SINGAPORE: Despite the gruelling six-hour Parliamentary session yesterday (3 July), in which Ministers K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan’s explained how they came to rent the state-owned bungalows along Ridout Road, some are asking whether the whole saga could have been avoided if the ruling party politicians had taken a leaf out of opposition giant Chiam See Tong’s book.
Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean cited the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), which cleared the Ministers of corruption, criminal wrongdoing, conflict of interest or being given preferential treatment, while Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong vouched for his Ministers and said that both ruling party politicians had done nothing wrong.
As the sitting wore on, opposition politicians in Parliament raised concerns about the perception of a conflict of interest even if there was no actual or potential conflict. Leader of the Opposition and Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh said that no one is accusing the Ministers of corruption but questioned the optics of how the rental transactions were struck.
Similarly, Progress Singapore Party (PSP) secretary-general Leong Mun Wai said he believed in the Ministers’ integrity but raised the perception of conflict of interest.
Mr Shanmugam, at one point during the sitting, said that conflict of interest cannot be a subjective viewpoint based on perception.
When WP MP Jamus Lim asked whether there were any actions by the two ministers that they believe, in hindsight, could be perceived as a conflict of interest, Mr Shanmugam said that the question essentially is, “if others perceive you to be in conflict, therefore you are in conflict, therefore you’re in breach of the ministerial code”.
Asserting that the government cannot run on the basis that an officer is in conflict as long as a member of the public perceives him to be in conflict, he added that this would mean that the Health Minister could be in conflict if he undergoes surgery at a hospital or the Home Affairs Minister could be in a conflict if he files a police report in his capacity.
While many Singaporeans have accepted the explanations provided by the Ministers and the findings of the CPIB report, some have asked whether this whole controversy could have been prevented.
Earlier, on 28 June, veteran editor Bertha Henson said she didn’t expect wrong-doing but “can’t understand” why no one advised the Ministers to avoid renting from the Government.
Pointing out that this would “give rise precisely to this sort of perception of conflict of interest,” she said: “Then you get public riled up for nothing. And a CPIB probe for info that doesn’t seem so secret.”
She added: “It’s not as if they don’t have a choice of rented property. It’s one of those ‘sacrifices’ ministers have to make to make sure there would be no question about integrity. Why put your civil servants through this and have THEIR integrity questioned?”
Before the Ministers decided to rent the state-owned properties, they could have looked to the example veteran opposition politician Chiam See Tong set decades ago.
Mr Chiam, who was at one point the sole opposition parliamentarian in the House, showed Singaporeans the value of having principles and sticking up for principles when he gave up a terrace house, costing him “more than a million dollars.”
The story of why he did so became public in 1996 when Parliament sat to hear then-Senior Minister (SM) Lee Kuan Yew and his son then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, explain how they bought several condo units by Hotel Properties Limited (HPL) at pre-launch discounts.
While the purchases were eventually found to have been proper, the debate in Parliament turned to the issues of high ministerial salaries. Mr Chiam called on ministers to disclose or declare all their assets in light of the HPL saga.
Defending the policy which ties ministerial pay to the private sector, SM Lee challenged Mr Chiam, saying: “Ask yourself, Mr Chiam, be honest. We are going to have an election soon. You are an honest man… Do not deceive people.
“You say, ‘Declare this.’… Mr Chiam, would you like to declare your income, although it is known to Inland Revenue? Would you like to declare your assets?”
The founding Prime Minister of Singapore added that “no candidate would join the PAP, especially a successful one” if he had to disclose his assets.
Turning to Mr Low Thia Khiang, who was serving his first term as a Workers’ Party MP, the Senior Minister said: “Maybe Mr Low Thia Khiang would be prepared to do it because he has been having a pretty lean time. He has not been a lawyer. So he can show, ‘You see, how poor I am.’”
He shot at Mr Chiam, “But Mr Chiam, let us be honest, and then maybe you will still win Potong Pasir.”
Mr Chiam first responded by addressing the question of ministerial pay and said, “my perception is that salary cannot be everything.”
He added, “We want good men. Sure, we want honest people. I know it is difficult to get them… I was wondering whether if we just concentrate on the incentive of high salaries, without hoping that people would also have values with them, even without the high salary, that they can still work for Singapore.”
Turning to Mr Lee, Mr Chiam said, “Sure, I would be willing to declare what properties I bought.”
Mr Chiam then described an incident when he was a teacher at Cedar Secondary School in the 1960s. He was in the Singapore Teachers Union (STU) and came to know about the Teachers’ Housing Estate project, which built terrace houses, especially for teachers, many of whom were having difficulty finding affordable housing at the time.
A total of 256 double and triple-storeyed terraced houses were built and made available for purchase in the estate in 1969. The price range of the houses was between $23,000 and $25,000, which, while considered affordable at the time, still posed a significant financial burden for teachers earning between $325 and $690 monthly.
However, teachers were able to obtain loans of up to 80% of the purchase price from their schools, with interest rates as low as 6%.
Mr Chiam told Parliament, “I booked a corner unit. It was a very good unit, with a basement below. I arranged with the principal for a loan. I put out some money and I was successful in purchasing that property.”
But Mr Chiam already owned two flats at the time. He said: “I was living in one and renting out the other. I was a single person at that time, and being a bachelor I did not want to live in a terrace house all by myself. I had to rent it out.
“I asked myself what would happen if other teachers got to know. You are depriving them of one house. You are buying it to rent it out and they have a family and they do not have a house to stay in. So I gave up that purchase.”
He asserted: “That is the sort of principle that I have.”
Revealing that he probably lost “over a million dollars” by 1996 due to that decision, Mr Chiam said: “I do not know how much it costs now, but at least over a million dollars. That is the sort of values that I hope can be inculcated among Singaporeans.
“Sure, we want high salaries. We want a good living. We want money for our children to be educated. But at the same time, we must have dedicated and committed people in Singapore. It is not because of the salaries that I come to serve Singapore.”
SM Lee replied to Mr Chiam, “Hear, hear!”
Choosing to let go of the terrace house despite the loss was not the only time Mr Chiam put his principles above high pay and profits. Recalling how he voluntarily worked in rural Malaysia with a very low salary because of his desire to serve the people, Mr Chiam told the House:
“I have given up my time and energy for 20 years to be in politics, hoping that I can contribute. I think I have contributed something to Singapore. I think I have set an example, hopefully, that others will follow me when they are in the Opposition. We have also to help Singapore grow and be strong. It is not only the duty of the Government. It is also the duty of the Opposition. We are also nation builders.”