Featured News Ridoutgate debate: PAP put up a polished defence

Ridoutgate debate: PAP put up a polished defence

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Sense and Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

The debate on Ridoutgate was a good opportunity to watch some older People’s Action Party ministers do what they have always excelled at – putting up a well-coordinated and rather polished display of their ability to focus on the problem at hand.  The Opposition should learn from that peformance and try and match it if they want to make a bigger difference in Singapore politics.

“I tasked CPIB to look into this on the 17th of May. I was then in Nairobi, on an official visit to Kenya…

“CPIB found no corruption or wrongdoing, no preferential treatment, no disclosure of privileged information, no abuse of position for personal gain. The AGC confirmed this after reviewing the Investigation Papers. And the Leader of the Opposition paid CPIB and paid the Government a compliment just now when he said, nobody is suggesting corruption on the part of the Ministers…

“Ministers in Singapore are paid a clean wage, realistic, competitive but clean wage. They do not get perks, there is no official house to live in. You get a salary. It is for you to judge what you need it for, for your lives. Save it, give it away, spend it, put in a house, travel, whatever.”

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave an intervention in the Parliament debate and there were keywords and phrases which said at least two things. First, he might have been abroad but he was following everything closely.  He was on top of the situation. Second, Singapore ministers were paid clean salaries with no perks. What they did with the money was their personal business. 

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PM Lee appointed Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean to do a review of what happened re the 26 and 31 Ridout Road rentals. Second Law Minister Edwin Tong gave an overview of Singapore Land Authority polices for Black and White Bungalows and Good Class Bungalows.

In short, all bases were fairly well covered. And all questions were answered. In fact, as a bonus, the public even had a comprehensive picture of the GCBs and some of the problems of managing them pending future plans.

SM Teo adopted a fatherly figure attitude in dealing with questions. More or less entreating Opposition MPs, including Progress Singapore Party NCMP Leong Mun Wai, to help maintain Singapore’s reputation of zero tolerance for corruption. 

The government took a risk in specifically getting the CPIB to come into the picture. This was notwithstanding the fact that the bureau itself had enough authority and independence to investigate without having to notify anyone. What if there was indeed some wrong doing?

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To me anyway, the most crucial statements were from the two ministers in the spotlight. What they had to say and the manner they said it were important.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s explanation of why he wanted such a big house at 31 Ridout Road was relatable and clearly laid out. He wanted to have his children and a growing brood of grandchildren all live under one roof, with the relevant consents of in-laws. Since he had no direct link with the Singapore Land Authority, the “landlord”, his explanation did not present any perception of any conflict of interest. Case closed.

Law Minister K Shanmugam, who rented 26 Ridout Road, was supposed to have had a perceived conflict of interest problem. But, as SM Teo said, since there was no actual conflict and no potential conflict, as the “fearsome” CPIB reported, there was not and could not, therefore, be any perception of conflict.  For any fair-minded person, that is. The public anyway saw a feisty Shanmugam saying he was committed to public service, having had the opportunity to rise from a humble Bukit Merah neighbourhood to become a successful lawyer. He made sure to recuse himself from any authority regarding the rental.  

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Shanmugam also refuted online allegations suggesting that a company led by his son had received special treatment in being awarded a contract for renovation works at his Ridout Road rental property. He condemned these claims as “utterly false and defamatory”. He added, “I say to these people: You want to come after me, you come after me. I’m perfectly capable of defending myself and they will find out that I will defend myself. But leave my family alone.”

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It was a point-by-point statement, a crucial part of an impressive whole of party defence.

In contrast, the Opposition was in a kind of quandary on Ridoutgate. I may be wrong. I suspect that since Ridoutgate did not emanate from the Opposition in Parliament, neither the Workers’ Party nor the Progress Singapore Party was committed to it unless they believed the ministers were really corrupt or improper in their conduct. 

It was unfortunate that Leong Mun Wai had to once again entangle himself with Leader of the House Indranee Rajah and the public had to witness yet another apology and retraction. Brinksmanship was not needed. Neither did grandstanding serve any purpose.

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also the managing editor of a magazine publishing company.

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