Clash of the Grossly Overcharged Means Alvin Yeo Must Resign
I am sure the case of Dr Susan Lim is still in many people’s minds. She was the doctor taken to court by the SMC for overcharging the Brunei royal family and suspended from practice for three years. The courts found her guilty and after her appeal failed they awarded costs against her. This means that not only did she have to pay her own lawyers but also the SMC’s lawyers’ costs.
Acting for the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) in the case against Dr Lim were a team led by Alvin Yeo, Senior Counsel and PAP MP for Chua Chu Kang (CCK) GRC, and lawyers Melanie Ho and Lim Wei Lee. They submitted their bill to Dr Lim for payment and in one of life’s exquisite ironies Dr Lim herself found that she herself had been grossly overcharged by the MP and his team. Her husband objected to Yeo’s bill and had it sent back to the court to be “taxed” which is the process whereby the Registrar of the Supreme Court scrutinises the bill.
A few days ago I read here that the Supreme Court ordered that Alvin Yeo’s bill be reduced from $1.33 million to $317,000. That is they found the correct amount to be charged was 25% of the original submitted. In other words Alvin Yeo and the team he led had overcharged by a staggering 300%.
Lawyers, let alone a Senior Counsel and an MP such as Yeo of whom higher standards are expected, who overcharge their clients by that multiple, frequently face disciplinary action and either a large fine or even a suspension from practice. The judges in previous disciplinary tribunals have made it clear that sanctions include the power to strike off. So what disciplinary action has the Honourable MP and Senior Counsel faced? At the time of writing this I can find no evidence that any disciplinary action against Yeo and his team is scheduled.
There have been several precedents where the consequences have been severe. For example, in 2011 lawyer, Andre Arul was found guilty of overcharging his client by a multiple of approximately 200% and fined $50,000. In addition costs were awarded against him by a Court of Three Judges (including the then CJ, Chan Sek Kheong, of the teleportation into the polling booth controversy in Cheng San in 1997.) You can read the judgement here Law Society of Singapore v Andre Ravindran Saravanapavan Arul  SGHC 224. The judgement also mentioned three other cases where lawyers were suspended from practice for between three and six months.
In the case of Low Yong Sen, the amount overcharged, which took the form of inflated disbursements for items like stationery and photocopying , was found to be less than $3,000. However the lawyer in question was suspended for six months.
As it was Dr Lim who had asked for the SMC’s costs to be taxed, it is not clear whether SMC will in turn make a complaint to the Law Society about their bill or whether they will just pay the difference between what the court said was a fair amount and the full amount of Wong Partnership’s ( Yeo’s firm) bill.
Even if the SMC are reluctant to make a complaint against a PAP MP Sections 85(2) and (3) of the LPA allow the Council of the Law Society or a Supreme Court Judge to refer the matter to the Inquiry Committee or, in the case of a Supreme Court Judge, to appoint a Disciplinary Committee directly.
I for one will be watching closely to see if the CJ or the Law Society takes any action or if Alvin Yeo is let off the hook. If he is, then this would appear to be evidence of discriminatory treatment given the penalty meted out to Andre Arul and the other lawyers. The margin of overcharging (300%) was significantly greater in Alvin Yeo’s case than in Andre Arul’s (200%).
Even if no disciplinary proceedings are initiated, I do not see how Alvin Yeo can continue as an MP. I do not see how Alvin Yeo can keep his seat if he is found guilty of gross overcharging and is either fined, censured or suspended from practice. The law makes it clear that the penalties in these cases are for damaging the integrity of the profession.
For a politician Integrity is also paramount. I would like to draw your attention to one item on the overcharging that I found striking. Stuck amongst the high figures charged for days in court, up to $100,000 per hour on the last statement, was an item for ring binders. Ring binders which SMC’s lawyers had priced at $6 per unit for Dr Lim to pay were cut to $2.50 per unit after the court found it had used the cheaper version in past hearings. Who overcharges for Ring Binders? The mind boggles that there was not even one item so small that they could not see an opportunity for a mark up of over 200%.
Those with a keen interest in the politics of office stationery will remember that Dr Chee was fired from his job at NUS for overcharging for photocopying and taxi fares. I remember the amount he was found to have overcharged for taxi-fares was less than $10. Compare that to Alvin Yeo’s charges..
Maybe the PAP should upgrade Dr Koh’s “everyone owns two cars” to “everyone earns $100,000 an hour”.
Alvin Yeo should resign immediately paving the way for a by-election in CCK. After the Appeal Court’s decision in the case of Madam Vellama, the PM is required to hold a by-election within a reasonable period of time, though that judgement only applied in the case of an SMC. I do not know whether it would be possible to file an action in the High Court to attempt to extend that judgement to GRCs and, if so, whether an action would have any chance of success.
While Alvin Yeo’s conduct is shocking, I am not surprised at the low standards set by PAP MPs and their seemingly insatiable greed. Just as the Communist Party in China has allowed its top officials to accumulate vast wealth to buy their complicity and head off any democratic challenges (see here), so the PAP’s philosophy has been one of vastly overpaying Ministers to ensure that they remain loyal to the leadership and are prepared to ignore whatever principles they may once have had.
The PAP’s philosophy that you go into government to get rich extends to its MPs, most of whom hold lucrative primary jobs, like Alvin Yeo, Janil Puthucheary, Hari Nair, Lim Wee Kiat, and Vikram Nair. For them being an MP is merely a (very) part-time role. They are enabled to do so by the fact Parliament is little more than a rubber stamp, which works the shortest hours of any legislature while paying its representatives one of the highest allowances (tax-free as well!).
In fact Eugene Tan, a former NMP, in the last Parliamentary sitting drew attention to how poorly attended Parliament was when he had to point out to the Deputy Speaker, Halimah Yaacob, that there were not even enough MPs to constitute the necessary quorum to pass a Bill.
My first thought when I read about the Susan Lim case, was that the Brunei royal family, who are rumoured to be worth at least US$20 billion, should be able to look after themselves. They could have sued Susan Lim themselves or refused to pay her excessive bills. However Brunei and its royal family are of course extremely important clients of Singapore. One of the SMC’s objectives in bringing the action against Dr Lim presumably was to show wealthy foreigners that Singapore was a safe and reliable place to live and seek medical treatment in and that we uphold the highest standards of professional integrity. In that case this is more than just irony. It is an attempt to reassure Brunei that has disastrously backfired giving the impression that Singapore is rife with rogue professionals lacking integrity. Unless the full force of disciplinary action is now directed at Alvin Yeo our reputation will be in tatters.