By Ying-kit Chan
July 2023 was a month to remember in Singapore’s political history. Transport Minister S Iswaran was arrested and released on bail. He is now to assist the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau with an investigation into a case uncovered by the anti-graft agency. The case is speculated to be related to Iswaran’s receipt of gifts from billionaire Ong Beng Seng, who brought Formula One Grand Prix racing to Singapore.
Speaker of parliament Tan Chuan Jin — once tipped to become one of the candidates for prime minister — resigned over an extramarital affair with Tampines Group Representation Constituency member of parliament (MP) Cheng Li Hui. Senior minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam retired from politics to contest Singapore’s next presidential election, which means that four People’s Action Party (PAP) parliamentary seats are now vacant. At a press conference, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong indicated that these are not examples of the PAP’s slipping standards. Instead, he suggested that they are examples of how the PAP deals with allegations against its own MPs.
Lee’s press conference was held on the same day that Leon Perera and Nicole Seah, two high-profile members of the Workers’ Party, were caught in a leaked video having an ‘inappropriate exchange’. Lee took the opportunity to state that, while forcing Tan and Cheng to resign could be politically costly and embarrassing, the PAP must uphold party discipline and standards of conduct.
The timing of the leaked video raises questions. Someone had secretly filmed the adulterous Workers’ Party couple at a restaurant in 2020, but it was only released on social media three years later, in the same week that Lee decided to go public with Tan’s extra-marital affair.
Lee’s conflation of marital infidelity to corruption is a clever sleight of hand. He equated all of the PAP’s scandals — the Ridout Road conflict of interest, Iswaran’s alleged graft and Tan’s marital infidelity — with the Workers’ Party’s one scandal — an episode of marital infidelity that ended years ago. If Lee was already aware of Tan’s affair in 2020, why did he wait until February 2023 to have a ‘hard conversation’ with him?
When pressed to make a stand on Iswaran, Shanmugaratnam expressed the not-so-impartial view (presidential candidates are supposedly nonpartisan in Singapore) that Singapore has never had a prime minister who obstructed the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau in its investigations. Shanmugaratnam was alluding to the case of the former minister for national development, Teh Cheang Wan, who committed suicide before the investigation concluded. Notwithstanding Shanmugaratnam’s popularity and trustworthiness, can his words be taken at face value?
Lee said publicly that he personally approved the probe of Iswaran, meaning that he had the capacity to refuse approval. Ong was at the centre of a different corruption scandal in 1996 that involved million-dollar sweeteners paid to senior minister Lee Kuan Yew and deputy prime minister Lee Hsien Loong. Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong decided not to refer the matter to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, instead authorising finance minister Richard Hu to chat with the two Lees and report back. Unsurprisingly, Hu found no wrongdoing, in much the same way that Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean found nothing wrong with the Ridout Road saga.
Under such circumstances, obstruction is not entirely possible under Singapore law. The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau reports directly to the prime minister alone, which puts its independence in doubt. The issue of transparency also arose when Iswaran was reported to be under investigation before it was revealed that he was under arrest.
The recent spate of scandals is likely to hurt the PAP’s chances in the next general election, which will be due by the end of 2025. In 2020, Iswaran’s West Coast Group Representation Constituency was held by only 1.7 per cent after his PAP team suffered a 26 per cent swing against it. After the PAP’s surprise loss of the Sengkang constituency in that election, there is a real possibility that it may not hold onto the West Coast constituency in the next election.
Coupled with the decline in public trust in the PAP since the watershed election of 2011 and the government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains to be seen if the PAP can weather this storm.
About the author: Ying-kit Chan is an assistant professor at the Department of Chinese Studies, National University of Singapore.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum