Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Surgeon tried to halt hearing with 'threat' to MFA: Counsel

Mar 29, 2011

By Salma Khalik

SURGEON Susan Lim tried to stop a disciplinary hearing against her by writing to the Foreign Minister to alert him that it might expose information that could cause 'unnecessary embarrassment' to Brunei and affect bilateral ties, the High Court heard yesterday.

Revealing the existence of the letter, Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo, for the Singapore Medical Council (SMC), said the letter amounted to Dr Lim 'threatening' Foreign Minister George Yeo and was another attempt by her to 'subvert the legal process'.

'This is nothing more than a pressure tactic,' he said. 'The ministry rightfully responded that it could not intervene in the ongoing legal process.'

The High Court yesterday resumed a hearing on Dr Lim's call for a judicial review of the SMC's case against her. The question before High Court judge Philip Pillai is whether the SMC can set up a second disciplinary hearing against her concerning fees she had charged a patient, the sister of Brunei's Queen.

Dr Lim had been Pengiran Anak Hajah Damit's main doctor between 2004 and her death in August 2007. She charged $24.8 million (before GST) for care rendered in 2007. After giving a discount, the bill came up to $12.1 million, including costs for third-party doctors amounting to more than $3 million.

Following inquiries by Brunei's Health Ministry on the size of the bill, the Singapore Health Ministry filed a complaint to the SMC, which set up a disciplinary committee to hear the matter last year. The hearing stopped after Dr Lim's lawyers accused the committee of pre-judging the case. The SMC then set up a second committee to hear the case, and this is the one that Dr Lim wants the High Court to quash. Her lawyers argue that the SMC is biased against her and that she would not get a fair hearing. In any case, they say she and the patient had an agreement that charges would amount to $100,000 to $200,000 a day.

Wrapping up the SMC's case yesterday, Senior Counsel Yeo revealed the letter sent to Foreign Minister Yeo, which was submitted to the court.

In the three-page letter dated March 1 last year, Dr Lim said her fees were 'a matter for private negotiation'. 'I remain unclear why the issue is being pursued against me as a disciplinary matter, but in any event, I am deeply concerned that information will eventually come to public light, which will cause unnecessary embarrassment to Brunei. This in turn may affect ties between Brunei and Singapore.' She said the information included:
  • the medical condition of the patient;

  • the 'extraordinary and often unreasonable demands' placed on her by the patient and the royal family, including significant out-of-pocket expenses she had to bear;

  • how she has 'not been paid for the work done for almost three years' even though she had paid $3.256 million in third-party costs;

  • the 'apparent inconsistent relationship' between Brunei's Ministry of Health, the royal family and the patient's family.
She said she looked forward to a 'practical resolution of the matter, which I believe to be in the interests of Brunei and Singapore'.

Senior Counsel Yeo described her application to the High Court as 'desperate' and 'bankrupt', as there was nothing to support even the allegation of actual bias. He added: 'It is Alice in Wonderland logic.'

He asked Justice Pillai to 'look at this with more than a jaundiced eye', and reiterated the point he had made several times before: that a disciplinary hearing was the proper place to decide if there was any impropriety on Dr Lim's part.

In his rebuttal to Mr Yeo's points, Senior Counsel Lee Eng Beng, acting for Dr Lim, accused the SMC of being 'false, mischievous and scandalous' in the way it presented invoices purporting to represent 'fantastic' mark-ups by Dr Lim.

He said the invoices were not detailed and that there were doctors who were paid for their work whose names did not appear in any invoice.

Also, the total billed for third-party work came to $4.87 million - of which $3.1 million or 64 per cent went to other doctors. Dr Lim's companies charged $1.76 million for their services. He argued that, had the Brunei palace been unhappy with her charges, based on the same rates prior to 2007, it would not have returned to her again and again.

The SMC's charges also included the pre-discounted amount of $24.8 million. The 50 per cent discount she had voluntarily given was done on Aug 1, 2007, before she had any inkling that there might be a case against her, he said.

He also said that the SMC should put its house in order before convening a second hearing. For a disciplinary committee to step down because it had pre-judged the case 'is one of the most terrible things that could happen', said Mr Lee.

None of the lawyers from either side had found any precedence in disciplinary hearings in either the legal or medical professions where this has happened.

The judge reserved judgment yesterday.

[I was ambivalent about this case. On the one hand, she did seem to work particularly hard for the apparently unreasonable patient. But this just smacks of desperation, and blackmail. As the SMC lawyer said, there is a complaint. It was to be inquired. She should just cooperate. If she has nothing to hide, she will be cleared. Her actions are those of a guilty person. Like Ming Yi or Durai.]

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