SINGAPORE — The colonial bungalows at 26 and 31 Ridout Road are at the heart of a brewing controversy involving two key Singaporean Ministers – the Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan.
Questions and allegations raised by Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the Secretary-General of the Reform Party, have sparked wide public discussion amongst the Singapore populace.
In response to media queries, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) issued a press release on 12 May, stating that the rental agreements for the properties at No. 26 and No. 31 Ridout Road were conducted in accordance with relevant SLA procedures.
The SLA also announced that more details would be provided during the next Parliamentary session in July 2023.
Confirmation from the SLA and the subsequent public outcry have raised concerns amongst parliamentarians. Both the ruling party and opposition MPs have filed questions to be addressed in the July parliamentary session.
The Workers’ Party has also requested the SLA to provide additional information, including the guide rent for the properties, to ensure a comprehensive debate in Parliament.
Mr Lee Hsien Yang, son of late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and brother to current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, chimed in on the issue via his Facebook account, alleging possible breaches of the Ministerial Code of Conduct that was issued to the Parliament in 2005.
The allegations centre around potential conflicts of interest. Mr Lee Hsien Yang stated in his Monday Facebook post, “Regardless of approval or SLA procedures, there are serious conflicts of interest.”
He pointed out that a senior minister had been able to rent a vast property from an agency under his control, suggesting a possible breach of Section 3.1 of the Code, which states that a minister must avoid “any actual or apparent conflict of interest between his office and his private financial interests.”
Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s comments underscored concerns over potential conflicts of interest, given that the minister appoints the chief executive of the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), who is also his landlord.
Mr Lee Hsien Yang also questioned who authorized the cutting down of several old trees and the extensive renovations carried out on the properties, as well as who bore the costs.
According to Urban Redevelopment Authority records, the SLA was named the developer for restoration work at 26 Ridout Road, where the Minister for Law resides.
Echoing Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s concerns, People’s Voice leader Lim Tean described the leasing agreement as “ownself rent ownself”.
He highlighted the problematic nature of two government officials renting properties owned by the government. His comments implied reference to Section 4.3 of the Code, which stipulates that a minister should not “direct or request a civil servant to do anything or perform any function that may conflict with the Singapore Civil Service’s core values of incorruptibility, impartiality, integrity and honesty.”
Furthermore, if the housing arrangements were made under preferential conditions due to their ministerial positions, this might infringe on Sections 6.1 and 6.2 of the Code.
These clauses caution against ministers accepting gifts or favours that might place them under an obligation conflicting with their public duties or appear to do so.
The press release from SLA is somewhat problematic as it discloses that Mr Shanmugam had reportedly communicated with a senior cabinet member about his bid.
This information suggests that the Minister may have contributed to the released press statement, as the agency wouldn’t typically be privy to such communication between the two in a standard bidding process. Moreover, the promise to reveal more details in July raises questions about whether the Minister has informed SLA that he will address this matter on its behalf in Parliament.
If the above is the case, the Minister’s influence over the agency seems apparent, muddying his bid for the Ridout property.
Without more detailed information about the nature of the leasing agreements and any benefits the ministers may have received due to their positions, it is difficult to definitively state whether there has been a breach of the code.
The forthcoming parliamentary debate will provide an opportunity to bring more facts to light and to discuss the allegations in further detail.