SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): The reputation of the People’s Action Party (PAP) and Government has been dealt a blow by the corruption probe involving Transport Minister S. Iswaran (pic), especially since they have always prided themselves on their integrity and probity, observers said.
If not managed well, it could affect the party’s performance at the next general election, which must be held by November 2025, they added.
Political watchers interviewed on Wednesday said it will be important for the Government to reinforce its zero-tolerance stand against wrongdoing in its ranks, and to be open and transparent about the ongoing case.
They were commenting on news that Iswaran is assisting in investigations in a case uncovered by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).
Singapore Management University associate professor of law Eugene Tan said: “This latest case is a severe reputational hit for a party and Government that has long prided itself on incorruptibility and high standards of probity in governance.
“Iswaran being put on leave while investigations are ongoing is a body blow to the PAP Government.”
That he has been relieved of his ministerial duties “suggests that there is preliminary credible evidence that laws may have been broken”, he added.
But he emphasised that the minister is innocent until proven guilty.
The probe also comes on the heels of two other controversies in recent weeks, involving other PAP office-holders.
The first involved Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who were accused of wrongdoing in their rental of two Ridout Road black-and-white bungalows managed by the Singapore Land Authority. They were cleared following a CPIB investigation.
The second controversy was when Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin was caught on microphone using an expletive to describe Workers’ Party MP Jamus Lim’s speech on support for lower-income Singaporeans.
Nydia Ngiow, managing director of policy advisory firm BowerGroupAsia’s Singapore office, said: “This unprecedented assault on the party’s credibility could not have come at a worse time for the PAP, which is undergoing a leadership transition.”
National University of Singapore (NUS) associate professor of sociology Tan Ern Ser said the recent incidents could be one of the worst crises for the party, especially against a backdrop of a challenging economic climate and a more critical citizenry.
“These episodes emerging in rapid succession are certainly not helpful to the ruling party,” he added.
But the observers also stressed that there is a difference between both CPIB investigations.
The CPIB had found no evidence of corruption or wrongdoing by Shanmugam and Dr Balakrishnan, and all others involved in the Ridout Road rental transactions.
Dr Gillian Koh, the Institute of Policy Studies’ senior research fellow in the governance and economy department, said the “Ridout Road saga must be understood as one where the ministers have, in fact, been cleared of any wrongdoing”.
While the current probe will make a dent in the PAP Government’s reputation, it remains to be seen if its political fortunes will be affected, said observers.
Political observer and former nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin noted that how the party handles the CPIB investigation will be crucial.
“If it is well-handled and the Government demonstrates that it is still operating according to its own values of having institutions that do not tolerate corruption, then it’s a validation of the system. In fact, it may strengthen support in the system because systems are strengthened by challenges,” he said.
Dr Koh said that while the news of the latest CPIB probe is concerning, the fact that a minister is being interviewed shows that the system of maintaining integrity in government – and Singapore – is working as it should.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said at a media doorstop on Wednesday that the Government and PAP will not sweep anything under the carpet, even if the disclosure is potentially embarrassing or damaging.
Referring to this, Dr Koh added: “Like Ridout, as Wong said this afternoon, the system, the values and laws of honesty, integrity and probity come first, and no matter who, they will apply equally. No one is shielded from the full process of accountability.”
The biggest challenge will be in managing public perceptions that the PAP has fallen short of its own high standards, said SMU’s Prof Tan.
He added that the current probe will almost certainly become an election issue and will prompt questions on whether more checks and balances are needed.
Zulkifli said: “All these cases that have surfaced definitely can erode public trust if it is not well-handled by the Government.”
He added that the public will hold the new generation of leaders that join the party to the same high standards as PAP leaders of the past, and if they fall short, they will be taken to task.
“People are asking whether this party has changed, whether it has become softer because of the passing of a generation, or whether they have the old virtues,” he said.
SMU’s Prof Tan said that the stakes will be higher in West Coast GRC in the next general election. Iswaran is the anchor minister in the constituency, where he has been for more than 20 years.
West Coast GRC was the PAP’s narrowest win in terms of percentage points in the 2020 General Election. The PAP secured 51.68 per cent of the vote over a Progress Singapore Party team helmed by its then secretary-general Tan Cheng Bock.
Prof Tan said: “Any opposition party contesting there will certainly make the corruption probe an election issue and link that to the need for more opposition in Parliament. But given that a probe is in progress and that there was no cover-up, the opposition cannot, however, reduce its campaign there to this one issue.”
“The western half of the island has long been safe ground for the PAP. It may be showing signs of some vulnerability,” he added.
NUS’ Prof Tan said that even if Iswaran is cleared of any wrongdoing, “having him as a candidate may be a distraction, given that suspicions could still linger in the court of public opinion”.
He added that in a possible “swing” constituency, a small shift in votes can make a big difference.
At West Coast GRC, residents who spoke to The Straits Times said they were shocked that Iswaran was assisting in investigations in a CPIB case, but added that they believed it would not affect the well-being of residents in the constituency.