Pritam queries Government’s approach to recent issues
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on Wednesday called out the Government for either being slow to clear the air or less than upfront with Singaporeans when it had to deal with potentially embarrassing issues in its current term.
The Workers’ Party (WP) secretary-general also contrasted how Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had exercised sensitivity in dealing with former Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin’s extramarital affair, while the Committee of Privileges did not even consider sensitivity as a factor in accounting for the WP’s delay in addressing former MP Raeesah Khan’s lies in Parliament in 2021.
“The Prime Minister did not bat an eyelid in giving the Leader of the Opposition a sermon on Confucian ethics, morality and shame even though at the material time, he would have been aware of the affair between Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin and MP Cheng Li Hui,” said Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC).
Rising to speak after PM Lee’s ministerial statement on the corruption probe into Transport Minister S. Iswaran and the affair between Mr Tan and Ms Cheng, Mr Singh cited three examples in which he felt the Government was not forthright with Singaporeans: the Ridout Road saga, Mr Iswaran’s arrest and the use of TraceTogether data for criminal investigations.
He then reiterated his suggestion for the Government to appoint an ethics adviser.
On the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau’s (CPIB) probe into Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan renting state-owned bungalows, Mr Singh took issue with how the public was informed about the investigations only on June 28, more than a month after PM Lee had directed the bureau to investigate the matter on May 17.
He noted that PM Lee did not disclose the probe in his May 23 statement, which announced that Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean had been tasked to review the matter.
Responding, PM Lee said CPIB investigations are usually not announced at all.
“When I asked the CPIB to investigate, it is my prerogative, I don’t have to tell anybody. What’s important is that I did conduct an investigation and the investigation results were published.”
In Mr Iswaran’s case, CPIB had announced on July 12 that the minister was assisting with investigations.
The bureau subsequently said on July 14 that Mr Iswaran had been arrested on July 11.
PM Lee said CPIB would take into account operational reasons in deciding what information to reveal, and that ministers would not go beyond what the bureau was prepared to say unless there were strong reasons to do so.
“In terms of transmission of information, we are pursuing a red herring,” he added.
Mr Singh also asked why Mr Tan’s case was handled differently from that of former Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer, and why so much time was needed to plan for the care of residents in Mr Tan’s constituency.
Replying, PM Lee said there was a reporting relationship between Mr Palmer and the People’s Association staff member whom he had an affair with.
He also said he had been open about when he found out about Mr Tan and Ms Cheng’s affair.
As for the delay in taking action, he said: “I’ve explained that Marine Parade was a consideration, but all things considered, we should have moved earlier. The important thing is we moved, and we brought it out, and we are open about it.”
On the issue of Ms Khan, PM Lee said the matter is now before the police, and he would leave it to them to pursue.
Mr Singh replied that the matter was about the point PM Lee raised on sensitivity. “The Prime Minister believes that it is appropriate to respond sensitively given the circumstances at hand, and the point I was making was we were dealing here with someone who said she had been raped, and I did not sense that sensitivity coming from the PAP (People’s Action Party) at the time.”
Mr Shanmugam rose to point out that it was Mr Singh who had brought up the word “rape” during the Committee of Privileges inquiry, and said: “So much for sensitivity.”
Responding, Mr Singh said his point was about the selective standards applied by the ruling party on sensitivity, while his use of the word “rape” during the inquiry in 2021 was to show how serious the matter was.
After a further exchange on Ms Khan’s case, Speaker Seah Kian Peng reminded MPs that the ministerial statement was about Mr Iswaran’s graft probe and the resignations of Mr Tan and Ms Cheng.
On the TraceTogether incident, Dr Balakrishnan, who was then in charge of Singapore’s Smart Nation drive, objected to Mr Singh’s characterisation that the incident was part of a pattern of the Government not being forthright.
He questioned if the timeline really showed a lack of transparency, recounting how he was unaware of the prevailing legislation when he assured the public in June 2020 that TraceTogether data would not be used by law enforcement agencies.
In October that year, a member of the public wrote to him questioning if this was true. Dr Balakrishnan directed his staff to check the following month and then decided to rectify the matter.
As Parliament did not sit in December that year, then Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan responded to an MP’s question in January 2021 and clarified that the police could use TraceTogether data in investigations under Section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
Dr Balakrishnan said he had acted in good faith at all times. “I have tried to make sure that in design, in execution and in coordination of a complex matter in an emergency, I have been transparent and forthright with the people, and I object to your characterisation and use of an old debate which was settled in Parliament to suggest that there is a pattern of delay, prevarication and obfuscation.”