July 19, 2023
SINGAPORE – The resignations of Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin and Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui over an affair show the Government understands that Singaporeans expect high standards of their leaders.
But the timing of the resignations also raises questions about why the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) chose to keep it under wraps until now, said political observers The Straits Times spoke to.
Why did it take so long for the affair to be made public?
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the press conference on Monday that he had learnt about the relationship some time after the 2020 General Election, but did not know when it began.
In February 2023, he counselled the pair. However, in July, he came across information that “strongly suggested” the relationship had continued.
He decided that Mr Tan had to go, as it was neither appropriate nor acceptable to have a Speaker having a relationship with one of the MPs.
The timeline of Mr Tan and Ms Cheng’s relationship and when it was disclosed publicly – around three years – has raised eyebrows among some members of the public.
Dr Gillian Koh, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, said there are questions about the gaps in the timeline of how things happened and the information that is being made public.
“These have to be addressed to help the public assess not only how deeply committed the PAP is to high standards of personal conduct, but also to transparency and accountability of party and Government in line with its value system,” she said.
The PAP will need to address these issues, she said, and show that these were not “attempts to hide or get away with anything” until there were information leaks and the party, presumably, had no choice left, as sceptics speculate.
Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore, said the timing of the announcement on Monday was presumably because the situation had become untenable.
“It may have been felt by the party leadership that it was vital and necessary to nip the issue in the bud, rather than allowing it to fester,” he said.
In 2012, Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer resigned just days after he came clean about his extramarital affair.
Dr Leong Chan-Hoong, head of policy development, evaluation and data analytics at Kantar Public, said PM Lee has taken a more “gentle, calibrated” approach in managing the controversy. Dr Leong said Mr Tan’s case was a “deviation” from how Mr Palmer’s affair was handled, but he said it showed that PM Lee sought to handle the matter in a more “human” way. Nonetheless, he noted that PM Lee made a “tough decision at this critical juncture” to make the affair known publicly, despite the PAP’s other recent controversies and scandals.
The revelation of the affair between Mr Tan and Ms Cheng comes hot on the heels of a corruption probe by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau into Transport Minister S. Iswaran last week.
Mr Iswaran was arrested and has been released on bail.
Earlier in July, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam came under scrutiny in Parliament for their rental of two state-owned bungalows.
Dr Leong said: “That the PM is picking this out and resolving it now… suggests that he’s taking a tough approach here before these things surface at the next general election.
“He’s demonstrating that the Government and the PAP are determined to weed out those who cannot meet the stringent standards expected of the party and Singapore politics.”
Tough standards for Singapore politicians
Political observer and former nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin noted that Singapore’s founding fathers set a high moral standard for political leadership.
But he said that “there’s bound to be human failure”, which should be expected, though not “necessarily condoned”.
While news of a politician having an affair would not be newsworthy elsewhere, Mr Zulkifli noted that Singaporeans seem to want to maintain this high standard expected of their leaders, and do not want the Government to be soft on such indiscretions.
“The Government and other political parties will have to accept this,” said Mr Zulkifli.
Dr Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said he does not consider the affair a major public issue – as long as there was no abuse of power or position, no effect on discharge of duties, no harassment, coercion or force, and both parties gave mutual consent.
“The rest is up to the individuals, their families and their conscience. Those are not matters of particular public interest for me,” said Dr Chong.
He added: “I don’t see why politicians need to be symbols of morality more or less than anyone else. Personal situations can also be complicated.”
Responding to queries from ST, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who worked closely with Mr Tan for almost a decade in Marine Parade GRC, said he had “nil comments as of now”.
A Straits Times check on Christian online publication websites Thir.st and Salt&Light, which previously ran articles featuring Mr Tan, found that the articles could no longer be accessed.
The articles on Thir.st later came back online. They were accompanied by an editor’s note stating that the articles on Mr Tan were temporarily offline while the website took in the news developments and contemplated how best to approach them.
“These articles were published before any allegations came to light, and so we trust these articles will now be read in the appropriate context,” it stated.
The Centre for Fathering said it thanked Mr Tan for serving as its patron since January 2018.
“Mr Tan has today stepped down from that role with immediate effect,” it said on Monday evening, in response to ST queries.
Mr Tan is also deputy chairman of the board of Mandai Park Holdings. Asked if he would be removed from the board, the firm said: “We have nothing further to add from Mr Tan’s statement on the matter.”
For volunteers on the ground, work – and life – goes on.
A grassroots volunteer, who has served in Mr Tan’s Kembangan-Chai Chee ward for more than 10 years, told ST that volunteers found out about the incident only on Monday. He had not heard any rumours about the affair before that.
He said everyone was surprised, and have been supporting and encouraging one another during this period.
He said he would continue volunteering in the ward “because we don’t do it for the MP”.
“We do it because of our community and neighbours. In fact, all the more, we need to stay on to make sure the work with the vulnerable residents doesn’t get disrupted,” he added.
Does the hot mic incident still matter?
Prior to the affair coming to light, Mr Tan had come under fire for a hot mic incident last week.
A video was uploaded on Reddit on July 10, titled “SG Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin insults Jamus Lim: ‘****ing Populist’”.
Mr Tan had been reacting to a speech by Workers’ Party MP Jamus Lim on doing more to help lower-income Singaporeans.
In his resignation letter to PM Lee, Mr Tan wrote: “Deservedly, there has been much disquiet over my remarks. Many felt that I was not impartial.”
He added that others also felt it was “conduct unbecoming” of a Speaker of Parliament, and some had called for his resignation.
Constitutional expert and NUS adjunct law professor Kevin Tan called for there to be a non-partisan Speaker of Parliament instead of a politician.
“It could well be his personal feelings,” said Prof Tan, referring to Mr Tan’s hot mic incident.
But he stressed that the Speaker is required to be impartial and maintain a neutral stance, something he said Mr Tan had failed to do.
How damaging is the affair for the PAP?
NUS associate professor of sociology Tan Ern Ser said the affair could be considered “a slip” for the PAP, but it was not totally unexpected.
“No vetting process is ever perfect. Moreover, some (cases of misconduct) are what we would call ‘misconduct of opportunity’… which cannot be easily detected in earlier vetting processes and even continual assessment,” said Dr Tan.
“After all, (Mr Tan) has outstanding academic and military credentials.”
Likewise, Dr Mustafa said the recent spate of events can be considered more of a “slip than a crisis”, due to the prevalence of strong political leadership and parliamentary dominance.
However, he said that it does necessitate that the party take a pause and engage in critical reflection, while assuring Singaporeans that the party upholds the highest moral and political standards.
Going forward, he said it is likely that the PAP has to close ranks, consolidate its support base, keep the domestic public opinion favourable, and ensure that the political trust cultivated with the domestic populace is maintained.
He added: “History has shown that the PAP has the remarkable tenacity to hold itself as a strong united force, and maintain its political dominance in the face of adversity.”
Additional reporting by Goh Yan Han