July 18, 2023
SINGAPORE – An affair between Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin and fellow People’s Action Party (PAP) MP Cheng Li Hui continued despite their being counselled by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in February.
PM Lee said he had learnt about the relationship some time after the 2020 General Election, but did not know when it began.
He was speaking at a press conference at the Istana on Monday afternoon following his announcement of Mr Tan’s and Ms Cheng’s resignations from the PAP.
PM Lee said he spoke to both of them most recently in February, and counselled them.
However, in July, he came across information that “strongly suggested” that the relationship had continued.
“I decided then that Mr Tan had to go forthwith, whether or not the arrangements were ready. It could not wait any longer,” he said.
“I think it’s simply inappropriate to have a Speaker having a relationship with one of the MPs… It is not appropriate, it’s not acceptable.”
In February, Mr Tan had admitted to PM Lee that what he did was wrong. He offered his resignation, which PM Lee said he accepted.
But, added PM Lee, he had to first make sure that residents in his Kembangan-Chai Chee ward and Marine Parade GRC continued to be taken care of. Meanwhile, Mr Tan’s relationship with Ms Cheng had to stop.
Mr Tan, 54, is married with two children. Ms Cheng, 47, is single.
Earlier in July, when a video clip of Mr Tan’s unparliamentary language circulated, Mr Tan was away. PM Lee asked to see him when he was back.
During the discussion, Mr Tan agreed to leave immediately, due to both his unparliamentary conduct as well as his inappropriate relationship with Ms Cheng.
The latter was something which Mr Tan had told PM Lee he would break off, but did not.
Ms Cheng had also been counselled, including by PM Lee in February, but “nevertheless she had continued the relationship with Mr Tan”, said the Prime Minister.
“It saddens me to discover that these two PAP MPs have fallen short of the high standards of propriety and personal conduct that we expect of all PAP MPs,” he said.
“When such a situation arises, it is my duty as secretary-general of the party to deal with them and put things right. This means to counsel, to correct, to admonish and ultimately, if necessary, to remove the MP from the party and Parliament.”
He said it was painful to do this to “our friends and comrades-in-arms”, and it can also be politically embarrassing and costly.
“But the PAP has to maintain party discipline and standards of conduct. Our duty is to Parliament and the people of Singapore, and that is paramount.”
PM Lee said high standards of propriety and personal conduct, together with staying clean and incorrupt, are the fundamental reasons Singaporeans trust and respect the PAP.
Singaporeans give the PAP the mandate to form the government and work together with the party to improve the lives of Singaporeans, he said.
“PAP MPs, whether you’re ministers or backbenchers, must uphold these cardinal values at all times. Without party discipline, without integrity, we are nothing. This is an absolute requirement,” he added.
New Speaker to be nominated
PM Lee said he would nominate a new Speaker by the next sitting of Parliament on Aug 1, when he will be making a ministerial statement.
In the meantime, Deputy Speaker Jessica Tan will be acting Speaker.
The arrangements in Marine Parade GRC are in progress, such as putting Mr Edwin Tong and Dr Tan See Leng as the lead anchor ministers in the constituency, said PM Lee.
He urged all Singaporeans to give both Mr Tan and Ms Cheng, and their families, space and time to heal from the episode.
While the conduct was inappropriate and they had resigned from their seats, PM Lee said: “You can imagine the pain and anguish that they and their families are going through.
“We should show compassion to them, and hope that in time they can heal.”
When asked whether the affair would have come to light if not for the recent hot mic incident involving Mr Tan, PM Lee said: “It would have come to light probably sooner rather than later, because it had reached that point.”
After finding out that the relationship between the pair had continued after their conversations in February, PM Lee said it was “completely unacceptable” and “both had to go”.
“But it so happened that the hot mic incident came up and therefore precipitated this moment.”
When asked about why this incident was treated differently from the 2012 incident, when former Speaker and PAP MP Michael Palmer was found to have had an extramarital affair, PM Lee said it depends on the situation and circumstances of the case.
“(The) circumstances and their spouses, and the families’ conditions, and 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,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s possible to make direct comparisons.”
In 2012, Mr Palmer resigned as an MP, after revealing that he had been involved in an extramarital affair. This came after news of his affair was leaked to the press.
It was Mr Palmer who made the announcement at a press conference in the PAP headquarters.
When asked about his position on other rumours going around, PM Lee said that there are “all sorts” of rumours, in particular 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,” he said.
If the behaviour is not outrageous or scandalous to begin with – and the MP heeds the advice, corrects it, makes amends and puts a stop to what should not happen – then they will not be punished severely and automatically kicked out, said PM Lee.
“Because what 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,” he said.
“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,” he added.
Impact on next general election
When asked if this incident would affect his decision on when to call the next general election, PM Lee said he had no plans to call an immediate general election, which is due by 2025.
He noted that the second half of the present Government’s term had just started. There is a full agenda for the term that the Government is working at.
He added that in the GRCs where there is a member missing, other members of the constituency will step up and ensure that constituents are well looked after.
“That’s one of the advantages of having a GRC,” he said.
When asked about the recent spate of incidents possibly showing a slip in the PAP’s standards, PM Lee said that these things happen from time to time.
“When they happen, we have to make sure we deal with them, and to deal with them rigorously as well as transparently, and everybody can see that we are doing that,” he said.
“And in that process, I think everybody should draw the right conclusions and do the right things, whether they are in the Government, the party, or the public, (who) are watching how we’re dealing with it.”
No system can be completely infallible, said PM Lee. Sometimes things go wrong, and they will have to be put right, he added.
The recent Ridout Road case involving Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan saw both ministers going through a rigorous and full investigation by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.
The results were presented and debated fully in Parliament, PM Lee noted.
“It’s an example not of the PAP’s slipping standards, but how we deal with allegations against PAP MPs.
“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,” said PM Lee.
He noted what the late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said on his 90th birthday at a party that was held for him in Parliament.
He was very frail and had been in hospital, but he attended the party, where he said only two or three sentences, said PM Lee.
The late Mr Lee had said: “Remember, never let the system go corrupt. Never, never let that happen. Uphold standards, make sure that Singapore can work.”
On Monday, PM Lee said: “I am quite determined to do that, and I am quite sure the 4G leaders are determined to do that too.”
In a Facebook post on Monday night, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said he was saddened that Mr Tan and Ms Cheng are leaving under such circumstances.
“But the PAP has and will always maintain stringent standards of propriety and conduct, while staying clean and incorrupt. These are foundational to the people’s trust in us. As PM Lee has stressed, our duty is to Parliament and the people of Singapore, and that is paramount,” he added.