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AHTC trial: Up against a battering ram

I suppose if you were up against a battering ram like Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, you’d be careful about your replies too. So you attach qualifiers like “possibly’’, “perhaps’’, “far as possible’’, “where applicable’’ or the all-time favorite, “I cannot recollect’’ to your answers to his questions. It gives you some wriggle room. Except that as far as the lawyer concerned, these were all prevarications if not downright lies.

So town council chairman Sylvia Lim was put in a bit of spot over the past few days because she declined to give yes or no answers to questions and had to be cross-examined intensively over much the same ground. Ms Lim, herself a lawyer, gave herself time to compose her replies and to refer to written documents. But Mr Singh still got his “gotcha!’ moments.

Ms Lim is named as the first defendant, although she appeared on the stand after her old chief, Mr Low Thia Kiang did so, in the on-going civil suit brought by Aljunied Hougang and Pasir-Ris Punggol town councils against eight parties, including three MPs.

Clearly, Mr Singh’s aim was to cast doubt on the credibility of Ms Lim, by suggesting that she withheld information or was careless with the truth about, at least for now, the appointment of FM Solutions and Services as managing agent.  For example, she didn’t want the old managing agent to know that there would not be a new tender for the job, nor did she make public the shareholdings of FMSS which is run by a husband-and-wife team who are Workers’ Party supporters.That is, she and Mr Low had the same motive: to give the job to FMSS, whether it was qualified or not.

Mr Singh went further, to get Ms Lim to say that the rest of the elected MPs were as careless and negligent about their duties to residents by not asking more questions about FMSS’ appointment.

And this morning, he took it all the way, when he said that Ms Lim didn’t tell the truth in a media statement in FMSS appointment, hence misleading “the entire country.

In the statement in August 2011, she had said that the town council didn’t incur extra costs when it appointed FMSS. While it was true that FMSS was employed at the same rate as CPG, she neglected to say that there were expenses incurred from hiring new employees to prepare for the handover. The court did not hear details of this cost, but this appears to amount to some $89,150 according to auditor KPMG’s report.

To almost all of Mr Singh’s allegations, Ms Lim denied that there was any intent to mislead anyone, whether town councilors, residents or the media. For example, she took it for granted that the MPs and councilors were on the same page when they were told FMSS was hired on the same “specifications’’ as CPG, that is, the same contract. It took a lot of lawyerly skill on Mr Singh’s part to get her to acknowledge that town council financial reporting rules had been breached because, despite whatever understanding was reached among the parties involved, she did not disclose the rates FMSS was charging.

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Ms Lim and the MPs didn’t come out looking good.

FMSS was supposed to work and be paid along the same terms and conditions or “specifications’’ as the former agent, CPG Facilities. But there was no evidence that anyone examined the old contract or asked questions. In fact, in October 2011, Mr Low said in an email that he had not read the old contract. By then, FMSS had been on the job for some three months.

What about the appointed town councillors? Their go-ahead was needed for the appointment and going by what Mr Singh suggested, this was apparently given without a clear understanding of what the contract between FMSS and the town council entailed. Besides the fact that two of them, Mr David Chua and Mr Kenneth Foo, are among the eight defendents, there has been almost next to no information on who these councillors are or even how many of them were appointed in 2011.

This is a little explored issue: the duties and responsibilities of town councilors. How are they appointed? On the basis of party affiliation? Or drawn from the grassroots network or among residents of the estate? And do these volunteers have a fiduciary obligation to the residents to safeguard their money? Doubtless these questions will arise in the later stages of this trial.

For now, it looks like the WP didn’t dot their i’s nor crossed their t’s. (Mr Singh would say it doesn’t even know the letters of the alphabet). It does look odd that no one seemed to be too concerned about the managing agent’s rates, beyond being satisfied that they would be the same as before. Plenty of trust seemed to have been placed on Ms Lim’s leadership. Ms Lim, however, did produce evidence to show that she herself queried some rates charged for projects.

What is coming across is an active distrust on the part of the opposition towards any element that seems connected to the ruling People’s Action Party. This isn’t a surprise given how town councils are really political exercises in estate management. PAP-owned Action Integrated Management, for example, could withdraw its computer services from the WP town council because its contract stipulated that it could do so if there were “material changes to the membership of the town council’’.

The question is whether this distrust is translated into an active partiality towards political supporters that is to the detriment of residents. If anything, this trial shows the importance of residents having a greater interest in the workings of their town council, beyond simply wanting working lifts and clean corridors. After all, we should all be getting the best value for our money, never mind which party is in charge.


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