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Six degrees of separation among Singapore’s political leaders and the apparent conflict of interests

The phrase "six degrees of separation" certainly rings through among Singapore's political leaders and other influential people. Let's start with our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (LHL). Not only is he the highest paid leader in the world, he is also the son of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who was also incidentally the highest paid leader in the world in his time. Then you have LHL's wife, Ho Ching (HC) who is coincidentally the CEO of Temasek Holdings (Temasek).

Same goes to the CEO of SingHealth, Ivy Ng who is the wife of Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, Chang Hwee Nee, CEO of the National Heritage Board who is the wife of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and etc.

Going back to Temasek run by HC,  it is a national wealth fund owned by the Singapore government although it tries very hard to deny it.

It is also a private company incorporated under the Companies Act.  Like any other commercial company, Temasek pays taxes that contribute to government revenue in the countries it operates in, distributes dividends to its shareholder and has its own board of directors and a professional management team.

Temasek has a single shareholder, the Ministry of Finance. Temasek, therefore, works like a unique hybrid incorporating features that are both public and private. What cannot be disputed, however, is that Temasek invests in many of the top private enterprises in Singapore ranging from transport to telcos and in many ways, possess a monopoly over Singapore's crucial services. Its reach and influence can therefore not be understated.

With that in mind, I wonder if it is good practice for there to be so much overlap especially when the Prime Minister has overwhelming power. With both husband and wife at the helm of the government and private enterprise collectively, could they bring the definition of "power couple" to a whole new level? Is there a conflict of interest? Is the nexus too close?

Given the apparent conflict of interest, one has to wonder why no one sought to ask about Temasek's lack of transparency by hiding behind the guise of a private exempt company. Things such as the pay of the CEO of a sovereign wealth fund (SWF) being made public. A simple search will reveal that CEO Yngve Slyngstad who runs the world's largest SWF of Norway with USD$1 trillion worth of portfolio, earned an annual salary of around S$415,000 in 2017 while for HC, who runs an SWF with a portfolio of USD$225 billion, has her remuneration undisclosed.

The thing in Singapore is that the PAP government have been in charge for so long that it is difficult to separate party from state. The Peoples Association is an example where the lines are blurred and where controversy has arisen.

The latest example of such a blurring of lines is the MindChamps faux pas where MindChamps Preschool @ Liang Courts issued a controversial letter to the parents of children attending at the school. Among other things, the letter stated that parents of children attending MindChamps Preschool will be given priority access to sign up as grassroots leaders with River Valley Neighbourhood Committee and that as grassroots leaders, they would receive recommendation letters for schools within the River Valley precinct.

While MP for River Valley Joan Pereira has distanced herself from this debacle by stating that there exist no such arrangements with MindChamps or any other organisation, some very uncomfortable questions have been raised. Firstly, why would MindChamps come to the conclusion that it was able to offer such perks unless it was given assurances whether indirectly or otherwise that this was the case?

In fact, the government has already clearly stated that eligible GRLs can apply for the perk that was highlighted in the letter.

Even if the government had not directly said this to MindChamps, could its actions and treatment of MindChamps given it the understandable but mistaken understanding that it was able to offer these special perks? Pereira has certainly publicly appeared at many of their events. Added to this is the revelation that MindChamps has a very close working relationship with Temasek with having entered into a partnership with a Temasek Holdings unit by co-investing in a fund for international franchisees.

Perhaps nothing was ever directly said but with such an apparently cushy and close relationship, is it unreasonable for MindChamps to come to the conclusion that it does have such perks? And perhaps, due to his close relationship with the establishment, the owner of MindChamps can indeed be in a position to influence who becomes a grassroots volunteer and so on. Perhaps, his only error is that he put it in writing to parents instead of having one on one conversations!

Our government will benefit if it sends its members and employees for training on what constitutes a conflict of interest and this will need to start from the very top given that the power couple dynamic is in itself a conflict of interest. Until that happens. the MindChamps saga in another guise will raise its ugly head again.