Ministers can’t be very happy with the Sunday Times for a story the newspaper carried on 26 October 2014. Of course, that’s only if they understand how public opinion is shaped. They may not. Going by the tone-deaf way they have conducted themselves across a whole range of policies, they may have no feel for the public pulse.
The story about the High Court slashing lawyers’ fees may at first seem to have nothing to do with the People’s Action Party. But netizens quickly zoomed in on one name: Alvin Yeo, senior partner of the law firm WongPartnership LLP . Alvin Yeo is also the PAP member of parliament for Choa Chu Kang GRC. WongPartnership was retained by the Singapore Medical Council to represent them in the Susan Lim case.
In this era of heightened political sensitivity to a widening income gap and the way Singapore has become a playground for the self-indulgent rich, causing rents and costs of living to skyrocket, any news about the elite further inflating their incomes can only stoke popular outrage. Now with Alvin Yeo’s name being mentioned in this case providing the bridge, public anger will flow over it, enveloping the PAP.
The Susan Lim case
The Susan Lim case was headline news from 2011 to 2013. The surgeon was accused of overcharging the the Brunei royal family when she billed them $24.8 million (according to the Straits Times) for treating the sister of the Brunei queen. The Singapore Medical Council convened disciplinary hearings.
The Singapore Medical Council has ruled that renowned surgeon Susan Lim be suspended from practising for three years.
She is also to be fined $10,000 in a case involving overcharging a member of the Brunei royal family. She will also be censured in writing and must undertake not to overcharge again.
Dr Lim, 57, is appealing against the punishment, which was revealed in appeal papers she filed in the High Court last week. The punishment is believed to be among the most severe meted out to an errant doctor, short of being struck off.
She will continue to practise pending the outcome of the appeal. The appeal before the Court of Three Judges is due to be heard in the week of Jan 14 next year.
The court papers, seen by The Straits Times on Wednesday, revealed that Dr Lim was found guilty last month of 94 charges of professional misconduct.
This included making false representations in some invoices she sent to other medical specialists she called in to treat the patient.
The dispute centres on the bill she charged for treating Pengiran Anak Hajah Damit, the sister of the Brunei queen, before the patient died of cancer in 2007. The bills for her last seven months came up to about $25 million.
But she has argued the figure was actually lower and included the cost of flying the patient between Singapore and Brunei. The bill size shocked Singapore’s Health Ministry, which filed charges of professional misconduct against her with the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) in 2010.
— Straits Times (Breaking news), 23 August 2012, 3-year suspension for Susan Lim, rules SMC. Link.
As the above story noted, she appealed the SMC’s findings. Eventually, she lost (judgement here), and about a year later, the same newspaper reported:
The highest court in Singapore on Monday dismissed an appeal by general surgeon Susan Lim against her conviction on charges of professional misconduct over the amount she charged a patient from the royal family of Brunei.
In a 109-page written judgment, the three-judge Court of Appeal said Dr Lim’s case was “clearly one of the most serious cases – if not the most serious case so far – of overcharging in the medical profession in the local context”. The court dismissed her claims that she was justified and there was no ethical obligation to charge a fair and reasonable amount and pointed out her approach showed she had shown no remorse.
In the judgment, the court ruled there is an objective ethical limit on medical fees that operates outside contractual and market forces, The court found that, given a doctor’s specialised knowledge and training, there arises an ethical obligation on the part of a doctor not to take advantage of his patient. And this ethical obligation to charge a fair and reasonable fee is not superseded by a valid agreement between the doctor and his patient, the court held.
— Straits Times (Breaking news), 1 July 2013, Dr Susan Lim loses appeal against SMC’s guilty verdict, Link.
The Court of Appeal said that the SMC could recover costs of their proceedings from her, but after receiving the bills, her husband Deepak Sharma appealed to the High Court to review the costs they were being asked to pay. The process is known as a ‘taxation hearing’.
There were apparently two bills from the SMC, for the two disciplinary hearings held and the court hearings that followed. The first, for a shade over $1 million was reduced by the High Court to $370,000 on or around 1 July 2014.
“I believe that the actions by the lawyers in grossly overcharging my wife by $637,009 (the difference between the original bill amount of $1.007 million and the $370,000 allowed by Justice Woo) are dishonourable and constitute grossly improper conduct,” Mr Sharma alleged in his complaint.
— MyPaper.sg, 3 July 2014, Susan Lim case takes new twist. Link.
Now news has come that the second set of bills, totalling 1.327 million, was also deemed to be excessive. It has been reduced by the High Court to $317,000.
The Alvin Yeo connection
The SMC billed Susan Lim for the legal services they needed from WongPartnership, as one component of costs. These legal fees the SMC claimed they had to pay came to $900,000 for three lawyers, one of whom was Alvin Yeo. The Sunday Times on 26 October 2014 summarised the High Court’s findings thus:
The judgment: A doctor found guilty in an SMC disciplinary hearing can only be charged for the services of one lawyer – unless the proceedings are so complex they call for another lawyer who must be certified by SMC’s disciplinary committee.
This certification was not done in this case.
Assistant Registrar Jacqueline Lee decided what was claimed for both Ms Melanie Ho and Ms Lim Wei Lee should not be allowed, andthe $514,000 claimed for Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo’s work was too high.
The SMC had originally presented a bill of $1,229,804 for 1,900 hours spent by its lawyers on the case, claiming “out of abundance of caution, the amount stated is a reduced figure of the time spent”. The Law Society also has verified that the SMC paid a higher amount to WongPartnership than it is claiming from Dr Lim.
Ms Lee said that SMC’s statement meant little since she had no information on how much time had actually been spent, and criticised the council for not detailing what the lawyers had spent their time on.
She also pointed out that “collectively, Mr Yeo, Ms Ho and Ms Lim allegedly spent 718 hours” – much less than the 1,900 hours claimed for.
Ms Lee added that if the 1,900 hours included two replacement lawyers catching up on what had happened before they joined the team, “it would be unreasonable to make the respondent (Dr Lim) bear the costs arising from any such inefficiency in the conduct of the prosecution”.
— Sunday Times, 26 Oct 2014, Exorbitant, unreasonable.
As you can see from above, the facts are rather more layered and contestable than the headlines might suggest, but the public — as publics tend to be — is not going to bother much with the nuanced details of the above. All people are going to remember a week or more from now, and going into the next general election, is that a PAP member of parliament was connected with a case which the High Court considered to be overbilling. This nugget of news is going to feed into the easily-believed view that the well-off have no conscience, no sense of responsibility to wider society, and are driven by greed. And the well-off includes the ruling elite snuggling within the bosom of the PAP. As I mentioned above, in these times of ever-widening income gap — some might even describe it as obscene — such a view will find much resonance.
Against this, it is going to be virtually impossible for the PAP to convince anyone other than its diehard loyalists that its candidates are standing for election because they identify with ordinary people, or that they sense a calling to serve. Moreover, the claim of immaculate integrity that the party prides itself with is now going to have new mud sticking to it.
That said, the SMC is appealing this decision, so the final outcome may be quite different again. However, I’d wager that even if the appeal overturns the Assistant Registrar’s finding, no one is going to believe that the $900,000 bill was fair. You can’t force people to change their private opinions; instead they are very likely to take the view that the same elite are circling the wagons defending their own.
The affective divide, a term so famously coined by Catherine Lim two decades ago, will just get wider.
At every election, ministerial salaries are potent rallying cries. Despite the PAP trying election after election to explain that if they didn’t peg salaries to the private sector, no ‘talent’ can be found to lead the country, the issue has never gone away. Firstly, people never believed that successful careers were the only marker for ministerial talent; secondly, it was never a good explanation for the pay given to ex-military bigwigs frantically shovelled into the cabinet; thirdly, people always cast a skeptical eye on anyone who needed to be assured of continued riches to leave the private sector “to serve”.
But with this development, even the very first equation can be called into question. What does “pegging to the private sector” mean when, in the eyes of the public, top private sector earnings are now considered to be the result of inflationary braggadocio?