fbpx

Pritam Singh: Highly unusual decision by Prime Minister not to clear his name in the courts, given Singapore’s political culture on suing accusers

Speech by Mr Pritam Singh, Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC on the 38 Oxley Road issue (Lee Family Saga) in Parliament on 3 July 2017.

Introduction: Back up your allegations or be sued

Madam Speaker, Singapore has been a one-party dominant state since independence. The ruling party has thus single-handedly shaped the political culture in Singapore. Our political culture is one that does not condone any allegations of wrongdoing or impropriety against the Government of the day.

Accusers are expected to back to up their claims with evidence, and if they cannot, they are sued. Millions of dollars in damages have been awarded when unsubstantiated allegations amounting to defamation and slander have been made against politicians, so as to preserve their moral authority. Many families have been besmirched by this. In fact, opposition politicians have been challenged to sue PAP MPs if they feel wronged.

As recently as 2008, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Minister Mentor himself said, “I know the mentality of and the attitudes of the people in Singapore – and they know me by now, that if anybody impugns the integrity of the Government, of which I was the Prime Minister, I must sue….And I must demand that either the court finds that those defamatory words (are) true, in which case I am demolished, or there’s a penalty.”

The anomaly in this matter before the House today surrounds the decision taken by the Prime Minister – ironically it must be said – not to sue in spite of serious allegations of abuse of power, much to the surprise of many Singaporeans.

Singaporeans have been sued for defamation for much less, one of the most famed example being former Member of Parliament Mr J B Jeyaratnam’s utterance of the following at an election rally in 1997 where he said and I quote, “Mr Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me two reports he has made to the police against, you know, Mr Goh Chok Tong and his team.” When it was suggested to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew by a reporter that it was tenuous to base a defamation suit on Mr Jeyaratnam showing copies of Mr Tang’s police reports to a rally crowd, Mr Lee said this was a matter for the courts to decide, and that his lawyers had advised him to sue. As for Mr Jeyaratnam’s offer to apologise without paying damages, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was quoted as saying, “I’ll leave things to the lawyers. I have other things to do.”

In the normal course of events, the Government would do precisely that – leave the matter to be settled by lawyers in court. Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Ms Lee Wei Ling would expect to face multiple defamation lawsuits for alleging that the Prime Minister has either lied or been corrupt in its dealings. As this has not happened and in view of the political culture that I have spoken of, there are Singaporeans who believe that the allegations made against the Prime Minister may have more than a grain of truth to them. Many allegations have been made, and one need only peruse the document made public by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, released on 14 June 2017 titled, ‘What has happened to Lee Kuan Yew’s values?” to remind themselves of them.

The Hotel Properties Limited saga a reference point 

I would expect the Prime Minister to make a compelling case today and when this debate closes, but until Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Ms Lee Wei Ling are fully heard, doubts will continue to linger and this matter will not be put to rest unless a resolution is sought through the courts. Until that is done, who would dare bet against a new Facebook post from Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Ms Lee Wei Ling emerging tomorrow? The Prime Minister has to go to the courts to rebut these allegations of abuse of power in order to decisively settle this issue.

In 1996, allegations were made against the Prime Minister as a result of the Hotel Properties Limited (or HPL) saga. This episode erupted as a result of a public perception that both Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Senior Minister (SM) and Mr Lee Hsien Loong, then Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) had unfairly received discounts in their purchase of properties from the developer HPL.

In that case, a Parliamentary session, procedurally similiar to the one we are having in the house today was held to clear to air over the matter. However, the circumstances and facts of that episode and how it came to be debated in Parliament were diametrically different in a number of important ways.

Firstly, a senior civil servant, the deputy Managing Director of MAS reported to the Finance Minister about HPL obtaining a waiver from the Stock Exchange of Singapore from seeking shareholder’s approval for the purchase of property by SM. There was also market talk that Mr Lee had been offered units in all the properties developed by the HPL group.

The Finance Minister reported this to the then Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong who ordered an investigation and to get the Stock Exchange to provide a list of purchasers of two HPL developments including questioning both SM and the DPM who had also purchased two HPL apartments each. In view of his investigation, Prime Minister Goh was convinced that there was no wrongdoing.

Secondly, caveats were openly lodged giving the name of the SM at the transacted prices after discount. This fact was crucial as a transparent caveat lodgment did not suggest wrongdoing by any stretch.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Mr Lee Kuan Yew instructed Mr Ong Beng Seng, the Managing Director of HPL and a key player in clearing the air, to confront the media about the propriety of the purchases by himself and the DPM. Mr Lee stressed to Mr Ong that it was not enough for HPL to release a press statement but that a press conference was in order. Contrast this important detail with the absence of any sense of closure on the allegations made by Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Ms Lee Wei Ling in the matter we are debating before the House today.

Finally during the HPL debate, sitting MPs, some of whom worked for developers were able to clarify the nature of how developers used complicated pricing strategies to market and sell their properties.

The extent of probity and the affirmative conclusions notwithstanding, by the time the HPL matter came to an end in this House, MPs were in a position to triangulate various facts, which in totality made it absolutely clear that no improprieties could be alleged by any reasonable person in the purchase of apartments by the Senior Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.

In the matter before us today, can we honestly say that we are aware of all the evidence and facts relevant to the allegations of the Prime Minister abusing his power so as to come to the same conclusion? Frankly, by the end of today’s debate, like the MPs in this House in 1996, we can say yes, then there should no lingering suspicions or doubts that the Prime Minister abused his powers in the matter of 38 Oxley Road. And that would be a welcome outcome for Singapore.

Is a Parliamentary Session an appropriate forum? What is the alternative? 

However, in view of the highly unusual decision by the Prime Minister not to clear his name in the courts, the key question before this House is how do we move forward from here? Parliament can be a platform to look into and address the matter, but the choice of the appropriate Parliamentary forum is crucial.  In fact, allegations of abuse of power by the Prime Minister may conceivably gain even more traction if the wrong Parliamentary forum is chosen.

In the event the Prime Minister eschews going to the courts to address these allegations of abuse of power even as more allegations are made and left to people’s imagination to ruminate over, I am of the view that the next best option would be for Parliament to prepare to organise a special Select Committee to look into the allegations made against the Prime Minister.

Its remit would simply be to look into the truthfulness of the allegations and get to the bottom of the matter. In light of evidence being made available to it, the Committee can be expected to summon if it so chooses, the Prime Minister, Mdm Ho Ching, Mrs Lee Suet Fern and anyone else to shed light on the allegations.

I make this proposal for a Select Committee of Parliament in the public interest as I believe it is an avenue to put a stop to these allegations which have now moved beyond damaging just the Government, but have damaged Singapore’s reputation and the trust people outside Singapore have in its institutions.

Many Singaporeans are unaware that the consequence of ignoring a summons from Parliament are severe and a defaulter can be arrested and brought before the Select Committee to set the record straight. Should any witness be contemptuous before the Committee, beyond hefty fines, Parliament is even empowered to commit that individual to prison for the rest of this Parliamentary term.

Conclusion 

Mdm Speaker, the longer this sad episode drags on, Singapore’s reputation as a country where the rule of law is a strict guiding principle of our society, and the credibility of the Government will be cast in very serious doubt. Like many Singaporeans, the matters surrounding the will and the disagreements are fundamentally family issues and should be privately resolved forthwith either through the courts or through mediation. But it is the allegations of abuse of power that have to be decisively addressed, otherwise an odour will always linger, one that will have severe and significant repercussions for Singapore’s reputation. I do not believe a Parliamentary debate like the one we are having today will put the matter to rest, even as I hope I am wrong.

Thank you.