Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Q&A segment at the press conference on the resignations of Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin and Member of Parliament Cheng Li Hui on 17 July 2023 at the Istana.
The Straits Times: Some are wondering, were it not for the hot mic incident, would this have come to light, this soon?
PM Lee Hsien Loong: It would have come to light probably sooner rather than later because it had reached that point. Because in February I had spoken to Mr Tan and I accepted his resignation, I said sort out the succession arrangements in Marine Parade first. And we have been in the process of doing that, so for a start we have put Mr Edwin Tong and Mr Tan See Leng as the anchor ministers in Marine Parade and the process was in progress. Furthermore, as I said just now, very recently, I got new information that the relationship was continuing, and after our conversation in February, that was completely unacceptable. So he had to go. In fact both had to go, but it so happened that the hot mic incident came up and therefore, it precipitated this moment, but it will happen sooner rather than later, anyway.
Lianhe Zaobao: PM, you have explained the case regarding the inappropriate relationship between Mr Tan Chuan-Jin and Cheng Li Hui, but there are also other rumours going around. And Singaporeans in general have a very high standard for our politicians, our MPs. So as PM, as Sec-Gen of PAP, what is your position on this matter?
PM Lee: There are all sorts of rumours which speculate especially online. We can't police MPs’ private lives, but if the rumours seem to be credible, we will investigate them and if they're verified, then we will speak to the MPs concerned to correct the situation.
If the behaviour is not outrageous or scandalous to begin with and the MP heeds the advice, corrects it, makes amends, puts a stop to what should not happen, then we will not punish them severely and automatically kick them out, or immediately kick them out. Because what do you do and what consequences the person should face also depends on the positions they hold and other factors, the circumstances, the family situations, how inappropriate or egregious the behaviour was.
It's essential that we do maintain high standards of propriety, honesty and proper conduct. There is such a thing as appropriate or inappropriate behaviour, propriety and impropriety. And we expect our MPs and certainly ministers to know the difference.
But in dealing with these situations, which are human situations, you also have to be cognisant of human frailties and conscious of the impact that our actions will have on innocent parties, on families, on spouses, on their children and deal with them as sensitively as you can, but upholding our fundamental requirement to maintain our responsibilities and our trust with Singaporeans.
As for what the opposition parties should do if the rumours concern their members, you have to ask them.
CNA: I just wanted to ask a few questions around timing, you mentioned that you had this conversation with Mr Tan in February. It's not clear to me how long this relationship had been going on when you had the conversation with them. Second, the timing when you dealt with the Michael Palmer incident suggests quite a different timeline, far more quick and abrupt. And third on timing, now that you have four vacant seats in Parliament, does that affect the way you think about when you are going to call the next General Elections.
PM Lee: Well, I spoke to Tan Chuan-Jin and Cheng Li Hui most recently in February. I learnt of this sometime after the last General Election in 2020, I do not know when it began, but they were spoken to, counselled. Unfortunately, the matter didn’t close and so it came to the hard conversation we had in February this year. As for comparison with Michael Palmer, I think it depends on the situation of the case, as I said you’ve got to look at the circumstances, spouses and the families’ conditions, at how you can manage this as sensitively as you can and yet do your duty and it depends on the person's response as well as the specifics, so I don't think it's possible to make direct comparisons. As for the General Election, I have no plan to call an immediate General Election. General Election is due by 2025, we are in the second half of the present government’s term, we just opened Parliament recently. We have a full agenda for this term, we're working at it and that's what we will focus on. And in the GRCs where there is a member missing, the other members of the GRC will step up and will make sure that the constituents are well looked after, that’s one of the advantages of having a GRC.
Channel 8 News: The relationship is between a Speaker and an MP, so was there any abuse of power or any conflict of interest?
PM Lee: I think it is simply inappropriate to have the Speaker having a relationship with one of the MPs. That is all. It is not appropriate; it is not acceptable. And that is why I spoke to the two of them, and that is why Tan Chuan-Jin, knowing this, offered his resignation, which I accepted.
Berita Harian: PM, there have been some incidents involving PAP MPs recently over the past few months. This has led to some perception among the public that there is a slip in PAP standards. What do you have to say to this?
PM Lee: I think from time to time, these things happen. When they happen, we have to make sure we deal with them and deal with them rigorously as well as transparently, and everybody can see that we are doing that. And in that process, I think everybody should draw the right conclusions and do the right things, whether they are in the government, whether they are in the Party or the public watching how we are dealing with it. No system can be completely infallible. You appoint people, sometimes things go wrong, you have to find out and you have to put it right. You have to find out yourself whether or not somebody tells you something is wrong and put it right.
I think we have had a series of high-profile issues recently. I think in the Ridout case, the matter came up on the Internet. The Ministers went through a rigorous, full CPIB investigation, as well as investigation by SM Teo Chee Hean, and the results and the reports were presented fully in Parliament. And even the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Pritam Singh, said nobody's alleging corruption or wrongdoing. So, I think it is an example not of the PAP’s slipping standards but of how we deal with allegations against PAP MPs. In Mr Iswaran’s case, the matter came up not from any external report, but because CPIB came across the issue while doing another investigation, and they told me, I said, take it up. After a few months it came back to me, they said, there is something to this, we want to open a formal investigation. I studied the paper, I said, yes, proceed, and that is what they have done, and it will go through to its full conclusion. In the case of Tan Chuan-Jin and Cheng Li Hui, they did not live up to the standards which were expected. We tried to get them to mend their ways, it did not work, and they had to go.
That is how the system has to function. Sometimes things cluster up, but we make sure we put them right, and I hope I put them right and we will be able to set the right tone for a long time to come. Because we are not just maintaining high standards for one election term or one generation of leaders. You have to make sure that you can maintain this, sustain this, feel that sense of mission and responsibility, and be able to transmit that beyond your term into the next generation, and imbue the next generation of people who come forward to serve as well as people who grow up as mature Singapore citizens and voters to understand that this is how our system works, and this is how it has to work in order for Singapore to succeed.
One of the last, almost, public speeches which Mr Lee Kuan Yew made was when he had his 90th birthday and we gave him a party in Parliament. I mentioned this when I spoke at his memorial service. He was very frail, he was in hospital, he came, and we were all gathered and there was a birthday cake, and he said only two or three sentences. “Remember, never let the system go corrupt. Never, never let that happen. Uphold standards, make sure that Singapore can work.” That is the key thing, and I am quite determined to do that and I am quite sure the 4G leaders are determined to do that too.
TODAY: I just wanted to clarify something that you just said. So, you mentioned that you knew about it after the GE in 2020, why was it allowed to go on? Can you share more about the circumstances? And at each point, did Mr Tan come forward himself or did the Party have to learn about some of these things?
PM Lee: We spoke to him and to Ms Cheng during that period, from the time when we first learned about it until February this year. We hoped that they would put things right, but unfortunately, they did not.
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