Opinion: Recent Political Scandals Prove Singapore Isn’t Picture-Perfect, But This Isn’t A Bad Thing

This piece is part of MS Speaks, a segment in which MS News reporters share their honest views on current affairs and trending topics.

Political Scandals Aren’t A Sign That Singapore Governance Has Failed

When Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin and Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui resigned over an inappropriate relationship, headlines predictably screamed of a crisis for the People’s Action Party (PAP).

The same went for the Workers’ Party (WP), as Aljunied MP Leon Perera and senior party member Nicole Seah also stepped down over their affair

Leon Perera & Nicole Seah Admit To Having Affair, Both Resign From Workers’ Party

While many Singaporeans might fret that this is an indication of slipping standards among our leaders and a downhill path for Singapore, I may be one of those who don’t think so.

It’s not because I don’t want our politicians to be morally upright, but because I actually think the recent scandals might be good for us.

This may seem illogical, but there’s a reason — with these scandals, Singaporeans might finally evolve and shake off the notion that we’re for some reason ‘special’.

Singapore governance holds itself to very high standards

Throughout the years, many important figures have referenced the notion of Singapore being ‘special’. Most recently, when Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong addressed the media on 17 July, he said the PAP had to maintain its “high standards”.

Source: Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore on YouTube

He also cited founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who said that we had to “uphold standards” to make sure that Singapore can work.

In a recent interview, former Senior Minister and current presidential hopeful Tharman Shamugaratnam had a similar idea.

He said the “Singapore system” means “anything to do with integrity and incorruptibility is taken seriously”, adding,

That’s what makes Singapore special, that’s what makes us admired around the world.

Therefore, when Mr Tan’s scandal made the news, it troubled political observers. Associate Professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University even told Channel NewsAsia (CNA) that,

It could reinforce public perception in some quarters that the ruling party has fallen (from) its high standards.

Young Singapore needed to seem ‘special’

The whole idea that Singapore needed to be special seems to have taken root from when we were a small, young country, terribly insecure after separating from Malaysia.

We needed to prove quickly that we could stand on our own feet.

Thus, we created a kind of holier-than-thou image to build trust and relationships with trading partners and investors.

That strategy appeared to have worked as we became a developed country very quickly. Many now know Singapore as a clean and safe country with good governance.

Companies want to move their HQs here, and people want to hold important meetings, world-class events and major concerts on our shores.

Source: Marina Bay Sands on Facebook

So it’s time, perhaps, to relax a little and leave the insecurity behind as we approach our 58th birthday.

Should we fear that this might all go away, and people might decide to take their business elsewhere? Definitely — let’s take a look at some other potential rivals.

Political scandals abound in other countries

It’s worth noting that many other developed countries and territories we like to compare ourselves with have had numerous political sex scandals.

In 2013, then-Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi was convicted of paying an underage nightclub dancer for sex.

Source: The Guardian

He also faced allegations of corruption and a conviction for tax fraud throughout his political career.

Then in 2016, the United States (US) elected a president who had multiple sexual allegations against him.

Source: BBC

Closer to home, a Japanese parliamentarian had to resign in 2022 after allegations that he went drinking with an 18-year-old girl, stayed at a hotel with her and gave her cash to do so.

Over in Taiwan, a wave of #MeToo scandals has rocked the island in recent months. In light of accusations of misconduct, several ruling party politicians have also quit.

Singapore does well in other things too

Obviously, Singapore’s circumstances are different from others. The oft-repeated refrain is that we are a small country with no natural resources. Therefore, we can’t afford to appear not ‘clean’, as people won’t want to trade with us otherwise.

But if we want to be mentioned in the same breath as these jurisdictions, perhaps we should be confident enough to believe that Singapore is as worthy as them.

Besides incorruptibility, Singapore is renowned for several other positives that make people want to live and work here. Among them are safety, excellent infrastructure and a family environment suitable for raising children.

As a financial hub, we’re known to have a pro-business environment with effective regulation and a pool of skilled finance professionals.

Our multiracialism is also a plus point — halal food is readily available and people of all races are largely friendly to each other.

All the work we’ve done over the decades to build that up surely isn’t flimsy enough to count for nothing overnight because a few MPs had affairs.

In all likelihood, investors won’t suddenly pull out of the country because of sex scandals – especially if they’re handled well, which I will come back to later.

Politicians are humans, not gods

Of course, I don’t want to live in a country with corrupt, inept, reprobate or irresponsible politicians. But neither do I think we should have unrealistic expectations of them.

In an ideal world, our politicians would be above reproach all the time. But we don’t and will never live in an ideal world.

It’s time to recognise that politicians are humans, just like the rest of us. They are not gods, and they are not infallible.

The faster we remove them from this pedestal, the sooner we can mature as a society.

Maturity means accepting many shades of grey

But what does this have to do with maturity?

Many Singaporeans have a tendency to see things in black or white: either our politicians are spotlessly clean, or they’re total scumbags.

We also tend to be unforgiving of others, but not quite so judgmental of our own behaviour.

However, to evolve as a country and society, we need to realise that clinging to this “whiter than white” image is simply not sustainable.

We have to accept that life has many shades of grey.

No system is completely infallible

In fact, PM Lee himself has acknowledged some version of this.

During his 17 July speech, he said “No system can be completely infallible”, adding,

You appoint people, sometimes things go wrong, you have to find out and you have to put it right.

While some may accuse him of making excuses, this actually makes perfect sense.

He went on to say, 

That is how the system has to function. Sometimes things cluster up, but we make sure we put them right.

The system was never meant to be perfect, and neither were the people in the system. 

More important to handle scandals well

So instead of expecting our leaders to be perpetually upright, it’s more important that we can do what needs to be done when one of them errs.

Apparently, Mr Tan and Ms Cheng’s relationship came to light in 2020. They were counselled but carried it on till 2023.

WP also reportedly came to know of concerns regarding Mr Perera and Ms Seah’s relationship in 2020. However, the party dismissed these after the pair denied the rumours.

Thus, the question we should be asking is not, “Why is Singapore not special any more?” but, “Why weren’t these problems addressed and resolved earlier?”

And it seems this point, thankfully, hasn’t escaped many Singaporeans’ attention.

Iswaran case more concerning, but action was taken quickly

While the two affairs involving MPs were embarrassing and could have been handled better, perhaps what’s more concerning for Singapore is the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) probe into Transport Minister S Iswaran.

Unlike the other incidents, this could potentially involve damning revelations of unethical work practices.

Transport Minister S Iswaran Assisting In CPIB Probe, Will Take Leave Of Absence

In this case, action was taken within a matter of days after the CPIB alerted PM Lee to the case.

Thus, though Singapore’s ‘clean’ image took a hit, it was salvaged to some extent as the case was quickly dealt with.

Elect people who can run a country

So perhaps Mr Tan, Ms Cheng, Mr Perera and Ms Seah have done us all a favour. 

Now that we know our politicians aren’t perfect, just like the rest of us, maybe we can focus on improving the machinery to weed out those who’ve fallen short instead of automatically assuming they walk on water just because they made it into the House.

With that in place, we can concentrate on electing people who are better than us at running a country.

That means being concerned with what’s in their brains and not what’s inside their pants.

Note: The views expressed within this article are the author’s own.

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Featured image adapted from Baey Yam Keng 马炎庆 on Facebook and @nicoleseah.sg on Instagram.

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