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Low Thia Khiang to keep out of any AHTC discussion on recusal

Low Thia Khiang to keep out of any AHTC discussion on recusal

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 07 Nov 2019
Author: Grace Ho

Former Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang told reporters last night that he would refrain from participating in any meeting or discussion by the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) on whether he and fellow MP Sylvia Lim should recuse themselves from all its financial matters.

Former Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang told reporters last night that he would refrain from participating in any meeting or discussion by the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) on whether he and fellow MP Sylvia Lim should recuse themselves from all its financial matters.

Mr Low, commenting for the first time on the motion passed by Parliament the day before, also said that what should be said had already been said in the House.

He was speaking to reporters at his Meet-the People Session in Hougang, a day after the House voted for Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's motion, which called on Ms Lim and Mr Low to recuse themselves from fin-ancial matters at AHTC, among other things.

In remarks similar to those of WP chief Pritam Singh, Mr Low said: "I will recuse (myself) from participating in the town council meeting when the matter comes up for discussion as well as the voting, if there is a vote."

He added that AHTC's chairman Faisal Manap had already said in Parliament that he would table it for the next meeting, which is held every quarter.

"Anyway, my role in financial matters is very limited, and I am only a member of a committee which looks at some projects," Mr Low said.

Mr Singh had said during the parliamentary debate on the motion that AHTC's councillors will discuss the matter and vote on it if that is the collective decision of the town council.

In any such decision, Mr Low and Ms Lim will excuse themselves from voting on the issue and will not participate in the discussion on the matter, he added.

Mr Low, when asked by reporters what AHTC will do next, said he did not want to anticipate or judge its next move. "Let's not put the cart before the horse."

GOOD GOVERNANCE IS KEY, SAY ANALYSTS

Parliament's call on the two WP MPs is not legally binding, but it is in the interest of proper governance for them to recuse themselves, analysts said yesterday.

"There are unresolved issues pending the MPs' appeal against the High Court judgment, but it is a strong affirmation of governance principles," said Associate Professor Lawrence Loh of the Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations at the National University of Singapore.

"The right way to look at it is: What is the right thing to do?"

DPM Heng, in moving the motion, stressed that the High Court had found the AHTC leaders liable and that in any corporate setting, "it is only right and proper that those whose integrity has been impugned... step aside and recuse themselves until they clear their names".

The court said both leaders, in awarding FM Solutions & Services (FMSS) a managing agent contract without calling a tender, had breached their fiduciary duties and were liable for damages suffered.

In a Facebook post yesterday, Mr Heng reiterated the importance of honesty and integrity in all MPs. He made the point again that if AHTC were a company, Ms Lim and Mr Low would not be allowed to carry on in the same roles and enjoy the same degree of financial oversight over public funds.

But town councils are "one of a kind" in Singapore, Prof Loh told The Straits Times.

It is hard to draw direct parallels to listed companies here, he added. These follow the Code of Corporate Governance under a "comply or explain" regime: They either comply with its principles and guidelines, or explain any deviation.

Prof Loh also said the motion should be seen from a governance, rather than legal, perspective as the WP's appeal against the court judgment is pending.

Companies typically suspend the offending person from his area of control to prevent him from causing further damage, or modifying or destroying evidence using his authority, he said.

Examples he cited include the trading suspension of social media company YuuZoo Networks Group last year while it was being inves-tigated by the Commercial Affairs Department.

The WP MPs are under no legal obligation to recuse themselves, said Mr Suang Wijaya, a partner at law firm Eugene Thuraisingam LLP.

Recusal is generally justified if someone has a personal interest in a matter, such as when a decision is being made on whether to award a contract to a company and the person happens to be a shareholder of that company, he added.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said integrity and proper governance are of paramount importance in the case as public funds were involved.

Even for a listed company, the person found liable should not be involved in decision-making, even if the rest of the management has no objections, he said.

Nor is recusal an admission of liability or inappropriate conduct, Associate Professor Tan added.

Instead, it recognises and demonstrates sensitivity to legitimate concerns arising from the court's judgment, which is binding until the WP's appeal is successful.

Prof Tan added: "Recusal seeks to assure stakeholders that the organisation is intent on proper governance by ensuring such individuals do not get involved in financial matters in the interim."

As the AHTC's case is in its first stage of findings, the analysts said all legal options are still open.

In Parliament, Mr Heng, citing the judgment, said the WP MPs could have been exposed to civil liability or, in an extreme scenario, criminal liability.

Like Mr Wijaya, Prof Loh said it is premature to comment on potential criminal or further civil liability as court proceedings are ongoing.

WHAT IS NEXT

The WP did not respond to queries on when it will file the appeal.

Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam, who chairs the independent panel appointed by AHTC, declined to say whether the town council would appeal against the judgment.

Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council is also involved in the case. It had launched a suit to recover its share of losses when Punggol East constituency was managed by the WP-led town council from 2013 to 2015.

When contacted, its MP Charles Chong said: "We are still discussing our options with our lawyers and will come to a decision before the Nov 11 deadline."

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

 

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