Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent announcement regarding an independent review of the leasing of two residential properties, occupied by Cabinet Ministers K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan, has sparked an important dialogue on transparency and accountability within Singapore’s highest echelons of power.
This review, to be conducted by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security, Teo Chee Hean, comes in response to allegations of possible misconduct involving these properties under the Singapore Land Authority’s (SLA) management.
During a door-stop interview on Tuesday, in relation to the announced review, Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam was asked why he sought an independent review.
Mr Shanmugam said,
“Allegations have been made. Serious allegations. We are confident of how we conducted ourselves. So we asked the Prime Minister for an independent review. Do you have any comments or rebuttals on the allegations? You know, allegations that we have cut down trees illegally, that we got SLA to pay for work done on a car porch. It is also said that I acted in conflict of interest and so on. I don’t want to comment much until, I suppose, the review is done. But I will say, speaking from a personal perspective, the allegations are outrageous. Let the agencies do their work and report to the Prime Minister. Let the review be done. Let the facts come out and then I will respond, and if the review does show some wrongdoing, you know what will happen.”
While Mr Shanmugam might seem to make sense in his response, he appears to conflate the issue with his response and possibly misrepresent the nature of the allegations.
Concerning the felling of mature trees, satellite imagery seems to show extensive tree-cutting at 26 Ridout Road after Mr Shanmugam and Mr Balarkrishnan moved in.
This is particularly significant as the Ridout Road property is located within a designated Tree Conservation Area (TCA), a testament to Singapore’s commitment to preserving its natural heritage.
No one is claiming that the trees were felled illegally. The question here is whether the proper procedure was followed.
Did the Commissioner of Parks & Recreation approve the felling of these trees? Was a professional arborist’s report obtained and consulted before such a drastic step was taken?
Such a report may be required when there is a desire to remove a mature tree in the TCA, even when it is not affected by development works or showing any evident signs of posing an immediate threat to life or property, which appears to be the case for 26 and 31 Ridout Road.
More importantly, who initiated this process, and who approved it?
Interestingly, it was Mr Balakrishnan who launched the Heritage Tree Scheme in 2002. This scheme protects significant trees, particularly those within NParks’ management, by classifying them as “heritage trees”. Violating these protections can result in substantial fines.
It seems paradoxical that one of the architects of Singapore’s tree conservation policies may now be implicated in the potentially unwarranted removal of trees in the TCA.
On the issue of the construction of the car porch at 26 Ridout Road, where Mr Shanmugam resides, it appears that the SLA is listed as the developer based on the records of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), which seems unusual.
The unusual occurrences do not stop there as other enhancements like the roundabout and the large swimming pool seemingly do not have written permission from the URA.
This raises questions about who financed these developments and whether the necessary permissions were sought and granted by the URA. One cannot simply dismiss what the records show us and say that there is no basis for the speculations.
Finally, the most substantial allegation, a potential conflict of interest, raises severe concerns.
Under the Ministerial Code of Conduct, Ministers must avoid any actual or perceived conflict of interest between their office and their private financial interests.
Leasing from the SLA, an entity the Minister for Law oversees, arguably falls within this scope. The question for Mr Shanmugam and Mr Balakrishnan is simple: Does this arrangement violate the Ministerial Code of Conduct?
Instead of direct responses to these concerns, a simple “yes” or “no”, the issues have been passed to a review committee chaired by a political colleague.
Assurances that the issue will be addressed in Parliament, where the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) enjoys a supermajority and is chaired by a PAP Speaker, is not particularly reassuring.
While it is indeed appropriate to wait for the conclusion of the review before making any definitive judgments, these questions underline the need for transparency and accountability from those who occupy the highest seats of power.
Sacrifice or profit?
One question that might not be covered under the review is whether the Ministers possess any private properties. This question is important as it addresses the defence that has been mounted by supporters of the Ministers, saying that the two Ministers are doing a favour for the state by renting out the estates that have been left vacant for years.
We do not know how much the Ministers are renting the estates at, but it surely would be cheaper than the market rate for Good-Class-Bungalows that are found in the vicinity of the estates. One such property is charging S$80,000 for a land size less than 10 per cent of 26 Ridout Road.
If the Ministers do have private properties—which they surely could afford with their income from their time at work in the private sector and their ministerial salaries—and they are renting these properties out, this raises questions. Wouldn’t the differences in the rent collected and the rent paid be deemed as profiteering from the use of public resources?
It is no different from private property owners trying to buy Built-To-Order flats and then selling or renting them after the Mandatory Occupation Period.
The Singaporean public, whose trust these ministers hold, deserves not only answers but also assurances that their leaders are adhering to the highest standards of integrity and conduct.