SINGAPORE - It was of "overriding importance" to former Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang that staff at his old constituency keep their jobs, to the extent that he would have rejected a bid by any potential managing agent that did not do so, even if it was "cheaper, more experienced and had more qualified staff".
By prioritising the job security of these Hougang Town Council staff - many whom were WP supporters - Mr Low had "locked" Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) in to its managing agent FM Solutions & Services (FMSS), at the expense of his residents.
Senior Counsel Davinder Singh laid out this argument on Wednesday (Oct 17), the ninth day of a multimillion-dollar civil suit to recover alleged improper payments by AHTC to FMSS.
His contention was rebutted by Mr Low.
Mr Singh, who is representing Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council (PRPTC), brought up Mr Low's arguments last week that town councils were, by nature, political entities and that none of the three managing agent companies in existence then would have worked for AHTC.
Among other things, these firms were concerned that working for AHTC would affect their business with other People's Action Party-led wards, Mr Low said. As such, he felt he had no choice but to ask his supporters, Ms How Weng Fan and her husband Danny Loh, to set up FMSS.
But on Wednesday, Mr Singh argued that if FMSS was engaged and led by WP supporters, it would give these other companies an "additional reason" to not bid for AHTC's contract in subsequent tenders.
Mr Low disagreed.
Mr Singh said: "But your whole thesis is that this is political, that some (companies) will only serve the PAP and so you had to start your own... (Did you therefore know that) having a tender after the first term would not result in any bids coming from these companies?"
Mr Low said: "No, this is (on) a commercial basis. Anyone who thinks that it is a good (deal) would tender for it."
Mr Singh replied: "You can't have it both ways… Now AHTC has gone beyond just being a WP town; it has engaged a WP company to provide managing agent services. You would have known that calling a tender for the second year would have resulted in no bids except from the chosen one."
In allowing FMSS to be the managing agent from the start of the WP's takeover, Mr Singh added, Mr Low had "effectively put AHTC in a position where it was locked into FMSS going forward".
He contended that AHTC had lost its negotiating power when no other companies apart from FMSS submitted bids for the managing agent tender it called in April 2012.
Mr Low disputed this. "If FMSS wanted something ridiculous, I would revert to direct management."
But Mr Singh said: "You were putting AHTC in a position... where FMSS had been given a gun they could put to AHTC's head."
Mr Low said: "They may have a gun but they don't have the trigger."
Mr Singh went on to label Mr Low's suggestion of reverting to direct management of a town council if FMSS had made exorbitant demands as merely an assertion.
"Because of the path you chose, you put AHTC in a vulnerable position and therefore compromised the interests of the residents," Mr Singh said.
Later, Mr Singh questioned why Mr Low had allowed FMSS - "a new kid on the block with no experience managing a town of this size" -to charge AHTC the same price that former managing agent CPG Facilities Management did.
Mr Low said the firm was "the best possible option we had at the time".
Mr Singh said: "It's not a question of choice, it's a question of taking this valuable asset and handing it on a silver platter to your own people. Same price, same terms apparently."
Mr Low disagreed, pointing to FMSS' decision not to tender in 2015. "We took (the town) back for direct management so it's not impossible. We can do it. If FMSS gave a ridiculous price, that would be a gun against us, so no."
Responsible town councillors
Mr Singh also made the case that Mr Low and his fellow town councillors did not do what responsible town councillors would have done, when they agreed to FMSS' contract - which made reference to CPG's previous terms - without ever reading the original contract.
He said: "A responsible town council with responsible town councillors must ask themselves which part of that CPG contract is now applicable and which part is not applicable, correct? It's very basic... and you didn't ask that question."
Mr Low said: "Yes, I didn't ask."
Mr Singh said: "As far as you know, none of the elected MPs asked that question. So it follows that none of you conducted yourself responsibly."
Mr Low replied: "Yes, specifically we didn't."
Conflicts of interest
Separately, the question of whether Mr Low, as AHTC's vice-chairman, had paid attention to conflicts of interest in his town council - and considered them a "big deal" - came under the spotlight as well.
In an e-mail copied to him on Aug 3, 2011, Mr Low was made aware of such a conflict, said Mr Singh.
WP chairman Sylvia Lim had been asked if the other town councillors should be told that Mr Loh, whose company FM Solutions & Integrated Services had provided services to Hougang Town Council, was the husband of the town council's former secretary How Weng Fan.
This was given that Hougang Town Council had awarded Mr Loh's company an Essential Maintenance Services Unit contract.
While Mr Low replied the e-mail to say there was no harm in making it known, Mr Singh pointed out that the disclosure was not done eventually. "Did you ask Ms Lim why it wasn't done?"
Mr Low replied that he did not.
Asked why, Mr Low said: "Why should I? She is the chairman."
To this, Mr Singh countered: "You're a town councillor, and the vice-chairman."
Mr Low explained that they may have missed these issues, as they had been busy at the time.
Mr Singh put to him that he could not have missed it, given that it was a day before the town councillors' meeting and Ms Lim had replied two hours after Mr Low's e-mail, to say the disclosure could and should be made.
To this, Mr Low said he did not know if he had read Ms Lim's reply, and acknowledged that he did not ask her about it later.
"It would appear that having decided initially it should be disclosed, a decision was made not to," suggested Mr Singh.
Mr Low said the best person to ask would be Ms Lim, and questioned if it was “a big deal” to disclose it.
"It's not a big deal? Do you know we are in court today because of this?" asked Mr Singh.
"At that point of time, it wasn't a big deal," said Mr Low, who upon further questioning added that since the court case had proceeded thus far, it did appear to be a serious matter.
Mr Singh pressed on: "The e-mails show that it was an important issue even then. Three minds were applied to the issue, and I suggest to you, that a decision was made to suppress this from the town councillors."
But Mr Low held his ground, countering that it was "absolutely not true".