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Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh Nehal’s commentary on alleged violations of Ministerial Code of Conduct

SINGAPORE —  In a recent insightful commentary published in JOM, a Singaporean independent publication, Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh brought to the forefront potential violations of the Ministerial Code of Conduct by two Singapore ministers in relation to their leasing of two properties in the Ridout Road area.

The two reports released by Senior Minister (SM) Teo Chee Hean and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) concerning the rental of state properties on Ridout Road by Ministers K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan essentially cleared Mr K Shanmugam and Dr Vivian Balakrishnan of any corruption or criminal wrongdoing in the rental process of these state properties.

The report by SM Teo states that there was no violation of the Minister’s Code of Conduct, which was introduced in 1954, as there was no conflict of interest.

Mr Singh, in his analysis, made three broad observations regarding the review process:

First, Mr Singh viewed the CPIB’s conclusion on the absence of criminal wrongdoing as credible. As he explained, establishing criminal wrongdoing requires high thresholds met by compelling evidence, and the investigation process didn’t exhibit any fundamental flaws.

However, he was less confident about the separate review conducted by SM Teo which is the second observation, where he highlighted the main issue with SM Teo’s ministerial review, which was the perceived lack of independence.

According to Mr Singh, SM Teo’s credibility as a reviewer was questionable as he was not only a colleague of the ministers under review but also personally involved in a key aspect of the events. Mr Singh stated that this involvement could have created an apparent bias and compromised the review’s legitimacy.

Despite the ministerial review relying on CPIB’s investigation findings, its scope was broader, thus requiring an independent review process. Mr Singh mentioned that the UK Ministerial Code, which allows investigations by a non-political Cabinet Office or Independent Advisor, is a good reference model.

Thirdly, Mr Singh criticised the ministerial review process for not robustly considering the strict language of the Code and its exacting standards on ministers.

According to him, the review seemed less robust when determining if either of the ministers had breached the Code. The validity of SM Teo’s report’s conclusions was therefore undermined due to the absence of an independent process in the separate ministerial review.

Mr Singh methodically scrutinized the circumstances surrounding the leasing of two properties, at 26 and 31 Ridout Road, by the two Ministers, Mr Shanmugam and Dr Balakrishnan, respectively.

He critically assessed the ministerial review process and its conclusions, underscoring potential conflict of interest situations that may have arisen from these leases.

The Ministerial Code of Conduct in Singapore mandates that ministers must avoid not only actual conflicts of interest but also potential or perceived ones.

Mr Singh’s analysis of the review process illuminated that it did not adequately consider this provision, thus bringing the robustness and results of the process into question.

“The review process appears to have treated the issue of apparent conflict and public perception as secondary to an actual conflict,” he critically noted.

In the case of Mr Shanmugam, Mr Singh put forth several significant queries. He underscored that Mr Shanmugam had requested a list of potential rental properties from the Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Law, which could symbolize a conflict of interest, given the property eventually rented belonged to the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), an agency under his supervision.

Moreover, Mr Singh inquired about the context of the site visit to 26 Ridout Road. He questioned, “Was it a routine visit done by the Minister as part of his discharge of public functions or informed by a personal intention to rent the property?”

Such unresolved queries could lead to the perception of a conflict of interest, potentially contravening clauses 3.1 and 3.2 of the Ministerial Code.

A vital point raised by Mr Singh was about the decision to expand the land size of 26 Ridout Road from 9,350 sqm to 23,164 sqm without a corresponding increase in rent. “Might a failure to do so create adverse perceptions of preferential treatment?” he posited.

Furthermore, Mr Singh highlighted that even though Mr Shanmugam recused himself from discussions concerning the property, an apparent conflict of interest continues to exist.

He argued that this transaction “directly pits the minister’s private interest as tenant of 26 Ridout Road with his ultimate public duty to advance the SLA’s interests as landlord of the same property. The two interests are directly opposed.”

In contrast, Mr Singh considered Mr Balakrishnan’s lease less contentious. As the SLA doesn’t fall under his ministerial portfolio, Mr Singh suggested it was highly unlikely for his duties to overlap with the SLA’s functions and responsibilities.

Mr Singh went on to assert that there was no evidence that could “arouse suspicion” under clause 3.1(b) of the Code that the minister used special knowledge acquired in his role to benefit himself. “There is no evidence presently available of this, and it would be impermissible to come to this conclusion,” he declared, concluding that the lease at 31 Ridout Road didn’t appear to violate the Code.

However, Mr Singh urged the government to clarify whether it intends to maintain the Code’s strict prohibitions.

He stated, “If the current strictures in the Code are being loosened, the government should explain why strict standards which have been in place for decades are being adjusted.”

The forthcoming parliamentary session tomorrow, where these issues will be addressed, is keenly awaited as the public eagerly anticipates the ministers’ responses.

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