Transcript of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong’s Interview with BBC's Newsday on 26 July 2023.
BBC: Thank you so much for joining us on the programme this morning. So firstly, these recent scandals have somewhat rocked the reputation of Singapore as a squeaky-clean country. What's your response to that?
DPM Lawrence Wong: It is very unfortunate that the incidents have happened, all bunched up and clustered up at a very short time within the same month. 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. If you look across the string of incidents, our response has been very clear. 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.
BBC: You said you have been upfront but for example, in that corruption scandal, it took several days for the Government to confirm his arrest. And I guess, you know, in terms of the extramarital affair, the Prime Minister was informed about it a while ago. I guess it makes people wonder whether that is actually being upfront.
DPM Wong: I can understand why people have these questions – these two are quite unrelated. On the corruption case, we have clarified, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) is an independent agency. They have legal powers enshrined in the Constitution to do thorough investigations, and it is up to them, their operational prerogative, what information to put up at every stage of the investigation. So when the Prime Minister and I talked about the Minister assisting with investigations at the start, that was based on the CPIB statement on that day. We did not want to go beyond what CPIB was prepared to say on that day.
BBC: So you can't actually go in and say hey, we actually have to make this announcement.
DPM 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. No one knew about it. We discovered it, we have put the facts out proactively, and we are determined to do a thorough investigation. When the findings are ready, we will make the findings available to the public.
BBC: I am sorry to interrupt, but the CPIB does report to the Prime Minister, doesn't it?
DPM Wong: They do, but throughout Singapore’s history, no Prime Minister has stopped any investigation by the CPIB, and the CPIB also can go up to the President if there were ever to be such an attempt to do so.
BBC: But would you be able to understand the public's frustration that they had the right to know when the arrest was made?
DPM Wong: Sure. But I hope the public also understands and respects operational considerations, and the autonomy and independence in which CPIB acts. 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.
BBC: Because there have been other scandals involving other lawmakers, I guess that has somewhat shaken the public's trust in the ruling party. And also, the Prime Minister has known about this affair for a while; why was the Speaker of the Parliament allowed to continue performing his duty?
DPM Wong: The Prime Minister has set out the facts behind this case – it is different from corruption. With corruption and criminal wrongdoing, we have zero tolerance. When it comes to conduct, you have to exercise judgment. To be clear, we set high standards for propriety and personal conduct, but in dealing with such cases – which are cases of human frailties – we are also very cognisant of the impact that our actions have on innocent parties, including families, especially the spouses and their children. We have to find the right balance between exercising compassion and sensitivity, while upholding the fundamental requirement of our responsibilities and trust with Singaporeans. The Prime Minister has explained his decisions in a press conference; I am sure there may be more questions in Parliament next week and we will deal with them at that stage.
BBC: But why did it take years? I understand if it takes a couple of weeks to make the announcement because of those concerns, but why did it take so long and especially when the Prime Minister said it was inappropriate. Wouldn't it come across as somewhat double standard that the affair was somewhat hidden as a secret?
DPM Wong: We do not police the private lives of all our MPs. When the information was first made known to the Prime Minister, as he had already explained in the press conference, he had spoken to them, counselled them, 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. Arrangements were made for the resignation of the Speaker later on. I think these timelines have been explained and as I said, the Prime Minister will go through them again in Parliament if needed.
BBC: I just want to cite the Code of Conduct for Ministers, ‘they are expected to act according to the highest standards of honesty, integrity and diligence in the exercise of their public duties’. As we mentioned, you are to be the next Prime Minister of the country. Would you have acted differently if this scandal happened under your watch?
DPM Wong: These are hypothetical situations. What I can say is, since being appointed as the Deputy Secretary General of the PAP in November, I have been taking a lot more time to get involved in party matters and to learn about how the party operates and works. That is something that I have been doing much more in recent times. I have had more experience on the policy front, but on party matters, it is something I am learning; and the recent spate of incidents, going through each one of them, has also been an opportunity for me to learn and reflect on how, for me as a party leader in the future, I can do better and we can continue to learn from these setbacks and make the party stronger and more effective in the future.
BBC: In terms of extramarital affairs, is it now a zero-tolerance policy given all these scandals?
DPM Wong: We have never adopted that approach. As I said, it is different. [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. So those sorts of cases, when it comes to conduct, we deal with them case by case. We exercise compassion and sensitivity where necessary, but we want to uphold the trust that we have with Singaporeans at the same time.
BBC: And of course, there was the more serious scandal of that corruption. You said you are learning from these experiences. What is the lesson that you have learned from the last couple of weeks?
DPM Wong: 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. Eventually, if I do have a chance to take over – if I do – I know that it is not just about me taking over because I also have to earn that trust with Singaporeans myself. I have to win their confidence and mandate to lead the country, and so I will work doubly hard to make sure that I will be able to win and earn the trust of Singaporeans.
BBC: How would you do that though, because you do have the Presidential Election later this year. And also, what would you do to re-earn that trust? For example, as we mentioned, Singapore has some of the highest paid Ministers and especially when the argument is, that is to discourage things like corruption. That kind of defeats the whole argument, doesn't it? Would you, for example, consider their salaries to be reviewed? What would you do differently to re-earn that trust?
DPM Wong: The Presidential Election is a different matter. That is an election to select the individual to take up the highest office of the land, and I am confident Singaporeans will choose the best candidate with the character, ability and experience to take up this office. It is not a vote for the Government.
BBC: But Tharman though, is a former minister from the PAP. Do you think these scandals could actually affect this election?
DPM Wong: He is his own man. We have had previous Presidents who were also former members of the PAP and they have acted very independently. Mr Tharman is his own man; he will make his own case of why Singaporeans can trust him.
BBC: We have forty seconds left on the programme. Can I just ask you one more time about the salaries – would you consider reviewing?
DPM Wong: The basic point is, we start with a very high foundation of trust in Singapore. Singaporeans know that this is how our system works. This is how we do things in Singapore – when cases come up, we explain to Singaporeans, we investigate thoroughly. We do not sweep anything under the carpet, even if it may be potentially embarrassing to the party or the Government. And we will continue to do that.
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