Featured News Ridoutgate review: Better if SM Teo had recused himself

Ridoutgate review: Better if SM Teo had recused himself

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Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

Between “no offence committed or disclosed” and “scrupulous conduct” is where the debate over Ridoutgate will take place, both in and outside Parliament. 

A Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau has found no evidence of corruption or criminal wrongdoing in the rentals of Ridout Road state properties by ministers K. Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan. The CPIB’s findings were submitted to Parliament on June 26 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, together with a report of a review he had asked Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean to conduct.

The CPIB said it also found no preferential treatment given to the ministers and their spouses, and no disclosure of privileged information in the processing of the rental transactions involving the two black-and-white bungalows (26 and 31 Ridout Road).

SM Teo’s report had concluded that both ministers, and the public officers and private-sector intermediaries involved, had conducted themselves properly in the two transactions, according to The Straits Times.

“There was no abuse of power or conflict of interest resulting in the ministers gaining any unfair advantage or privilege,” SM Teo’s report said.

“Furthermore, the process of renting out the two properties did not deviate from the prevailing SLA guidelines and approaches in renting out black-and-white bungalows for residential purposes.”

The two reports have categorically cleared the two ministers of any wrongdoing, with the Attorney-General concurring with CPIB’s NOD (no offence disclosed). 

It would appear that it was much ado about nothing. Was it?

Monday’s Parliament sitting on Ridoutgate will be quite something because watching the two ministers in the spotlight, Law Minister K Shanmugam and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, defend themselves may inadvertently reveal a lot about their character and the independence perhaps of PAP MPs speaking on the issue.

These are some of the points and issues which should be clarified in Parliament.

Was SM Teo the right person to do the investigation? He was the person K Shanmugam had informed when he was recusing himself in any discussion on the rental of 26 Ridout Road.  SM Teo was involved. 

As Political Sophistry, a social media site, said:

“Essentially SM Teo was tasked with establishing whether or not everyone acted scrupulously in handling this matter, including himself. It is very difficult to see how he could be considered independent, given that any negative findings would inevitably reflect poorly on himself as the highest ranking politician aware of the conflict of interest at the time.”

Another social comment went like this: 

“In these circumstances, SM Teo ought to have recused himself from the review, much less lead it, since the review would inevitably touch on the legitimacy and robustness of the very process that involved himself. If this were a commercial dispute, internationally accepted rules on appearance of bias would have disqualified SM Teo from acting as an arbitrator in the matter, and any findings made by a tribunal led by him would have been liable to be set aside by a court of law.”

I think the general suggestion among some observers was that there was no lack of qualified and more independent people who could be asked to conduct the investigation and whose findings would not only put the whole thing at rest but also not be questioned. We do have a pool of distinguished retired judges.

Unless its ministers have done wrong, the government has nothing to fear and everything to gain. It has to practise what it preaches – that integrity and transparency are among its core values. 

Maybe we should throw in modest living and lifestyle as core values too.

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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