SINGAPORE: The fact that the current Attorney-General (AG), Lucien Wong, used to be Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s personal lawyer is a matter that “should be of concern to every Singaporean who wishes to see Singapore as a bastion that upholds the rule of law,” said Workers’ Party chair Sylvia Lim in Parliament on Monday (Jul 3).
Workers' Party MPs raised a number of other points in Parliament on the dispute between PM Lee and his siblings Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, with Mr Png Eng Huat suggesting that safeguards should be in place and spelled out clearly to prevent family members of political appointees and ministers from abusing their power. MP Pritam Singh also called for Parliament to prepare to organise a select committee to look into the allegations against PM Lee.
In her speech, Ms Lim stressed that Singaporeans should “defend with all (our) heart and minds the independence of our organs of state”.
“We must protect the organs of state as professional bodies with a national mission,” she said. “The Government should never seek to interfere with or to influence those organs of state set up to ensure good governance.”
The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) was one example Ms Lim put forward, and she highlighted her concern of “conflicts of interest” arising from current AG Lucien Wong’s former position as PM Lee’s personal lawyer.
“How will the AGC act in advising the Government on any decision it wishes to take on 38 Oxley Road?” she questioned. “Has the AGC already been giving advice to the committee, and who in the AGC is giving the advice?
“Has the AG recused himself from touching the file since he has represented PM Lee in his personal capacity as a beneficiary?”
She added that deputy AG Hri Kumar Nair was formerly a People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament before his appointment in March.
“I understand that he only recently resigned as a cadre member of the PAP,” she said. “Will he recuse himself from the matter too, since his former party leader, the Secretary-General, is personally involved?”
Ms Lim added that there is no legal prohibition in appointing the Government’s close friends and former party comrades as the AG or deputy AG. But from a “system point of view,” she questioned if these appointments “instil public confidence” that the AGC will act independently in matter where the Government or Prime Minister has an interest in the outcomes.
“Singaporeans are upset over this saga for a multitude of reasons,” she said. “One consistent theme is embarrassment at the consistent airing of family disputes and that family matters should be settled privately.”
“Another thread is whether the Prime Minister, other ministers and the Attorney General had exercised their powers properly in handling matters touching on the Lee estate. My concern is on the latter - particularly how we protect the rule of law and our institutions,” she added.
“Let us be most alive to the risk of a slippery slope that erodes public trust and independence of our organs of state.”
The issue of the conflict of interest in the appointment of the AG and deputy AG was addressed later in the session by Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah. She said that Mr Wong and Mr Hri Kumar would not be involved if there is any conflict, and that the rules of conflict are "very clear".
“There is no basis to suggest that either the AG or deputy AG have not observed these rules,” she added. She also said that in cases where there have been friendships among judiciary members and the Government, the considerations are the “quality, character, integrity of the individuals involved”.
“That is the hallmark of our system. and indeed, in many first world countries, the AG is even a sitting member of the parliament, or a politician,” she said.
Ms Lim and WP Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang then asked for clarifications on what the senior minister of state had said.
"I would like to ask her categorically, whether she is saying that the AG and the deputy AG Mr Kumar are not involved in advising the government concerning the Lee Estate," Ms Lim said. She also asked about the appearance of closeness between members of the government and the AGC.
Mr Low asked if it is important that the public has a perception of impartiality when it comes to such appointments.
In response, Ms Indranee said that the AG and deputy AG are not advising the Government in matters in which they had previously been involved.
"There have been instances before where either the AG, or judges may have been close friends with ministers or anyone else, but that has not deterred them from doing their duty," she said.
She added that if the AG or deputy AG encounter matters that they have come across in private practice, they will not advise on the matter.
"All lawyers understand this, if you have a conflict, you recuse yourself," she said.
SAFEGUARDS TO PREVENT ABUSE OF POWER: PNG ENG HUAT
Echoing Ms Lim’s concern about current AG Lucien Wong’s former position as PM Lee’s personal lawyer, MP Png Eng Huat said the relationship between Mr Lee and Mr Wong should have been publicly disclosed.
“While such relationships may not allude to anything, the personal and commercial relationships between the PM and appointed AG should be publicly disclosed in the name of transparency,” he said.
“When I sought the advice of someone from the charity sector about some mundane disclosure, this person said that when in doubt, more disclosure is better than less, so err on the safe side,” he added. “Could the PM explain why the public disclosure of his relationship with the AG is not necessary?”
Mr Png added that safeguards should be in place to prevent family members of ministers and political appointees from “abusing their position of influence in their engagement with the civil service.”
Allegations by Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling suggested that PM Lee’s wife, Mdm Ho Ching, had “exerted an influence on the Government and civil service in a pervasive manner and well beyond her job purview,” he said.
“It is a given that a wife of a prime minister – or for that matter, the wife of any minister, would have easy access to information and the inner workings of the Government,” he said.
“The Prime Minister has said that it is the duty of the minister to correct any abuse of power committed by their family members,” he said. “Nonetheless, these safeguards should be spelled out clearly so the core values of the civil service would not be compromised.”
PARLIAMENT SHOULD PREPARE TO ORGANISE SELECT COMMITTEE: PRITAM SINGH
Also weighing in on the issue, WP MP Pritam Singh echoed the view of Mr Low that PM Lee should go to court, in order to “rebut these allegations of abuse of power in order to decisively settle the issue.”
He said that until Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee are fully heard, “doubts will continue to linger”.
“The anomaly in this matter before the House surrounds the decision taken by the PM, ironically it must be said, not to sue in spite of the many allegations of abuse of power much to the surprise of many Singaporeans,” he said. “Singaporeans have been sued for defamation for much less.”
As Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee do not as yet face lawsuits, Mr Singh said in view of Singapore’s political culture, “there are Singaporeans who believe that the allegations made against the PM may have more than a grain of truth to them.”
He drew comparisons between a Parliamentary session in 1996 to investigate an accusation that the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and then-deputy prime minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong had got discounts from property developer Hotel Properties Limited.
By the time it came to an end in the House, MPs were in a position to triangulate many facts which in totality “made absolutely clear that no improprieties could be alleged by any reasonable person”, he noted.
“In the matter before us today, can we honestly say we are apprised and fully aware of the evidence and facts relevant to allegations of PM abusing his power so as to come to the same conclusion?” he questioned.
But in view of this “highly usual decision” made by Mr Lee not to clear his name in the courts, Mr Singh suggested that Parliament “prepare to organise a special select committee to look into the allegations.”
The remit of this committee would, he said, simply be to look into “the truthfulness of the allegations and get to the bottom of the matter.”
He added that in light of evidence being made available to it, the committee can be expected to summon PM Lee, his wife Madam Ho Ching, Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s wife or anyone else, to shed light on the allegations.
“I believe that it is an avenue to put a stop to these allegations which have now moved beyond damaging just the government, but has damaged Singapore’s reputation with the trust people outside Singapore have with its institutions,” he said.
SELECT COMMITTEE SHOULD HAVE NON-PAP MEMBERS: LEON PERERA
Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leon Perera, who is also a WP member, further elaborated on Mr Singh's suggestion of a select committee.
For one, the committee would have the advantage of leading a process that could determine the facts and recommend follow up action to Parliament.
"The follow up action could relate to the incidents at hand and it could also relate to systemic changes the committee may propose to curtail the ability of future office holders to abuse powers," he said.
Mr Perera added that the committee’s independence would be underscored by the presence of non-PAP MPs on the committee.
Separately, he also questioned the composition of a ministerial committee set up by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean to study options for the house. The members of the committee includes Cabinet members responsible for heritage, land issues and urban planning, namely Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, Minister for Law K Shanmugam, and Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong.
The Government got involved in the matter house as it has the "responsibility to consider the public interest" aspects of properties with historical and heritage significance, DPM Teo said.
Mr Perera asked: “Why not some kind of independent panel with the expertise and resources to perform expert heritage analysis and public opinion sensing, a panel that would not be seen by anyone as potentially compromised by the fact that its members directly report to an individual who has personal ties to the matter at hand.”