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WP – trading integrity for reputation?

~by: Howard Lee~

Media stakeout at yaw Shin Leong's house

Singapore now gears up for another round at the polls with the by-election of Hougang Single Member Constituency, the result of the Workers' Party sacking their own Member of Parliament from the seat.

Wait a minute, if it is a by-election, why should it be a Singapore issue?

The truth is that Singaporeans have been dragged into the whole debacle since news first broke about the alleged sexual infidelity of Yaw Shin Leong, WP's MP in Hougang SMC. All of us have been made to endure a thick stream of media coverage about what political leaders should and should not do, based on one hypothesis that until today has not been confirmed: Did he or did he not?

And I haven't even started yet on how the media has unfairly conflated Yaw's case with other alleged sexual transgressions of the public service. But that would have to be another story.

The current coverage revolves around the clear posturing between the ruling People's Action Party and WP. There is every indication that party integrity will form the subtle backdrop, if not the glaring front spear, of PAP's attempt to reclaim Hougang SMC. By extension, such a narrative calls us to weigh in on the integrity of the parties.

Voters will to go to the polls with the "cleanness" of the parties on their minds, voting in who they can trust more. But this will be trust that is not based on party policy, but party principles and values.

Anything wrong with that? Not really. Parties are voted in based on their package - both the smarts (policy direction) and the hearts (moral direction).

But the problem with the current situation is that this moral standpoint has been wrapped around WP's defence of their party's principles of accountability and transparent, leading to Yaw's exit. And I would argue that the expulsion of Yaw has actually done little to forward that defence, much as WP supporters and critics alike tend to think it has.

Removing Yaw only removes the source of the personal allegations. It also removes some allegations leveled at the party for keeping silent. But if we say WP has demonstrated accountability by sacking Yaw, we only have half the story.

The sensationalisation of the issue, led chiefly by traditional media, was so focused on Yaw's personal integrity, that it ignored the implications that his transgression could have on party integrity. This becomes an issue if we have reason to suspect that his private transgressions impacted his ability to deliver professional public service to the people who voted him in.

Indeed, if you have read earlier reports, you would have caught the drift that a number of residents in Hougang SMC are less concerned with his infidelity, and more with whether Yaw has served them right and can continue to do so.

What irks me is that no action has been taken by WP so far to address these very valid concerns.

Many have lauded WP for making the right choice, even as the speed of action remains a matter of subjective debate. There is, of course, the PAP’s allegation of the leadership's quick "u-turns", which Low Thia Kiang was quick to brush off.

If we were to think of it as a situation of WP having to defend its reputation, then sacking Yaw is the right thing to do. But we really have no clearer visibility on whether Yaw's alleged affairs have impacted the integrity of WP, particularly if it has resulted in conflict of interest. Booting Yaw will never lead to clarity. Keeping him and conducting a thorough investigation could.

At this point, you might think that I am criticising WP to the credit of PAP. Think again. The slew of statements from PM Lee Hsien Loong and Khaw Boon Wan seem hell-bent on starting a moral crusade on the matter. Khaw, in particular, should be remembered for this remark:

“The Workers' Party needs to come clean with the people what information have they got about Mr Yaw and in particular, what did they know about him prior to the May election. And if they know, why did they field Mr Yaw.”

There is a saying my insurance agent likes to throw at me: With hindsight, everyone has perfect vision. Khaw’s suggestion is nothing short of ludicrous.

PM also claims that “WP has let down the voters of Hougang”, “as a result of what Mr Yaw Shin Leong has done, and the way the WP has handled the matter”. He happily mixed the person with the group, as if one Yaw Shin Leong represents the whole of WP.

The truth is that Yaw will never talk. If you were in his position, and the glare of the media has been on you and your family for weeks, what would you do, really? In any case, he is now out of physical reach, so PAP’s posturing is really moot.

The PAP is simply marking out and camping themselves in a position of moral high ground that is totally baseless. It is nothing more than slick politicking, less keen to address issues of integrity and how PAP can be an example of that, but stirring up public sentiment to focus on issues that matter only at a personal, not organisational, level.

Whether public figures should be held accountable for their personal moral transgressions is another debate that I do not wish to take up here. To do so will be to play more into the current narrative and miss the deeper issues about the standards of integrity that we truly need to hold our political parties to.

Are all personal transgressions of party members made public? What has been the follow-through on issues like conflict of interest, nepotism and cronyism? While we might accept that the screening process of candidates is never foolproof, are we satisfied that the same process is systematically applied to all members? At what point does the party decide that it is probing too much into the personal lives of members, which then becomes a case of internal integrity? What standards does each party have in place to ensure that personal transgressions are properly managed, beyond the last-resort policy of "you screw up, you get out"?

If we do not address these in this current case, we are really looking at a situation where voters of Hougang SMC have been forced by WP's expulsion of Yaw to decide - nay, make a statement - on their integrity by election, pun intended.

Can that be done? Further, should that be done? If so, we only abuse the democratic system to affirm party politics, when we are still in the dark about the issues I indicated above. We have merely substituted true party integrity for a fleeting moment of party reputation.

And PAP will be none the better to call WP on this, since they have demonstrated that they are practically inert about what kind of integrity really matters in the public sphere.

At the end, my most bitter salvo is reserved for media. Throughout this whole fracas, they have done little more than fan the flames, sensationalising the matter beyond repair, and not even edging close to answering important questions on public service and accountability.

Since the matter made news, my position has been that Yaw’s private sexual misconduct is entirely between him, his wife and God. We should only seek transparency where it is worth - when we suspect a public figure’s actions have affected the public. The media has not exercised an understanding of that worth. It is little wonder that our politicians, ruling party or opposition, see no reason to do so either.

If we seek integrity, we now also need to ask at what point has the media overstepped the line for getting news that matters, that does justice to public interests, that is not a vain and vile attempt at 'investigative' journalism.


picture credit: Channel NewsAsia Connect