AHTC trial: Unusual start to trial as Low Thia Khiang seeks to clarify why he felt 'distrust' over ex-managing agent

Former Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang arriving at the Supreme Court on Oct 18, 2018.
Former Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang arriving at the Supreme Court on Oct 18, 2018.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Former Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang was so troubled by some of the answers he had given on Wednesday (Oct 17) that on Thursday morning he asked the court for permission to clarify his testimony.

But Senior Counsel Davinder Singh took issue with this, arguing that it was "inappropriate for a witness to volunteer" information when he was not called to.

It was an unusual start to the 10th day of a multimillion-dollar suit to recover alleged improper payments made by Mr Low and seven other defendants to their managing agent, FM Solutions & Services (FMSS), using Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) funds.

The issue that had been troubling Mr Low related to his earlier answers about allowing incumbent managing agent CPG Facilities Management to sit in on a meeting on July 21, 2011. On Thursday, he sought to make the point that he had been uncomfortable with the presence of one of the CPG representatives because of previous dealings with him.

Mr Singh, countered, however, that Mr Low had made up this evidence overnight.

At 10am, the start of the hearing on Thursday, Mr Singh, who is representing Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council, rose to say his cross-examination of Mr Low had ended - to the surprise of many in the room.

Seconds after this, Mr Low asked to clarify some of his answers from the day before.

 
 
 
 

Over the next 20 minutes, Mr Singh and Mr Low's lawyer, Senior Counsel Chelva Rajah, traded arguments over whether the former WP chief should be allowed to take the stand.

Mr Singh said he had given Mr Low "every opportunity" to clarify his answers throughout his 1½-day cross-examination.

Allowing Mr Low to speak in this "twilight zone", between the end of cross-examination and the start of re-examination, would give him "carte blanche… to add anything he wishes to add", he said.

"There is no such provision in our rules and processes which allows the witness to dictate what he wishes to state," he added, urging the court to take a "principled approach".

But Mr Rajah said Mr Low's request was not an unusual one, and that the court normally takes what is a "sensible, proactive and fair" stand.

In the end, Justice Kannan Ramesh allowed the WP MP to make his clarifications, although on several occasions he asked him to keep them brief.

Mr Low said he "struggled over the night" about an exchange from the day before, when Mr Singh had pressed him on why his town council had deferred a meeting in which the incumbent managing agent, CPG Facilities Management, would be present.

Mr Low had said repeatedly he was "uncomfortable" and that there was a level of "distrust", but could not tell Mr Singh why he felt that way.

Mr Singh then charged that Mr Low and his fellow MPs did not want CPG to find out they were appointing FMSS as AHTC's managing agent, because they wanted to avoid having to call for a tender.

On Thursday, Mr Low told Justice Ramesh: "If I don't clarify, your honour might smell a rat with the suggestion from Mr Singh that I had something to hide (and that would be) a miscarriage of justice. I thought it was better to explain and let your honour know what was (the reason behind) my hesitance."

Mr Low explained that he wanted to postpone the meeting because he did not trust Mr Seng Joo How, the CPG representative who had been AHTC's deputy secretary on June 4, 2011, a few days before the meeting in question.

His bad experience with Mr Seng, now chief executive of CPG, dated back to 1991, when the latter was a Housing Board official dealing with town councils, Mr Low said on Thursday.

At that time, Mr Low had been newly elected as MP for Hougang. But soon after, he faced several obstacles that he believes were politically motivated, including the sudden termination of his town council's office at HDB premises.

Mr Seng was a "public servant who was supposed to help but didn't seem to do so", he said. "I can't expect… to feel comfortable discussing matters of importance to the town council."

He went on: "I was hesitant yesterday because this goes into personal matters and it may not be fair to him because he is not here (at the trial to defend himself)... But because of the inference Mr Singh made, it would be an injustice to us if I let this injustice (to Mr Seng) take priority."

Mr Singh charged that Mr Low had made up this evidence overnight, after realising that the public would wonder why he could not provide an answer.

"You considered it would not just be damaging to you legally but politically, because you could not answer why something, which you claim which is completely defensible, was suppressed," he said.

Mr Low disagreed.

Mr Singh then asked Mr Low if he thought it was important that town councils appoint secretaries who are "good, reliable and trustworthy". Mr Low said yes.

Mr Singh then referred to town council minutes taken in June 2011, when Mr Seng was unanimously appointed the deputy secretary of AHTC, and said Mr Low must have felt he possessed those qualities to have voted for him.

"I didn't object to it," Mr Low said.

But Mr Singh asked, repeatedly, for Mr Low to give him a yes or no answer.

Mr Low said he did not share his concerns about Mr Seng with his fellow town councillors as he thought it was not fair for him "to question his integrity" over issues that took place more than 20 years ago.

But Mr Singh said that as a town councillor, Mr Low had a duty to appoint the right people to the right posts. He asked several times if Mr Low supported the town council's decision to appoint Mr Seng to the role. Each time, Mr Low said he did not object.

Finally, Mr Singh changed tack: "You were a member of the town council, all of whom appointed Mr Seng as deputy secretary, correct?"

Mr Low agreed.

Mr Singh replied: "So the evidence that you dreamt up last night is not just false, but you came to this court this morning ready and determined to lie and to mislead his honour."

Mr Low said that was not true, and Mr Singh concluded his cross-examination.

RE-EXAMINATION

When re-examined on his answers to Mr Singh's questions over the past two days, Mr Low also clarified on Thursday that he had not agreed to the assertion that FMSS was "locked in" as managing agent.

Rather, he was saying yes to the first part of the Senior Counsel's question - on whether it was right that none of three other companies would offer their services to the town council.

Asked by Mr Rajah what his answer to the second part of the question was - on whether FMSS was "locked in" - Mr Low replied: "No."

Mr Rajah also sought to establish that a hypothetical scenario Mr Singh had earlier put to Mr Low was not realistic.

Mr Singh had asked whether Mr Low would have rejected a cheaper tenderer with experienced and more qualified staff, even if they did not fulfil the condition of employing existing Hougang Town Council staff - as his overriding concern was their employment.

On Wednesday, Mr Low had said "yes".

But on Thursday morning, Mr Rajah asked Mr Low if, in reality, he expected any of the established players to put in such a tender.

Before Mr Low could answer, Mr Singh objected: "The answer is as clear as daylight, the answer is yes."

Justice Ramesh noted that the thrust of Mr Singh's question was whether Mr Low's overarching consideration was the employment of the Hougang staff, adding that the clarification was not relevant.

To this, Mr Rajah replied: "The state of mind that is driving (Mr Low) is not one that is formed by the hypothetical, especially non-existent (ones)... it is formed by reality."

Justice Ramesh said the point has been touched on in Mr Low's affidavit.

The trial continues after lunch, and WP chairman Sylvia Lim is expected to take the stand.