Iswaran interdicted from duty during CPIB probe, on a reduced pay of S$8,500 a month until further notice: PM Lee
The Transport Minister will continue to draw an MP allowance.
SINGAPORE: Transport Minister S Iswaran has been interdicted from duty with a reduced pay of S$8,500 a month until further notice, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a ministerial statement on Wednesday (Aug 2).
Mr Lee was speaking in parliament on the corruption probe involving Mr Iswaran, as well as the resignations of two MPs - former Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin and Ms Cheng Li Hui - over their extramarital affair.
More than 10 MPs had filed questions on matters related to the probe by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).
Mr Iswaran was arrested by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) on Jul 11. He is out on bail and has been placed on a leave of absence. CPIB's probe into Mr Iswaran also involves billionaire Ong Beng Seng, the man widely credited with bringing F1 racing to Singapore.
Given that such incidents involving ministers are rare, Mr Lee said that there is no rule or precedent on how to effect an interdiction on a political office holder. And as such, he used the current civil service practice as a reference point.
"The specific details in Minister Iswaran’s case follow generally how the civil service would deal with a senior officer in a similar situation," said the Prime Minister.
"But this was my decision as Prime Minister, because the political contexts for a minister and a civil servant being investigated and interdicted are different."
According to the Public Service Division, as of 2023, the benchmark level of a minister's monthly salary stands at S$55,000, which means Mr Iswaran's reduced pay of S$8,500 works out to about 15 per cent of the benchmark.
FACTS OF THE CASE
Briefly running through the facts of the case, Mr Lee said that while investigating a "separate matter", CPIB came across some information concerning Minister Iswaran that "merited investigation".
CPIB alerted Mr Lee on May 29, and pursued the lead further "on their own volition". Mr Lee was briefed on the findings by the director of CPIB on Jul 5.
"He told me that CPIB would need to interview Minister Iswaran to take the investigation further, and sought my concurrence to open a formal investigation," said Mr Lee, who gave his concurrence the next day.
Mr Iswaran was brought in by CPIB on Jul 11, and subsequently released on bail.
Mr Lee added that CPIB investigations are still ongoing and that he is unable to provide more details on the case, so as not to prejudice the investigations in any way.
"I ask members of this House and the public to refrain from speculation and conjecture. We must allow CPIB to do its work, to investigate the matter fully, thoroughly and independently," he said.
When the investigation is completed, CPIB will submit its findings to the Attorney-General’s Chambers, which will decide what to do, he added.
"Whichever way the facts come out, the case will be taken to its logical conclusion. That has always been our way," said Mr Lee.
ISWARAN STILL GETS MP ALLOWANCE
Mr Lee then fielded questions from several MPs, including Mr Dennis Tan (WP-Hougang), who asked if Mr Iswaran’s allowance as an MP was also affected.
The annual MP allowance is S$192,500, or around S$16,000 a month.
Mr Lee said that Mr Iswaran still draws an MP’s allowance because this differs from a minister’s pay and does not come under the Prime Minister’s discretion.
“If you want to (remove the allowance), parliament has to move a motion to interdict the MP as an MP, and parliament has not done that. Neither, in previous cases, has parliament done that,” Mr Lee added.
“What has happened is that the MP has been on leave of absence, and eventually when the case is settled one way or another, then consequences follow.”
Minister-in-charge of the Public Service Chan Chun Sing also clarified that an MP’s allowance is withheld only after the said MP is suspended from the service of parliament, in accordance with the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act. A motion has to be tabled in parliament to suspend the MP.
Mr Saktiandi Supaat (PAP-Bishan-Toa Payoh) asked why Mr Iswaran was still drawing S$8,500 despite being interdicted from duty.
Mr Lee responded that the presumption of innocence applies to Mr Iswaran’s case and that his case has not even been heard yet.
The practice in civil service in such situations is that the person gets interdicted and put on half-pay, subject to a ceiling and a floor, Mr Lee said.
‘But you are there until the matter is disposed of. If you are, at the end of it, innocent … your back pay is reinstated to you and made good,” he added.
“If later on, you are in fact found guilty … your pay will stop completely and other consequences will follow. I think that is a reasonable model to follow and that is the basis on which Mr Iswaran would be interdicted and he would be paid S$8,500 a month instead of his normal salary.
“He was told, he acknowledged, and that was done. I think that’s the proper way to do things.”
In the case of two government ministers renting black-and-white bungalows along Ridout Road, Mr Lee said he had no doubt he could leave the ministers at work because he did not believe they were guilty. No evidence of their guilt came up during investigations either, he added.
“If the investigation had surfaced something that was questionable, I would have been told and I would have made a decision whether they needed to be interdicted and put on leave of absence,” he added.
In Mr Iswaran’s case, by the time formal investigations began on Jul 11, CPIB had been working on the case since May and “had some basis to come to some conclusion”, Mr Lee said.
“What do I do because I don’t have a precedent, I don’t have a norm. I look at what the civil service does as a guideline - their situation is different,” he noted.
Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Hazel Poa then questioned why Mr Iswaran was not placed on no-pay leave.
Mr Lee responded that it was a judgment call and that he had to be fair to the minister involved, as well as do the right thing by the government and taxpayers.
He noted that in the civil service, those convicted are placed on "zero pay" and "other consequences will follow”.
“It is not a minor matter. He has not been charged. Is it fair for me to say, ‘Your pay goes to zero’? I think it is not,” Mr Lee said.
He reiterated that he took guidance from the civil service, which imposes half-pay “subject to minimum and ceiling”.
“The ceiling is about here too, so I decided on this number - 8,500 - because it’s much less than half pay,” said Mr Lee.
“So I think we have to go on principles rather than ‘Whatever we do, anything you can do, I can do stronger’. I think that would not be a wise approach to take.”
"OWNSELF CHECK OWNSELF"
Mr Lee also responded to NCMP Leong Mun Wai, who told the House that he thinks more decisive action should be taken - even informally - the moment a minister is investigated.
“By having all these delays in taking decisive action, don’t you think this is not in line with the government’s stance of zero tolerance?” Mr Leong asked.
Mr Lee said that there should be a “sense of reality” and that he defers to CPIB on operational judgments.
“The reason this is here at all is because the government decided to act - ownself check ownself. Otherwise, it wouldn’t even be here,” he added.
“At some point, it may have come out and then we would have a bigger problem, but it didn’t get worse. And we have started this very serious investigation because our system works and we picked up that something was wrong.
“And that is how the system is meant to work, and that depends on the leadership, on the government, on the whole ethos of our society - to frown on corruption, to have no tolerance for somebody who falls short of the standards we expect."