Transcript of Intervention by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Ministerial Statements on Ridout Road Rentals on 3 July 2023.
Mr Deputy Speaker Sir, I am responding to Ms Denise Phua’s question, to give my take on this Ridout issue, which we have been debating now for five hours. I think the focus of the debate has been on values – integrity, propriety, incorruptibility. 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. Therefore, where Ministers decide to live, whether they want to rent, whether they want to buy, these are personal choices. Thus I see nothing wrong with Ministers renting properties from SLA1, or for that matter, from a private landlord, provided it is properly done, and all procedures are followed.
Therefore when I heard that two of my Ministers, Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan had rented Black and White bungalows at Ridout Road, my assessment, without going into in depth, was that I did not believe there was wrongdoing involved. I had every confidence that my Ministers, and the SLA officials who dealt with them, would have done the right things, and handled the rentals properly.
However, after SLA’s statement on the 12th of May, the issue continued to attract public interest.
So when the two Ministers asked me to conduct an investigation independent of their ministries, I decided that notwithstanding my confidence in them and in the system, it would be best for me to task CPIB2 to conduct a formal investigation, and to establish definitively if there was any corruption or wrongdoing. Why CPIB? Because CPIB is independent. It has built up a strong reputation as an anti-corruption outfit; and it has the necessary legal powers, guaranteed in the Constitution, to carry out a thorough investigation. Everybody in Singapore knows what it means when CPIB invites you to lim kopi. And you can invite anybody, ministers, officials, businessmen, ordinary Singaporeans, whoever it is necessary for them to interview in order to establish the facts, and the truth and whether there is culpability. I tasked CPIB to look into this on the 17th of May. I was then in Nairobi, on an official visit to Kenya.
CPIB’s investigation went beyond the legal question of whether there was criminal conduct. It extended to broader issues like whether there was preferential treatment enjoyed by the Ministers, whether any privileged information was disclosed to them, whether the Ministers had abused their position in the process of the rentals.
But I wanted these broader questions examined more thoroughly because as Prime Minister, my duty is not just to be satisfied that legally there was no wrongdoing, but whether – quite apart from the law – there was any other kind of misconduct or impropriety. Therefore after I returned from Africa, on the 22nd of May, COVID-19 notwithstanding, I tasked Senior Minister (SM) Teo Chee Hean to do a broader review of SLA’s policies and processes, to complement CPIB’s investigation.
SM Teo is my most senior Minister in terms of years in Cabinet and experience. I appointed him, to show that I have every intention to maintain the government’s and the PAP’s longstanding, high and stringent standards of integrity and propriety. I wanted to put my most experienced, most qualified, for this purpose, most capable person on the job. I did not consider SM Teo to have been involved in the transaction, even though Minister Shanmugam had informed SM Teo of the arrangements he had made to recuse himself, including that then Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah had been told to approach SM Teo if the matter had to go beyond her. Because no such issue arose, and nothing was ever raised to SM Teo. He was the backstop and nothing reached him.
It has been suggested, including today by some MPs, that even though SM Teo might not have been involved in the Ridout transactions, just because he is a Minister, he is not sufficiently independent to conduct this investigation. I take a different view. When it comes to corruption and wrongdoing, crimes, we have an independent process – a CPIB investigation and referral to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) for an opinion. We are dealing with laws, legality and ultimately the courts are the arbiter of what is legal or illegal but ethics and standards of propriety, those are the Prime Minister’s responsibility. I have to set the standards of what is ethical, what is proper. I cannot outsource them, for example, to appoint an ethics advisor to tell me what is proper or not proper. I have to know what is proper or not. Otherwise I should not be here. An ethics advisor cannot be the one to decide and to advise the Prime Minister whether Ministers acted with propriety or not. Some countries have tried this. You have read about some of them in the newspapers over the last few months. It has not always resulted in more ethical conduct or better government. In Singapore’s context, the Prime Minister has to set the standards. He issues the Rules of Prudence to PAP MPs after every general election. I have done it now four times. He has to set the right personal example of proper conduct. He decides whether a Minister has acted properly or not, in accordance with the Code and the Rules. If he thinks so, he should say so. If he thinks not, he must say not. He cannot say I have no view and I do not wish to influence my Ministers and my MPs. Ultimately, the Prime Minister is still accountable and he has to justify his position here – to Parliament – and answer to Singaporeans at the ballot box. That is how our system works, that is how it has been kept clean. That is my general approach, and the attitude I have taken in this case.
When CPIB and Senior Minister Teo submitted their reports to me, I accepted all their conclusions, and ordered the reports to be published, and placed before the House, before this meeting today so that everybody can read them, digest them, and we are ready to come here and have an informed discussion. These reports provide a good basis for Parliament to discuss the issue.
Their conclusions are quite clear, as the Ministerial Statements you have heard earlier have explained from Senior Minister Teo and Minister Edwin Tong. 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. CPIB did find an imprecision in how SLA defined the Guide Rent for No. 26 Ridout Road. Their report explained this, and CPIB established that this imprecision was not due to any ill intent on the part of the SLA officers, nor was there any evidence of any male fide abuse of position in the valuation. The imprecision is embarrassing to SLA and the Government, particularly as SLA had put out a statement earlier to say that the Ministers both paid higher than the guide rents, but that cannot be helped. CPIB calls it as it is, with no regard to whom it might inconvenience or embarrass. SLA has acknowledged that CPIB’s interpretation is the correct one and they will review their practices, and improve upon them. Senior Minister Teo’s review, relying on CPIB’s findings, confirmed the broader issues, that there was no conflict of interest or unfair advantage enjoyed, and that all rules and procedures had been complied with. And his report sets out the basis for his conclusions – these are not just his personal opinions, but conclusions based on documented facts, verified and laid out in the report.
It is very important that we have had this accounting in Parliament. Members have had full opportunity to ask questions and clarify doubts. Minister Shanmugam and Minister Vivian Balakrishnan have done nothing wrong, and they retain my full confidence. But this accounting in Parliament is not just to resolve the issue of the rentals on two Black and White properties in Ridout Road, important as that is. It is also a demonstration of how the PAP is determined to uphold the standards which it has set itself from the beginning, in 1959. This government has not, and will never, tolerate any compromise or departure from the stringent standards of honesty, integrity and incorruptibility that Singaporeans expect of us. In this case, we have investigated it, the Ministers have been cleared. In other cases which come up, we will investigate it and whichever way the facts fall out, it will be taken to the logical conclusion. This is the foundation not just for the people’s trust in the PAP government, but for the integrity and good functioning of our political system. And this is my commitment and the PAP government’s unwavering commitment to Singaporeans. Thank you Mr Deputy Speaker.
 Singapore Land Authority
 Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau
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