Singapore opposition leaders liable for damages in US$24 million civil suit
- Judge rules that Pritam Singh breached ‘duties of skill and care’, while Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim breached ‘fiduciary duties’
- Decision could potentially bankrupt the party heavyweights and disqualify them from holding elected office
Judge Kannan Ramesh will now deliberate on the amount of damages MPs Pritam Singh, Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim are liable for – a decision that could potentially bankrupt the party heavyweights and disqualify them from holding elected office.
The dates of the second stage of the trial have not been made public.
Political observers believe Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong could call a snap poll in months, even though his government’s current term lasts until April 2021.
The three MPs are among six elected opposition MPs in a 100-seat legislature in which the prime minister’s long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has held a supermajority for decades.
Apart from having six elected MPs, the WP also has three lawmakers who are “non-constituency” MPs on account of being the highest-scoring losers in the 2015 general election.
With the country’s political landscape already heavily slanted in favour of the PAP – in power since 1959 – government critics fear the three WP MPs’ legal troubles could so dent the opposition’s chances that the election will be a shutout. The judge ruled that Singh, the party’s chief, had breached his “duties of skill and care”. Lim, the party chairman, and Low, the former party chief, were found to have breached “fiduciary duties”.
Lim and Low are party veterans, and played a crucial part in the WP’s electoral breakthrough in 2011 when it became the first opposition party to win a multi-seat ward called a group representation constituency (GRC).
Along with Aljunied GRC and the single-member seat of Hougang it won in that vote, the party made further gains in a 2013 by-election, where it took control of the single-member seat of Punggol East. The PAP retook Punggol East in the 2015 general election.
The complex legal case involves the mismanagement of funds by the amalgamated WP town councils of Aljunied GRC, Hougang and Punggol East between 2011 and 2015.
An independent panel appointed by the WP – on the orders of the Housing and Development Board that oversees town councils – decided in 2017 to initiate legal proceedings against the eight defendants to recover payments that were deemed improper.
The PAP-led town council that now runs municipal affairs in Punggol East is also involved in the lawsuit. It is seeking to recover funds it says were lost during the 2013-2015 period when the WP controlled the ward.
The defendants’ predicament stems from the appointment of a managing agent for the town council in which the key players had conflicting roles in both the town council and the appointed company. Those named as having conflicting roles were How Weng Fan and her late husband Danny Loh, who ran FMSS, the managing agent appointed by the WP to run their precincts after the 2015 election.
Referring to Low and Lim, Judge Kannan said: “There was a concerted attempt to cloak the appointment of FMSS with a veneer of propriety. It was an attempt to mislead, and a clinical demonstration of the disregard Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang had for the requirements of the Town Council Financial Rules”.
This Week in Asia has reached out to the WP for comment.
Its supporters have rallied around the three leaders since the party’s legal troubles began in 2014, when the government ordered the auditor-general’s office to audit the opposition party’s town council. That order followed an inspection by the town council’s own auditors that showed 13 “areas of concern”.
The three MPs last year launched a crowdfunding effort to bankroll their legal battle, claiming that the lawsuit had drained their personal resources. The drive saw the lawmakers – who said they were raising funds in a personal capacity – collect more than S$1 million over three days.
“We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. The financial support is crucial but the moral support you have given us is incalculable,” the MPs told supporters on their website after the donation drive.
Opposition politicians in the city state have previously been taken out of the running of electoral politics because of their legal woes.
The most prominent case is that of J.B. Jeyaretnam, the late Workers’ Party veteran who was removed from parliament twice – first in 1986 over a criminal conviction, and then again in 2001 when instalments to damages he owed PAP leaders for libel became overdue, rendering him bankrupt.