Politics, the City Harvest Church saga and regaining the public’s trust: Senior Minister of State Edwin Tong goes On the Record

Politics, the City Harvest Church saga and regaining the public’s trust: Senior Minister of State Edwin Tong goes On the Record

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Edwin Tong is MP for Marine Parade GRC and has taken on the role of Senior Minister of State for Law and Health. (Photo: Facebook / Edwin Tong)

SINGAPORE: “I don’t make any apologies for that. I would do it again.” 

That's what lawyer and newly appointed Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong says when asked about defending the founder of City Harvest Church (CHC) Kong Hee in a legal case that captured the public’s attention.

The marathon case, one of the longest-running trials in Singapore’s legal history, involved the misuse of S$50 million in church funds and lasted from May 2010 till early this year.


Mr Tong, 48 and MP for the Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency (GRC), was appointed Senior Minister of State for Law and Health in the Cabinet reshuffle earlier this year. 

About a week before taking on the role, he sat down with me to look back on his legal and political career. 

While he made headlines for his new political appointment, he was mentioned in the media more often while he was handling the CHC case. 

As with many high-profile legal cases, the lawyers representing the defendants came under fire and Mr Tong, being an integral part of the CHC defence team, was no exception.

“People make rude comments about me being the 'City Harvest lawyer'. It’s regarded as not something that a PAP Member of Parliament (MP) or senior lawyer should be doing. But it’s my job. The case came to the firm and I was asked to take it on. 

"Even (Law) Minister K Shanmugam says that everyone deserves a chance to have a legal representation of his choice and that’s something in our constitution. So, if we back down because people criticise the lawyers who are taking on these jobs, then I think our society and our rule of law will be all the poorer,” he says steadfastly.

To listen to the full interview, click here.

A CONFLICT OF INTEREST?

In February this year, the Government said it believed the sentences meted out to those convicted in the case were too low.

Law Minister K Shanmugam said the issue would be looked into to ensure that legislation provides for higher penalties for senior officers who commit criminal breaches of trust (CBT).

He was reflecting the Government's position on the apex court’s decision to uphold shorter jail terms for CHC founder Kong Hee and five other former church leaders.

This resulted from a new interpretation of the Penal Code section governing CBT offences, which led to the Court of Appeal ruling that company directors, governing board members or key officers of charities and officers of societies who commit CBT could be jailed up to seven years - compared to employees being liable for a maximum 15 years imprisonment.

Some members of the public then wondered why Mr Tong, who was then the deputy chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Home Affairs and Law, hadn’t brought up the gap in the law to the Government earlier.

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City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee leaving court on Apr 7, 2017. Next to him is Marine Parade GRC MP and lawyer Edwin Tong. (Photo: Howard Law)

Was his position as defence lawyer conflicting with his position as member of the GPC and MP?

“Firstly, there’s a flaw in the law because the law was not changed from many years ago," he says.

"I was focused on what the legal provisions were. The legal provisions would require that the level of sentencing could not exceed a certain level. The charges had already been made by then. You can’t change legislation and apply it ex post facto. Whatever one might point out or not point out, the law as it stood at the time of the offenses were crystallised, would apply. So it would not have made a difference to my case.”

But would he have been more likely to point out the gap in the law himself if he hadn’t been a defence lawyer handling the CHC case?

“I and all my colleagues saw the gap and we argued it early on. We pointed out that the provision the prosecution sought to use was inappropriate, that in fact, the right provision should have been the one several notches lower and that would necessarily mean that even if there was a conviction, the penalty could not exceed a certain level. 

"That argument was premised on showing that there was a gap. It was an argument that was dismissed, partly because there was a High Court judgment that the Subordinate Court felt that they were bound by and so we accepted it.”

He believes such details did not make the headlines as much because the public’s attention was focused on the “more sensational aspects” of the case.

I wonder if he ever faces a moral dilemma when defending those accused of harsh crimes.

“I am fortunate in being able to separate moral dilemma from professional responsibility quite well. The fact that I seldom taken on criminal cases probably makes that easier.  

"As a lawyer, I present the facts as they are instructed to me. I make the best of those facts using legal authority and arguments, and it is for the court to assess if there has been wrongdoing. I don’t start off knowing or presuming there is wrongdoing, but if I am being asked by the client to take a false position or suppress material, then I will not carry on.”

I ask if he is at all concerned that his role as a defence lawyer - especially as Kong Hee’s lawyer - has affected his political standing among the electorate.

“I can’t discount it. I hope it will not but if it has, I just have to live with it, get on with it.

“Beyond doing what I do as a lawyer with all the right safeguards, checks and balances in place and as long as you don’t compromise on your ethics as a lawyer, what are those higher standards? Are you suggesting that a PAP MP who is also a lawyer should not act for criminals? Or are you suggesting a PAP MP who is also a doctor should not be treating a criminal? What are those standards? Why do we draw that line artificially?”

Mr Tong has been a lawyer since 1995 and his areas of practice include corporate and commercial disputes, and international arbitration. It’s something he will miss as he steps down from his position as Senior Counsel at law firm Allen & Gledhill to take on the role of Senior Minister of State.

“I’ve been used to being on my feet in court. I enjoy the cut and thrust of being in court and dealing with my clients. But at some stage there will always be some transition to be made and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

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"To be honest, I had perhaps a rose-tinted view of what a PAP candidate would be facing. I went in it thinking this is the PAP team. We had done well in the past and it would be all things as per normal," says Edwin Tong. (Photo: Facebook / Edwin Tong)

THE 2011 ELECTION: “THERE WAS QUITE A BIT OF COMPLACENCY”

He was MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC till 2015, before he was elected MP for Marine Parade GRC.

His first election was in 2011. Many analysts described this as a watershed election.

The PAP garnered 81 of the 87 seats. However, its share of the valid votes cast dropped from the 66.6 per cent in the 2006 election to 60.1 per cent.

The opposition Workers’ Party retained its Hougang seat and captured the five-seat Aljunied GRC, the first time that an opposition party managed to win a GRC since the system was introduced in 1988.

I ask Mr Tong what it was like to be fielded for the first time in such an election.

“I was a complete newbie at that point. I worked the ground through grassroots work for a while but never in the hustle and bustle of the hustings. To be honest, in 2011, I had perhaps a rose-tinted view of what a PAP candidate would be facing. I went in it thinking this is the PAP team. We had done well over the years and it would be all things as per normal.

“It really took me a couple of days on the ground in the campaign to realise that it’s really not what I thought it was going to be and it was a lot harder. The pushback I got from a lot of the residents I went to see was a lot tougher than I expected. The tone of voice, general sentiment and body-language became noticeably hostile.  That’s when I realised that actually the sentiment, the sense that Singaporeans were being marginalised in our own country, squeezed out of the MRT, literally and figuratively, were real.”

But why had he not sensed it while carrying out his grassroots work before the election? Had he not himself felt the growing unhappiness in a changing Singapore?

“I think perhaps my radar was not as attuned. I did realise that there were grouses, and there was unhappiness over certain policies but I didn't put it all together in the same way I did shortly into the hustings.”

Eventually, his team in Moulmein-Kallang garnered 58.56 per cent of the total votes cast.

“I would say there was quite a bit of complacency. The realisation didn't come home until 2011. We described it as watershed, but I think it’s a bit more than that. 

"It’s also about the voting population growing up and realising that they do have a voice and they should exercise that voice. I think that’s how a properly functioning democracy should work. If something is not working out for the country and for the population, they have to speak up and the Government has to react. It needs to find the right responses.”

SOCIAL TRANSFERS  - A POPULIST MOVE?

However, he cautions the Government against being populist in its efforts to win the hearts and minds of voters.

“When then-Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced social transfers – GST Vouchers, U-Save rebates, the Silver Support Scheme and other policies - I did feel that it was unprecedented and a slippery slope and it was too much of a reaction to what the ground sentiments were.

“I’ve seen the experiences of the Western countries where the more you give, the more one asks and I think that’s really the start of the erosion of the work ethic that Singaporeans have. Once we start giving, we can’t scale back. You look at our country. We have nothing but our people. If we erode the competency of the workforce and we introduce a policy that undermines the work ethic, I think that’s going to be a big problem for us as a country.”

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“I’m not sure about the assumption that giving people social transfers and handouts is the way to level up and decrease inequality and increase mobility," says Edwin Tong. (Photo: Facebook / Edwin Tong)

But really, is Singapore even close to being in that situation?

Some analysts and members of the public feel the Government can afford to do even more.

“When I look back now, I realise why those transfers were needed, but I still think it must be done judiciously. If you want some social support, I think you’ve got to show that you’re getting yourself to where you should be and not just sitting on the street and expecting the handouts to come. I think that’s something that’s fundamental in our society.

“I’m not sure about the assumption that giving people social transfers and handouts is the way to level up and decrease inequality and increase mobility. It’s one way, but I would say it’s only a small part of the equation. One has to really look at society and how you lift society up through education, for example. I do believe in that. 

"The education system has its flaws now where you have students from richer families thriving over the less well-to-do. I accept all that and I think that should be managed better. But at the end of the day, education and the way we look at our jobs are all sharper tools than just giving a handout.”

However, he feels how the Government determines the amount of social transfers accorded to households can be improved to ensure that resources are directed more accurately.

It is an issue he has raised in Parliament before. 

“Means-testing should be a lot more detailed than it is today. Today, they look at your address for example and if you live in a private estate, you’re out. One may have a home that is bought in the 60s. It might be worth more now, but you can’t expect an old couple to sell their home and live on that in a different estate where they’re dislocated from their own friends and society.”

I put it to him that even though dislocation can be hard to deal with, surely the Government can’t be giving finite resources to those who own million-dollar or multi-million dollar homes at the expense of those who might not be able to afford a modest home or even a meal.

He concedes this argument is “fair enough”.

“But what about those who live in private estates, but are squatting with their siblings or with a friend. They may not be paying rent but they are there on goodwill and the goodwill could end at any point. So I think we should be more granular on it, go beyond just the address, go beyond just what the income is. What about those with dependants who have health problems? Their financial burden will be heavier.”

I remark that will mean more will need to be pumped in terms of administrative resources.

“It will but I think if the result is that we can get fairer, better applications of our resources which are finite, I think it’s well worth the effort.”

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"Just going by what I see on the ground, I think people appreciate that the Government spends time addressing the unhappiness, whether it is in terms of social transfers or immigration policies," says Edwin Tong. (Photo: Facebook / Edwin Tong)

REGAINING THE PUBLIC’S TRUST

I ask him what he’s been doing since 2011 to regain the public’s trust.

“A lot more effort has gone into revamping our feedback mechanism. Every single one of the MPs must know the ground well enough so that we don’t only end up knowing around elections that there’s unhappiness about this policy or that policy.”

Most notably, he makes an effort to recruit and hear from grassroots leaders of diverse backgrounds who are willing to give MPs an honest picture of ground sentiment.

I ask him if he thinks the PAP has successfully regained the public’s trust.

“I wouldn’t judge it based on the 2015 results alone but just going by what I see on the ground, I think people appreciate that the Government spends time addressing the unhappiness, whether it is in terms of social transfers or immigration policies. I think that has made a difference over the years.”

He admits the transport system has been “a constant bane”.

“But with time, it’ll be sorted out. As with all functioning and mature democracies, the trust level ebbs and flows on different issues. But I think the overall trust in the Government has remained healthy. It’s a gut feel I have while internalising everything that I see, everything that I hear, talking to people within or outside of my constituency.”

He concedes that on specific issues “more could be done” in terms of communication.

“CareShield Life for example is meant as a good policy but people are asking if we’re making money out of it. The Government could afford to explain why we’re doing it and to allay such concerns. We’ll see all that come to light when we debate the issue in Parliament but I do think more could be done to bring home the key messages in a way that the average Singaporean can better appreciate.”

THE OPPOSITION

As we move on to talking about his assessment of the opposition Workers’ Party’s performance in Parliament, he becomes momentarily circumspect.

“If you have constructive debates with opposition MPs who are well-meaning, well-intentioned, I think that would make for a better Singapore and that makes for refinements in our policies. So I welcome that. I think good quality opposition with constructive debates in Parliament can only be good for us.”

When asked to be specific, he says he feels the Workers' Party has not been quite as constructive as he would like.

“Once we get into a situation where the opposition only takes potshots at policies without being constructive and offering something back in return, then I think if the ministers and the front benchers have to spend their time defending their positions without getting something positive in return, I’m not sure that’s constructive.”

But just because the opposition doesn’t offer up suggestions while criticising policy, should their criticisms be dismissed?

“Ideally, if I tell you something is wrong about what you are saying, I must be able to tell you not just what’s wrong but what I can change about it. I think that makes for a good democracy. But their criticism should not be dismissed. But also, I think after a while when you repeatedly get the same arguments in very broad terms, it’s not constructive.”

He cites the last Budget debate as an example.

“The Government said the Goods and Services Tax (GST) needs to be raised. It gives indication that it won’t happen in this decade, but soon. The opposition then votes against the Budget on that basis. I listened to their speeches. I didn't discern any other major objections. 

"So on the basis that GST is going to be raised in the future, they voted against the Budget. I felt that was not constructive. If they felt that there was something wrong with it, why it should not be raised, they should have made the point.”

I remark that many members of the public who expressed themselves online seemed to think the opposition had adequately explained their objection to the GST hike. Among the citizenry, many raised the same questions the opposition had about the GST issue.

“But look at the information. Look at what Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat has been saying about the Budget. Look at what had been said even prior to that. Make an assessment as to where we are, looking at healthcare costs, looking at the population profile, looking at demographics.”

He admits however that when it comes to such issues, the Government could afford to improve its communication to the public. 

“In the years leading up to this year’s Budget, I think you’ll see that the information is out there - what the expenditure needs to be focused on, what is the state of the reserves. But I also agree that there’s always room for improvement in the way we transmit the information to the ground, the way the Government communicates. I think constant engagement with the public will only improve that.”

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"Ideally, if I tell you something is wrong about what you are saying, I must be able to tell you not just what’s wrong but what I can change about it. I think that makes for a good democracy," says Edwin Tong. (Photo: Facebook / Edwin Tong)

Recently, Mr Tong was also part of the the Select Committee set up to look into combating the problem of deliberate online falsehoods.

During the hearings to consider oral evidence presented by experts, industry stakeholders and members of the public, the committee drew public criticism from some quarters for its harsh questioning of certain individuals such as academic PJ Thum, who gave oral evidence.

“I wouldn’t agree with the broad generalisation that those who disagree with the Government were treated poorer than others. PJ had a certain view that ultimately meant that the Government was the primary purveyors of false information and obviously if you make that kind of submission, it has to be challenged. 

"The amount of time it took is not necessarily a representation of what you might term as prejudicially treating someone who’s not in favour of the Government’s views but really just the amount of time needed to go through the material and to understand the material that he was relying on.”

As for the issue of deliberate online falsehoods in general, he feels there needs to be a balance in how they are dealt with.

“I think we don’t want to use a sledgehammer to deal with something that is not significant. But at the same time, we also don’t want to be toothless because fake news, by definition, moves very quickly. We want to make sure that we are able to deal with that kind of situation but at the same time, not stifle free speech. There’s a lot of room for debate on what can be done but there must be something in place to deal with it."

MAKING THE TRANSITION

As he is about to assume the role of Senior Minister of State for Law and Health, we discuss what he feels are issues that need to be looked into in each sphere.

“In law, I think making access to justice, lowering the threshold is key. For the man in the street, sometimes the costs become prohibitive. The process becomes prohibitive. Getting probate done when a family member passes on is also not straightforward. I think those kinds of refinements can still be done.”

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"The tradeoff for giving first-rate healthcare support and options to Singaporeans must be also that Singaporeans must be responsible for their own health," says Edwin Tong. (Photo: Facebook / Edwin Tong)

When it comes to healthcare, he is concerned about caregivers.

“We need to look at what more we can do for caregivers of people who are not well. You can’t rely on the primary care in the hospitals all the time. Many of those who are not well, can be treated or looked after at home but they may not have the same level of support, both infrastructurally and financially. We have to try and find a way to level that playing field.”

However, healthcare costs in general are still a concern too.

“Costs are not coming down. I think if you look around the world, Singaporeans demand the best healthcare options and I think rightly so and we have to deliver that. The tradeoff for giving first-rate healthcare support and options to Singaporeans must be also that Singaporeans must be responsible for their own health.

"You see how now some countries have sugar taxes. So you actually do try to find a way to control lifestyle because I think people realise that with social spending and the social costs of looking after people and healthcare, there must be a sense of responsibility."

As we end our conversation, he admits that embarking on this new phase of his career is “disarming”.

“Policy-making and being in the public sector is new to me, so it’s really moving from an environment that is known and comfortable to one that is not. I’d like to say that in my legal career, I had nurtured a good team that I’m very comfortable with, very strong lawyers. 

"One of my regrets would be not being able to see some of them through their development, but I think that’s how it is. I feel that at my age, it’s a good time for a new challenge and I’m happy to be asked to play a part in this.” 

Source: CNA

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