Commentary: Tin Pei Ling’s Role At Grab Puts Her In A Tricky Situation

The Problem With Tin Pei Ling’s Role At Grab

A lot of fuss has been kicked up over People’s Action Party (PAP) MP Tin Pei Ling’s new role as public affairs director of ride-hailing platform giant, Grab.

The controversy says a lot about how intertwined politics and business in Singapore are.

Tin Pei Ling Joins Grab S’pore As Public Affairs Director, Will Harness Positive Potential Of Tech

I didn’t think anything of the appointment until a friend highlighted that a large part of “public affairs’’ concerns Government relations. He asked if this amounted to a “conflict of interest’’.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with an MP holding down a full-time job. So long as he or she can do the work of an MP as well. The conflict arises when MPs use their political position to advance themselves or their kin materially or professionally.

In fact, the PAP spots potential MPs when they make a name for themselves in the public sector, in business or in other professions. They come into politics with their jobs – and most stay in their jobs, except civil servants – and journalists.

The old Singapore Press Holdings’ (SPH) stable of newspapers would move journalists who become MPs to non-editorial positions. One reason was to save the individuals from attacks of being pro-party (or Government) when they write news reports or commentaries.

Perhaps, commentaries can declare the writers’ politics, but the company chose an all-or-nothing approach. It’s a good policy, methinks, to ensure a distance between political parties and the media.

Tin Pei Ling’s Grab role is tone-deaf

So we’ve had doctors, lawyers and company head honchos in the ranks of backbenchers.

If there was any indication that they entered politics because it would be good for their professional careers, I would assume that the party leadership would weed them out. Otherwise, their rivals would expose them.

If not, and they make it through the election, then their avarice would not go unnoticed in a small country like Singapore. I trust the PAP leadership enough to believe that they wouldn’t allow such leeches to stick around. It would damage the reputation of the party of white-and-white.

Would people have kicked up a row if Ms Tin entered politics while she was head of public affairs at Grab?

Source: Tin Pei Ling 陈佩玲 on Facebook

I think there would be less of a fuss because it wouldn’t seem like her political connections got her the job. But her employer might very well decide to move her to another job role lest she feels “uncomfortable’’ as the company’s point person with the Government.

How is she supposed, for example, to convince the Government of the rightness of a Grab decision if the Government, the party, and the man in the street feel differently?

And considering how big a deal the gig economy is these days, is she expected to recuse herself from parliamentary or public discussions even if – or because – she is privy to more information than others?

There are some who say the controversy over her appointment reeks of double standards because we’re okay with doctors and lawyers who become MPs. I think they are barking up the wrong tree.

Doctors and lawyers do not deal with the Government on a day-to-day basis as part of their job scope. Ms Tin will be doing so. It’s her job.

In fact, it is a sign of how tone-deaf and half-blind Grab and Ms Tin are to feelings on the ground that they settled on such a corporate title.

Controversy about Grab role a pity after 3 successful terms as MP

Of double standards, there is a whiff of it simply because of who she is.

Misogynists delight in taking down a pretty woman, and some people will simply not forget her Kate Spade moment.

It is a pity that she has now landed herself in this soup, after three terms of hard work in her constituency for which she has earned much kudos.

Source: Tin Pei Ling 陈佩玲 on Facebook

There are those who point at her wonderful constituency record, arguing that the criticisms are just attempts to tar the PAP. They put up social media posts detailing the resumes of opposition politicians with jobs.

I find it amusing because these posters surely realise that there are plenty more such resumes on the PAP side. And what has a wonderful constituency record got to do with “conflict of interest’’?

Concern about MPs using their status to get jobs

So how did she get the job? And why did Grab hire her? Two academics and former Nominated MPs interviewed by The Sunday Times put what the public has been saying in a very nice way.

Walter Theseria said that a legitimate concern is whether people are trading on their MP status to get jobs that others can’t.

On the flip side, Eugene Tan raised another concern about whether she could be seen as leveraging her position to give her company access to decision-makers and information not in the public domain.

Her corporate title, he said, has become the ‘proverbial lightning rod’. More than misgivings about MPs who hold directorships or have other private interests, her appointment is just too “in your face’’ for some people to stomach. The PAP should draw a line here.

Fans of Ms Tin will probably take umbrage at such uncharitable thinking. There is no evidence for either concern. These are hypothetical, if not rhetorical questions.

Public perception will still be affected

Ms Tin, on her own part, swore that she can wear two hats.

I am absolutely clear that when I am discharging my duties in my capacity as a Member of Parliament, my constituents and Singapore come first. When I am working on behalf of Grab, I will have to ensure that Grab’s interests are safeguarded. As to which capacity I represent at any time: I will be transparent and above board.

This is an assertion of the person’s ability to differentiate the professional from the political, or the private sector from the public interest.

I have encountered this many times in my past life when journalists with more than a stake in a controversy say that they would report the issue professionally.

It’s not about whether you think you can, but whether others think that you can.

So why give anyone the opportunity to cast doubt? There are surely others who can do the job as well.

Ms Tin can very well declare her interest when speaking about the industry in Parliament. But the issue is also about her day-to-day dealings with civil servants as part of her work.

I would say that there would be little impact if ordinary people relate to MPs as ordinary people, rather than members of the ruling party which is the Government.

This is Singapore, where having a network is an advantage, and respect for one’s position is still a value.

MPs should avoid tricky situations that could cast doubt

The PAP has its own rules of prudence to guide MPs on keeping their private/personal and the public/political sides separate.

Some rules are specific, like declaring directorships to the Prime Minister. A premium is placed on transparency.

But no one can deny that the bottom line is that politicians should be (if not seen to be) as white as they can be, if not whiter.

That means extricating themselves from tricky situations that could test their loyalties or cause others to question them.

Politically, it’s a no-brainer. Ms Tin shouldn’t have accepted her job. She would have saved herself – and the PAP – a lot of aggro.

Now that she has, she will be working, both as an MP and an employee, under a cloud.

Bertha Henson, ex-journalist and media trainer, is a social media commentator on local news. She blogs at Bertha Harian.

Featured image adapted from Tin Pei Ling 陈佩玲 on Facebook and TheSmartLocal.

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