that poor town council management was the reason why the Singapore Democratic Party lost their seats at the 1997 general election.
Low, himself, was reportedly “served notices less than a month after he took over, informing him that the incumbent managing agent was terminating their contract with the town council and that the town council had to quit their then-premises on short notice.”
Because of this, his lawyers write, Low “knew that, upon taking over Aljunied GRC, the continuity of essential services by existing service providers was at risk.”
The second annex recounted how CPG, the ex-managing agent for Aljunied Town Council, served notice to be released from its contract “as soon as practicable” after the WP won the ward from the ruling party during the 2011 general election.
Lawyers allege that the town councillors considered it “too politically risky to retain a reluctant and unwilling managing agent in CPG” and also “did not have the luxury of time to call for an open tender” since the process would have taken about two months, and the new managing agent would have had less than a month to settle in. This allegedly may have resulted in a disruption of services to residents in the meantime.
The lawyers also recalled that the Ministry of National Development (MND) had recognised the difficulty faced in the handover, citing an MND town council review report dated 30 April 2013 which put forth that:
“…it is arguable whether this time provision of 90 days…is sufficient in all circumstances, given the need to transfer operating systems and settle other ancillary issues such as the proper handover of all existing contracts, documents and records.”
Lawyers also highlighted the MND report’s recommendations to instate “safeguards to minimise the risk of disruption of critical services during a change in leadership” and have “contractual provisions for one-off extensions following an election where there is a change (of) party in charge of the (town council).”
Meanwhile, a pre-trial conference has been set for 31 August 2017.
The independent panel is chaired by senior counsel Philip Jeyaretnam, and includes senior counsel N. Sreenivasan and KPMG managing partner Ong Pang Thye. Interestingly, Philip Jeyaretnam is the younger son of late opposition politician J.B. Jeyaratnam who led the Workers’ Party from 1971 to 2001.