Transcript of Ministerial Statement by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on the CPIB investigation involving Minister Iswaran and the resignations of former Speaker and a PAP MP on 2 August 2023.
Mr Speaker, Sir
Recently, we witnessed a series of high-profile public cases involving Political Office Holders.
Members have asked several questions regarding these cases. Let me give the House an account of how these issues have been dealt with, and why. After that, Minister Chan Chun Sing will address the more detailed questions in his statement.
On the CPIB investigation involving Minister Iswaran.
Briefly, the facts of the case are these: While investigating a separate matter, CPIB came across some information concerning Minister Iswaran that merited investigation. CPIB alerted me on 29 May, and pursued this lead further on their own volition. On 5 July, Director CPIB briefed me on the findings he had at that point. He told me that CPIB would need to interview Minister Iswaran to take the investigation further, and he sought my concurrence to open a formal investigation. I gave my concurrence the next day, 6 July. On 11 July, Minister Iswaran was brought in by CPIB and subsequently released on bail. I instructed him to take leave of absence until the investigations were completed.
Subsequently, I interdicted Minister Iswaran from duty with a reduced pay of $8,500 per month, until further notice. Such incidents involving ministers are rare, and there is no rule or precedent on how to effect an interdiction on a Political Office Holder. Hence, I used the current civil service practice as a reference point. The specific details in Minister Iswaran’s case follow generally how the civil service would deal with a senior officer in a similar situation. But this was my decision as Prime Minister, because the political contexts for a minister and a civil servant being investigated and interdicted are different.
I should point out that CPIB investigations are still ongoing. I am unable to provide more details on the case, so as not to prejudice the investigations in any way. I ask Members of this House and the public to refrain from speculation and conjecture. We must allow CPIB to do its work, to investigate the matter fully, thoroughly and independently. When the investigation is completed, CPIB will submit its findings to the Attorney General’s Chambers, which will decide what to do with them. Whichever way the facts come out, the case will be taken to its logical conclusion. That has always been our way.
Resignations of Former Speaker and Former MP
Next, on the resignations of former Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin and former MP Cheng Li Hui.
Let me recap some basic facts, that are mostly already public: I first learnt of their relationship sometime after the 2020 General Election – in fact, in November 2020. They were both spoken to, and counselled, separately. They both said they would stop the affair. But as it turned out, they did not. Most recently in February 2023, I spoke to them again, separately. Mr Tan admitted that what he did was wrong. He offered to resign, I accepted. But I told him that before he actually resigned, I had first to make sure residents in Kembangan-Chai Chee (his ward) and Marine Parade (his GRC) were taken care of. Meanwhile, his relationship with Ms Cheng had to stop. A few weeks ago, I came across information that strongly suggested that the affair had continued. I decided that Mr Tan had to go forthwith. Ms Cheng had to resign too, because she had not broken off the affair even after being told to stop.
I have been asked: Why did I take so long, more than 2 years, to act? It is a fair question. In retrospect and certainly now knowing how things eventually turned out, I agree. I should have forced the issue sooner. But let me explain my general approach, as well as my thinking at that point in time.
These sorts of relationships happen from time to time. They have happened in the past, and no doubt will happen again in the future. In such cases, what we do depends on many factors: the circumstances, how inappropriate or scandalous the behaviour was, the family situations. We also have to be conscious of the impact on innocent parties – particularly the spouses and children. I had explained this at my press conference on 20 July. So did DPM Lawrence Wong last week in a BBC interview. This is not a new position – it reflects the PAP’s long-standing practice, since the days of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
There is no single template that applies to all extra-marital affairs. But there can be at least three situations: The first situation – where the individuals involved will be talked to, and if they stop, the matter ends there. No further action need be taken. Second situation – where immediate action has to be taken. For example, when one party has supervisory power over the other party. And we have in the past taken immediate action, in a few cases. Third situation – where the relationship raises some questions of propriety, beyond it being an extra marital affair per se. The parties will be talked to, but the matter cannot end there. Even if the affair stops, some action has to follow. But what that action is and when it is taken, depends on the nature of the facts and the boundaries that have been transgressed.
The present situation falls into this third category. It is wrong. Mr Tan and Ms Cheng had to stop their affair. I told them to stop.
In deciding what more should be done, consider this: Would we object to having a Speaker being married to an MP? I think the answer is no – that would be perfectly alright. There is no direct reporting line between the Speaker and an MP. Thus, an open, legitimate relationship between the Speaker and an MP is not in itself objectionable. Hence, this situation of the Speaker having an affair with an MP does not fall into the category where immediate action has to be taken. However, the Speaker has some official capacity vis-a-vis MPs. An extra-marital affair between him and an MP is therefore problematic. It puts other MPs and staff in an awkward position, and it is just not proper. After I spoke to Mr Tan in November 2020, he told me that the relationship would end. I took it to be so. I therefore felt there was some leeway to take some time, to decide what further steps to take.
In this context, the possible actions that could have followed were: On the basis that the extra-marital affair had stopped, I would have asked Mr Tan to step down as Speaker some time before the end of the term, but in a way which would reduce the public embarrassment to him and his family. As to whether one or both should also resign as MPs – I had not decided at that time, but quite likely both would have had to leave at some point. By giving the matter some time, I had hoped to give them a softer exit, and save them and their families the pain and embarrassment that they are suffering now. I placed much weight on protecting their families – perhaps too much.
Regrettably, in the end Mr Tan and Ms Cheng did not stop the affair, and both had to go. On reflection, as I said, I should have forced the issue earlier, certainly before mid-term.
Let me add a personal plea at this point: while there is no doubt the two persons behaved improperly, there are also innocent family members involved. Likewise for the case involving a former member across the aisle, in the Workers’ Party. All their families are suffering. I hope that MPs and the public can empathise and have compassion for the families, and give them the privacy and space they need to heal.
Mr Speaker, Sir – there has been a great deal of public interest over the recent series of incidents – CPIB arresting and investigating a Minister, MPs resigning, and before that the allegations about the Ridout rentals.
The way we have handled these incidents shows how seriously the PAP takes our responsibility of governing Singapore, and being accountable to Parliament and to Singaporeans.
Let me assure Members: When such issues come up, we will deal with them properly and transparently – as we have done. With the Ridout rentals, when allegations of preferential treatment surfaced, the two Ministers involved were thoroughly investigated, including by CPIB, and eventually fully exonerated. The investigation reports were tabled in Parliament, and we had a long session answering MPs’ questions in this House. When CPIB discovered, on its own, that it had reason to arrest and interview a Minister, it opened a formal investigation. Nobody tipped them off. There had been no public scandal. CPIB came across something that needed investigating, and proceeded to do their job. When the Speaker of Parliament and a government MP fell short of the standards of propriety and personal conduct expected of them, they were asked to resign. We took some time to sort it out, probably longer than we should have. But we did what we needed to do, and put the situation right.
The two CPIB investigations, and the response to the personal misconduct case, show two aspects of how this PAP Government works. One, when there is suspicion or allegation of wrongdoing in the discharge of official duties, especially possible corruption, there is zero tolerance. Two, when people slip in their personal lives, the PAP will look at the facts of each case carefully, and deal with the matter as humanely and sensitively as possible, according to the principles that the Party has established.
Systems are composed of human beings. In any system, however comprehensive the safeguards, sometimes something will still go wrong. The PAP Government does our utmost to minimise that possibility. We work hard to identify the right people to bring into politics, and appoint into responsible positions. We vet them carefully, test and stretch them, before entrusting them with heavier responsibilities. Often they measure up, but sometimes they fall short. Occasionally they transgress norms of conduct, or commit wrongdoing.
Singapore has seen corruption cases involving political office holders in the past: Mr Tan Kia Gan in 1966, he was then former Minister of National Development, Mr Wee Toon Boon in 1975, he was then a Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Mr Teh Cheang Wan in 1986, he was Minister for National Development and earlier in 1979, Mr Phey Yew Kok, then President of NTUC and also an MP. All these cases were handled by Mr Lee Kuan Yew who was then Prime Minister – thoroughly, transparently, and applying the full force of the law. That is still how the PAP Government deals with such cases. It has not changed under my charge; and it won’t change under my successor either.1
Now Mr Speaker, Sir, with your permission may I say a few words in Mandarin.
Mr Speaker, Sir
Let me assure Singaporeans that we will protect the integrity of our system of government. For the good of our country, we will carry through what needs to be done in accordance with the law, even if it may be politically embarrassing and painful to the party. I will not flinch or hesitate to do my duty, to keep our system robust and clean. This is how the PAP Government can continue to deserve the trust that Singaporeans have placed upon us.
I have spoken often about how precious trust is and how crucial it is for our democracy to work well. The founding generation built up Singapore and entrusted it to our generation in good shape. It is incumbent on us to protect and uphold this system, to keep it incorruptible and clean, and maintain high standards of propriety. With the investigation into Minister Iswaran, and the resignations of the Speaker and an MP, the PAP has taken a hit, but we will show Singaporeans that we will uphold standards and do the right thing, so that trust is maintained, and the Singapore system continues to work well.
This is my approach, and I am confident it will be my successor’s approach too. This is how we will keep Singapore safe, strong and prosperous for many years to come.
 PM made two clarifications in the afternote below.
Mr Speaker, may I have your permission to make two quick factual corrections to what I said just now?
First, Mr Tan Kia Gan by 1966 was a former minister, no longer Minister because he had lost in the previous 1963 general elections.
Secondly, Mr Wee Toon Boon was Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment and not in MINDEF.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
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