I knew there would be fireworks but I didn’t think the trial would start with a bang, with Senior Counsel Davinder Singh accusing Mr Low Thia Kiang of attempting to reduce his cross-examination time by insisting on having a Chinese interpreter on board. He called the request a “stunt”, a term which Mr Low’s lawyer, SC Chelva Rajah objected to. In any case, it was quickly resolved with a pledge by the defence that the interpreter would be used only when Mr Low found it easier to express his thoughts in Mandarin.
This beginning, however, set the tone for the rest of the exchange between the veteran Workers’ Party politician and the former People’s Action Party MP, who is acting for the independent entity that is Aljunied-Hougang town council. It got testy at times with Mr Singh chiding Mr Low for laughing on the stand. Mr Low once shot back at the end of an exchange: “I am not that stupid, Mr Singh”.
With the two auditors out of the way, the court yesterday turned its attention to the defendants, which include two other WP MPs, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Pritam Singh. Mr Davinder Singh opened his cross-examination by getting Mr Low to agree that the role of a town councillor was above party politics, and dedicated to serving the interests of residents who pay service and conservancy fees. The words “honest town councillor” would pepper most of Mr Singh’s questions.
For the next three hours, the focus was on the circumstances leading to the appointment of FM Solutions and Services as the town council’s managing agent, which is a key plank of the plaintiffs’ suit to get the defendants to account for $33million they had paid out. The defence had always contended that it had little choice but to appoint the company led by the husband-and-wife team, Ms How Weng Fan and the late Danny Loh, because the former managing agent, CPG Facilities, did not want to continue with its job at Aljunied Town Council.
Mr Singh took Mr Low through emails and correspondence in the first week of WP’s takeover of Aljunied GRC in May 2011 to make the point that contrary to the WP’s assertions, it was never its intention to retain CPG. Rather, it was “crystal clear”, said Mr Singh, that the party wanted CPG “out right from the start and at all cost” for the benefit of Ms How and the staffers at WP-run Hougang TC. That was why Mr Low suggested that a company be set up, and this accomplished before the week was out.
“You’ve come to this court to talk about politics but instead what you were doing was putting politics above the residents,” he said. Mr Low denied the charge repeatedly and claimed that FMSS’ establishment was a “contingency plan” put in place to ensure that residents had a smooth transition from one party to another.
It wasn’t a good day for Mr Low.
He was forced to admit that he did not look at the contract between CPG and the former PAP town council, whether to ascertain its terms and conditions or see if any penalties would be incurred for breaches such as a sudden pull-out. Yet, FMSS was allowed to levy the same rates as CPG. Mr Singh deemed his attitude “reckless”, which got Mr Low’s hackles up.
Mr Singh claimed that a series of communications between Ms How and CPG in the first week on the transfer of town council documents, including its financials, also indicated that CPG would not be retained as managing agent. Mr Low, however, contended that the transfer was merely to effect a change of management from the PAP to WP.
Mr Singh also alleged that the communication was carefully crafted so that CPG would think that its estate management work would be done “in-house”, that is, directly by the town council. He said this was done so that the WP would not be pressured into calling for a tender, leaving the field open to only FMSS.
There were quite a few issues regarding FMSS, which was suggested by Mr Low and incorporated within a few days after the 2011 general election, such as:
a. Why pick people who didn’t have the experience of running a town with 40,000 units to manage the estate instead trying to retain a tried and tested one like CPG? Mr Low reiterated that FMSS was an alternative fallback plan because he was uncertain if CPG would stay on. He acknowledged later that he didn’t ask CPG, nor did CPG indicate, if it wanted to pull out to continue. Not until May 30.
b. Why didn’t WP simply employ Ms How and have salaried employees as was the case with the Hougang TC which had been under direct management of the MPs? Mr Low’s case was that direct management took up too much of an MP’s time and would not offer staff a career path. It was best to outsource the job to a reliable and trustworthy managing agent, which Ms How had proven herself to be in Hougang TC.
c. But why set up a company which would have as profit as one of its objectives? Mr Low said he didn’t consider this as a factor. Mr Singh then claimed that it was to persuade an initially reluctant Ms How and Mr Loh to continue working for the town council.
Mr Singh also noted that Mr Low had said in his affidavit that he thought the introduction of a new company would inject competition into the estate management business and would be an attractive option to for other opposition parties which managed to win wards in elections. “You wanted a start-up to boost the work of opposition parties,” said Mr Singh. Mr Low replied that he was talking about the positive outcomes that a start-up in the market could bring.
As I said, it wasn’t a good day for Mr Low. Mr Singh kept his questioning tight, requiring yes or no answers. His key message was that Mr Low did not exercise “due diligence” in the running of the town council, and wasn’t behaving like an “honest town councillor”.
The cross examination continues tomorrow and we might hear more about the pullout of Action Integrated Management (AIM), which the defendants claim had left the town council stripped of software. All we got today was how, even in the initial week, WP had asked CPG for the financial records and a meeting with its computer vendor, because it wanted to upgrade its in-house system to incorporate Aljunied’s data.
Mr Low corrected Mr Singh: “Upscale, not upgrade”.
Mr Singh thanked Mr Low for correcting his English.
In reply, Mr Low thanked the lawyer for having a higher regard for his command of the English language than the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had.