Recent scandals a 'setback' for PAP, government; response matters more when things go wrong: DPM Wong
“I have no doubt that we will reflect, learn from these experiences, make our system better and continue to uphold the trust that Singaporeans have in the elected government and in our system of government,” says Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong.
SINGAPORE: The recent scandals involving its Members of Parliament are a "setback" for the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the government, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on Wednesday (Jul 26).
“It is very unfortunate that the incidents have happened, all bunched up and clustered up at a very short time within the same month,” he said during an interview with the BBC’s Newsday programme, a transcript of which was published on the Prime Minister's Office's website.
“The incidents are a setback for the ruling party and the government. Despite our best efforts, people make mistakes and things do go wrong from time to time. When that happens, what matters more is our response.”
Stressing that the PAP’s response has been "very clear", DPM Wong added: “We have sought to set things straight; to do the right thing. We have been upfront about the cases, (they will be) investigated thoroughly and (we will) have a full accounting to the public as and when investigation findings are available.
“I have no doubt that we will reflect, learn from these experiences, make our system better and continue to uphold the trust that Singaporeans have in the elected government and in our system of government."
Transport Minister S Iswaran was arrested by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) on Jul 11 as part of a graft probe. He is out on bail and has been placed on a leave of absence
CPIB’s first media statement on the case on Jul 12 said Mr Iswaran was "assisting" with an investigation into a case uncovered by the anti-corruption agency.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a separate statement on the same day that he had agreed to CPIB opening a formal investigation. On Jul 14, CPIB revealed that Mr Iswaran had been arrested on Jul 11.
The government later said that both Mr Lee and Mr Wong, who also spoke about the issue on Jul 12, did not reveal Mr Iswaran’s arrest because they did not want to deviate from what the CPIB had announced in its initial statement on the investigation as it was "related to operational matters".
Less than a week after news of the CPIB probe involving Mr Iswaran broke, former Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin - who had recently apologised for using "unparliamentary language" - and MP Cheng Li Hui resigned from parliament and the PAP after it was revealed the pair had an affair.
Answering questions on the matter, Mr Lee said he was first alerted to the relationship between Mr Tan and Ms Cheng after the last General Election in 2020, and had spoken to the former about this relationship most recently in February.
Mr Tan admitted his mistake and offered his resignation at the time.
After their conversation in February, Mr Lee had accepted Mr Tan’s resignation, but told him "I needed to make sure the residents of Kembangan-Chai Chee and Marine Parade continued to be taken care of".
But “very recently”, Mr Lee came across information that “strongly suggested” that Mr Tan and Ms Cheng’s relationship had continued, and he "decided then that Mr Tan had to go forthwith".
Responding to a question from BBC about whether the government was “actually being upfront” about Mr Iswaran’s arrest and the extramarital affair between Mr Tan and Ms Cheng, Mr Wong said he understood why people have these questions.
On Mr Iswaran’s case, Mr Wong stressed again that the CPIB is an independent agency that has legal powers to conduct thorough investigations. “And it is up to them, their operational prerogative, what information to put up at every stage of the investigation.”
When Mr Lee and Mr Wong spoke on the issue when the news broke, the information was based on the CPIB statement at the time, the latter noted during the BBC interview.
“We did not want to go beyond what CPIB was prepared to say on that day,” said Mr Wong.
“There are operational considerations and it is up to CPIB to make that call. They decided not to say it at the start, but a few days later, they were prepared to reveal the fact that the Minister was arrested. After all, bear in mind, on this case, there was no public information about it.”
When asked about whether he understood the public’s frustration about having the right to know when the arrest was made, Mr Wong said that he did.
“But I hope the public also understands and respects operational considerations, and the autonomy and independence in which CPIB acts,” he continued.
“I believe Singaporeans have full trust in the work of the CPIB; that throughout our history, their track record is clear and evident for all to see. We have zero tolerance for corruption and CPIB acts independently, and are very thorough in their investigation.”
NEVER ADOPTED ZERO-TOLERANCE APPROACH FOR EXTRAMARITAL AFFAIRS
The BBC also asked why Mr Tan was allowed to continue performing his duties as Speaker of Parliament even though Mr Lee had known about the extramarital affair for a while.
In response, Mr Wong stressed that this case was “different from corruption”.
“With corruption and criminal wrongdoing, we have zero tolerance. When it comes to conduct, you have to exercise judgment,” he added.
While the PAP sets high standards for propriety and personal conduct, there can be an impact on innocent parties when dealing with such cases, said Mr Wong.
“We do not police the private lives of all our MPs,” he added, stressing again that Mr Lee had already counselled Mr Tan and Ms Cheng, and asked them to stop.
“But we did not know what was going on until subsequently, the Prime Minister found out again and he spoke to them in February this year, and learned that this was continuing, and he accepted the resignation then.”
When asked whether the PAP is now adopting a zero-tolerance policy towards extramarital affairs in light of recent incidents, Mr Wong said: “We have never adopted that approach.
“(For) corruption and criminal wrongdoing, we have zero tolerance. When it comes to personal conduct and extramarital affairs, we have never taken that same approach because every case is different – we have to look at the circumstances of the case, the individuals concerned, and we have to also consider the parties involved, including many innocent parties."
Where conduct is involved, it is dealt with on a case-by-case basis, said Mr Wong, adding that the government will exercise compassion and sensitivity where necessary, while upholding the trust Singaporeans have in it at the same time.
Responding to a question about the lesson he has learnt from the past few weeks, Mr Wong said: “The main point overall when you look at these incidents, is that the trust we have with Singaporeans is very critical.
“And I am determined to make sure we continue to uphold this trust.”