Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council seeks court order over Punggol East financial documents

The exterior of the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council office at Block 156A Rivervale Crescent.
The exterior of the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council office at Block 156A Rivervale Crescent.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council (PRPTC) sought a court order on Monday (Oct 24) for documents it needs from Aljunied Hougang Town Council (AHTC). It is the third time both town councils, run by rival political parties, have gone to court over the issue.

PRPTC's lawyer Davinder Singh told the three-judge Court of Appeal that the town council continued to be "pushed around, frustrated and stymied" in its bid to obtain the documents needed to review the accounts of Punggol East.

The PRPTC took over the constituency from Workers' Party-run AHTC after last year's General Election.

But AHTC said, through lawyer Peter Low, that it had made an effort to hand over the documents, and had met 10 times with PRPTC and PRPTC's accountant, PWC, over it from July to October.

The latest hearing comes more than two months after the town councils agreed in court for AHTC to hand over all documents that relate strictly to Punggol East.

Both sides had also agreed to have their lawyers and accountants work out the conditions for access to "townwide" documents relating to Punggol East as well as other constituencies under AHTC.

Yesterday, Mr Singh said PRPTC had not received any of the documents in this category, and had not received all the documents relating solely to Punggol East.

He added that one set of documents was needed to make sense of the other, and without both sets, PRPTC would not be able to review if past payments made by Punggol East to its vendors had been proper.

He asked for a court order directing AHTC to instruct its own accountant, KPMG, to hand over all the documents in KPMG's possession no later than Oct 29.

But AHTC said the remaining documents it could not hand over contained information relating to other parts of the town council.

AHTC vice-chairman Sylvia Lim, who asked to address the court, cited the example of payment vouchers which may contain payments for services rendered to Punggol East as well as other constituencies under AHTC.

She said it would be more convenient for PWC to view the files at AHTC's office, instead of having AHTC extract the information.

Mr Low added that the town council had confidentiality concerns and was only willing to give PRPTC and PWC access to the "townwide" documents on several conditions.

Among them are that PRPTC cannot reveal to a third party, such as representatives of the media, any information deemed confidential.

Mr Low said this includes the identity of vendors, pricing and quotations. He asked the court to include a protection for this information in its order.

Mr Singh countered that PRPTC should be permitted to use the documents as long as it was done in the exercise of its rights and in the discharge of its duties.

He said since Punggol East is now under PRPTC, the town council should be entitled to the documents.

He added that agreeing to AHTC's conditions would prevent PRPTC from fulfilling its duties to its residents.

For instance, he said, information on vendors and quotations is "fundamental information" which the town council may have to disclose if monies were lost because particular vendors had been preferred under dubious circumstances.

He also said that ordering any protection for confidentiality may have future implications for other town councils during handovers.

But Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said that while he accepted the principle that "what is decided here may shine a light on future occasions", its implications may not be so wide because of the specific circumstances of the current case.

He said the case is partly the result of the way then-AHPETC, now known as AHTC, had arranged its documents, and the result of one part of AHPETC changing hands.

On use of the documents, CJ Menon said PRPTC should not be limited in what they do, because it was entitled to the documents.

"If matters in the town council had been arranged in a different way, such that Punggol East's documents were discrete and complete, I don't think there would be any argument that Punggol East is entitled to these documents," he said.

The court's concern, he added, was to "make sure (AHTC's) legitimate confidentiality interests are not implicated".

He also said that"any restriction in access had to be rooted in a specific concern of confidentiality."

The judges will make a decision within the week.

Meanwhile, AHTC said in a statement on Monday evening that it was working with KPMG to complete a review on past payments it has made, which would also cover transactions involving Punggol East. It said the report is "expected to be released around Oct 31".