AHTC case: Residents not surprised by verdict but many hope WP MPs will not be disqualified

The Aljunied-Hougang Town Council's (AHTC) main office in Hougang Central. A High Court judgment had earlier found three Workers' Party MPs liable for damages suffered by AHTC.
The Aljunied-Hougang Town Council's (AHTC) main office in Hougang Central. A High Court judgment had earlier found three Workers' Party MPs liable for damages suffered by AHTC.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Work at the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) continues in earnest, Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh said, even as he and his fellow Aljunied GRC MPs, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang, study a judgment issued by the High Court on Friday (Oct 11).

"We are reviewing the judgment carefully and will take the advice of our lawyers before announcing our next step," Mr Singh said in a Facebook post on Friday evening.

In a 338-page judgment released on Friday afternoon, High Court judge Kannan Ramesh found the trio liable for damages suffered by AHTC.

Later in the day, most of the 20 Aljunied and Hougang residents who were interviewed said they were not surprised by the verdict but expressed the hope that the case would not disqualify them from being MPs.

A second round of hearings will assess and determine the quantum of damages due to the town councils, and how much it can recover from the MPs if they decide not to file an appeal or do not succeed in their attempt.

The trio could be disqualified from being MPs or contesting elections if the damages are large enough to bankrupt them.

Several residents said they hope voters will be able to decide at the polls whether they still support the WP.

"It is not a criminal case. They have not committed a crime. They made a mistake and I'm sure they won't make the same one again," said Ms Rasyidah Suradi, 34, an administrative assistant who lives in Serangoon.

"I think they should be given a chance and the voters will decide," she added.

Information technology administrator Raju Selvaraj, 46, said he would wait to see the final verdict before making any judgment.

 
 
 
 

But the alleged amount of improper payments is "no small sum", he added.

FM Solutions & Services (FMSS), the managing agent hired by Mr Low and Ms Lim in 2011, is said to have received some $33.7 million in improper payments from the town council from July 2011 to July 2015.

"If they really did something wrong, they should be accountable for it. I hope they can offer an explanation or even an apology," said Mr Raju.

A 37-year-old Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) regular serviceman, who wanted to be known only as Mr Khoo, said he will be "thinking carefully" before casting his vote in the next general election.

"The case seems complicated but it is really about trust. It feels like they haven't been totally transparent about how they handled it. As leaders, they must show they can be trusted."

The fallout for the WP's leadership, status and place in Singapore's politics and society could be serious if the damages are large enough to bankrupt the MPs, said National University of Singapore political scientist Bilveer Singh.

He added there is also likely to be increased scrutiny from the public of similar fiduciary failures and lapses, whether they occur under the watch of the opposition or the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

"The lesson from the Workers' Party case is that no one in Singapore who is an elected official and holds the public trust should be in any way allowed to mishandle precious public funds, be it in the Government or the opposition," he added.

Political observer Derek da Cunha noted that the judgment is a cloud over the WP, adding that this could make it politically advantageous for the PAP to call a December election, if the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee releases its report in the next two weeks.

"This is not just because of the cloud over the Workers' Party, but it also obviates the need for the Government to turn next year's Budget into an election Budget," he said.

"There is also the other issue of uncertain economic conditions in 2020, which has become an increasingly obvious issue."