Abstaining on AHTC motion, two NMPs voice concerns over timing and political overtones
SINGAPORE — Two Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) on Tuesday (Nov 5) abstained from voting on the motion filed by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat which called for accountability from the Workers’ Party (WP) over the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) lapses.
SINGAPORE — Two Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) abstained from voting on a motion which called for accountability from the Workers’ Party (WP) over the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council's (AHTC's) lapses.
Specifically, the motion — filed by Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Heng Swee Keat and was passed by Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 5) — called on Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang to recuse themselves from all financial matters related to the town council. Ms Lim and Mr Low are Members of Parliament (MPs) for the Aljunied Group Representation Constituency.
The NMPs who abstained, Associate Professor Walter Theseira and Ms Anthea Ong, were the only NMPs who rose to speak during the debate on the motion.
Both explained their decision to abstain, with Assoc Prof Theseira questioning whether the motion was “a political resolution”.
After all, a town council is a political entity led by elected MPs of that constituency, and the move would not be binding on AHTC, he said.
While he believes Parliament must hold MPs to a high standard of integrity and must examine those who fall short of this standard, the motion has the effect of a political resolution, he reiterated.
“I would have hoped that there were other means of addressing the serious concerns raised in this judgement,” Assoc Prof Theseira said, adding that he was uncomfortable in taking part in such a resolution as a non-elected MP. NMPs are not elected and are a non-partisan voice in Parliament.
In her speech, Ms Ong said she was concerned that the motion had no legal force to make Ms Lim and Mr Low stand down from any financial responsibilities at the town council.
As such, she was “uncomfortable” with voting for the motion since a legal route was available.
She noted a 2017 provision in the Town Councils Act that empowers the Government to remedy deficiencies in the financial affairs of a town council and prevent their recurrence.
“Should the call for AHTC to discharge (its) responsibilities... to call for and influence AHTC to recuse the said MPs from all matters relating to, and oversight of, financial matters, be made by the minister through the powers granted by the Town Councils Act, instead of this House?” she asked.
‘DOING THE RIGHT AND PROPER THING’
Responding to the two NMPs, Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee said he understood why both of them saw the tabling of the motion as a political move. However, he disagreed with that view.
Mr Lee, who is also Second Minister for National Development, said that the motion was about “doing the right and proper thing” as an MP and not about politics.
He reiterated that Mr Low and Ms Lim had been deemed by the courts to have breached their fiduciary duty as town councillors.
“I do not blame the two NMPs or members of the public if they perceive this (motion) to have partisanship colours, but actually, if you strip it down to its very core, what should fiduciaries do? In any case, not just any fiduciary, but one sitting among us, held to certain standards by a member of the public,” he said.
Conversely, what would the public expect if such a court finding were to be made of an MP from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), he asked the two NMPs.
“What would they be calling for? What would they require us to do? And in fact, what would (PAP MPs) expect of ourselves?” he said.
Mr Lee added that since the High Court released its judgement on Oct 11, people have been looking out for what action the WP MPs would take “at the very minimum” to safeguard public funds, pending any further appeal to which they are entitled.
It is about what WP is going to do “in the interim” in response to the judge’s findings and before the outcome of the appeal, he said.
“That is not something that is political. It is something that any organisation would do,” Mr Lee said. “And if they see us, in this House, not even doing that, then what do you think members of the public will think of the standards that we uphold here in this very House — is it lower than in a company, in a charity, and in society?”
Mr Lee noted that the Government recognises the political nature of town councils, to the extent that political considerations can go into the appointment of contractors.
Echoing a point made by DPM Heng that AHTC could have appointed “friends” as contractors provided they go through the proper procurement processes, Mr Lee said that this latitude must still be exercised by town councillors within the boundaries of the law.
“Yes, town councils are creatures of politics that allow MPs to show, politically, to the public what they are able to achieve, but certainly, at the very least, there are some boundaries, which are laws, ethics and integrity,” Mr Lee said.
He also responded to Ms Ong’s point about the provision under the Town Council Act.
He said that the provision covers investigations and compliance reviews that have been taken under the Act. However, it was enacted after the AHTC case began in 2011, so it would not be applicable.
“Be that as it may, ultimately, there is a judgement by a Justice of the Supreme Court, (which is) quite apart from what regulatory powers there may be in this case or in future cases,” he said.
Ms Ong also voiced her discomfort with debating on the issue in Parliament since the case was still before the courts, pending the WP MPs’ appeal. The concern was also partly the reason for her abstention.
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Ms Indranee Rajah, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office who was a Senior Counsel and a practising lawyer before she joined the Government, said that the motion was not sub judice and would not be construed as contempt of court since it does not make any suggestion that the court judgement was right or wrong.
Ms Indranee also reiterated the importance for WP to take action following the court’s judgement, even though the appeal is pending. This is what the rules of governance dictate, she said.
“How many times in this Parliament, when an incident has happened, have MPs stood up calling for action against public officials, calling for action to be taken even before inquiries have been completed, even before judgement has been given?” she asked. “And very often, interim measures are taken to make sure that not only is something properly done, but it is also seen to be done.”