Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh Nehal weighs in on the recent Ridout Road saga, emphasizing that the ultimate credibility and effectiveness of the government’s review hinge two factors, which is full disclosure of all material facts and the perceived independence of the review.
He advocates for the appointment of esteemed current or retired Supreme Court judges to lead the independent review of the Ridout Road saga, as a commendable step towards ensuring impartiality and credibility.
In a recent opinion piece published in JOM on Friday (26 May), the Senior Counsel shared his observations on the saga and acknowledged that the optics of a minister engaging in a transaction with an agency under their oversight are less than favourable.
He also highlighted other recent events that have caused unease among Singaporeans, including the stern warnings given to six senior Keppel executives in the KOM scandal, and PAP MP Tin Pei Ling’s acceptance of a senior public affairs and policy role with Grab, which was later redeployed due to concerns over possible conflicts of interest.
Regarding the Ridout Road saga, Harpreet Singh noted that there are differing opinions suggesting that if the opportunity is open to the public, there might be no serious objection to cabinet ministers and their family members participating as private citizens.
He emphasized the need for a nuanced approach to the matter, taking into account the existing Ministerial Code of Conduct, which aims to prevent actual or apparent conflicts of interest.
He pointed out that without an independent agency or formal mechanism through which any potential conflict of interest by a minister has to be cleared, there is a good argument to be made that there must be scrupulous observance of the Code.
“It’s not even a matter of actual wrongdoing—as long as a transaction involving a minister can create the perception of special treatment, it must be avoided.”
Caveats such as frank disclosure and no misuse of confidential crucial in cases of government transactions involve ministers or their family members
In cases where government transactions involve ministers or their family members, Mr Singh emphasizes the need for important caveats to ensure transparency and fairness.
These include robust processes to address conflicts of interest, full disclosure of the minister’s involvement, prevention of confidential information misuse, absence of favourable treatment, independent decision-making by government agencies, and objective verification of fair commercial terms.
“The safeguard cannot merely involve notification to a senior cabinet colleague. It needs to be much more robust and transparent.”
Thirdly, Mr Singh reminded us that given the extensive involvement of the government and government-linked entities in Singaporean life, there will likely be more instances of dealings between ministers, MPs, and their families with government agencies and regulators.
“However robust our processes for addressing possible conflicts of interest in such dealings, delicate and perhaps even blunt, uncomfortable questions will inevitably arise. ”
“At heart, when Singaporeans ask uncomfortable questions, it is because we care for our country and wish to see it grow stronger, ” he reminded the establishment.
“It is the responsibility of every concerned citizen to press the necessary questions”
Mr Singh further noted that it is the responsibility of every concerned citizen to press the necessary questions, and for the government to rigorously and fairly attend to them to dispel even the slightest perception of anything less than fair play or transparent dealings.
While Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Tuesday (23 May) that Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security, Teo Chee Hean, will conduct an independent review of the Ridout Road saga, Mr Singh pointed out that the ultimate credibility and effectiveness of the government’s review, hinge on two key factors.
He suggested that the review should cover the following:
- What processes the government has in place to deal with any actual or apparent conflicts of interest and how they were followed in this case;
- What were the reason(s) the Minister for Home Affairs and Law submitted his bid via an agent and did the SLA know that the minister was the ultimate principal behind the bid? If so, how, and when did the SLA come to know this? If not, how was the SLA to effectively abide by any protocols to avoid possible conflicts of interest without this information?;
- Did the SLA take independent advice from the Attorney General’s Chambers on the processes it should put in place to ensure a level playing field existed and to address any possible conflicts of interest? If not, what steps did the SLA take to properly address this?;
- Apart from not disclosing the guide rent, what steps did the SLA take to ensure that the ministers were not in any advantageous position over the world at large in relation to the rentals of both bungalows?;
- What is the recent history of the tenancies of both properties and under what circumstances did the previous tenants come to leave each property?;
- Why did both properties remain vacant for such an extended period before the leases to the ministers were granted? What steps did the SLA take to rent out the properties in that time?;
- The full costs of the renovations to each property and who bore them;
- The period for which each property was advertised and whether that period was adequate to secure properly competitive bids;
- The rent payable for each property, how that was derived and how it compares with market rent;
- The lease renewal terms for each property; and
- Were there any non-standard tenancy terms negotiated with either minister and, if so, what were those terms?
Disclosure of copies of both tenancy agreements?
Mr Singh emphasized that ideally, the review should disclose copies of both tenancy agreements, along with all pertinent written correspondence between the SLA and the ministers (or their agents) pertaining to the lease entries, renewals, and renovations.
“The Singaporean public appreciates the issues, and knows when the government’s responses are fair, in as much as it knows when there are shortcomings. ”
“The more detailed, thorough and wide-ranging the review report, the greater its ultimate credibility,” he said.
“Independent review” while SM Teo is also a member of the same party of the two ministers
The second point raised by Mr Singh in his piece pertains to the perceived independence of the review.
“There is nothing more powerful to address concerns of possible conflicts of interest than oversight or review by a respected, independent, external third party who is given full access and who then reports the findings publicly.”
“This is where the planned review will face some challenges.”
While Mr Singh recognizes SM Teo’s seniority, standing, and independence from the ministries and agencies involved, he points out that SM Teo is also a member of the same party as the two ministers and their cabinet colleague.
“Given this, and the importance and political sensitivity of the matter under review, it is not unreasonable for an objective observer to take the view that there ought to be a greater degree of separation between the individual heading this review and the ministers involved.”
Suggestion to appoint any of current or retired Supreme Court judges to lead the review
Mr Singh suggests that appointing one of Singapore’s current or retired Supreme Court judges to lead the review would have been a commendable choice.
Nevertheless, he notes that it is still early in the review process, leaving room for the government to make adjustments if deemed necessary.
Mr Singh reiterated that Singapore’s national culture of incorruptibility is a precious legacy which all Singaporeans have inherited and needs to be carefully nurtured and preserved by each successive generation.
“Uncomfortable as questions or commentaries may be about the Ridout Road leases, they present us an opportunity to reinforce our commitment to this core national value.”