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PM Lee defends Ministers amidst bungalow rental allegations, professes integrity of Singapore’s political system

SINGAPORE — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has firmly expressed his unwavering confidence in Ministers K. Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan following comprehensive investigations by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) and Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, which found no evidence of criminal activity or improper conduct.

The allegations revolved around the Ministers’ rentals of black-and-white bungalows from the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).

The Prime Minister stood to defend this practice in Parliament on Monday, stating that as long as the rental process is conducted properly and all procedures are adhered to, there is no wrongdoing.

“Ministers in Singapore are paid a clean wage – realistic, competitive, but clean. Therefore, where ministers decide to live, whether they want to rent, whether they want to buy, these are personal choices,” PM Lee reading from his prepared script in response to the question from Ms Denise Phua, MP for Jalan Besar GRC.

The investigations were initiated following weeks of public speculation about the circumstances surrounding the rental of the bungalows at 26 and 31 Ridout Road by Home Affairs and Law Minister Shanmugam and Foreign Minister Balakrishnan.

The subject elicited 23 oral questions and 6 written questions from Members of Parliament ahead of this week’s sitting. However, questions from the MPs were superficial as the reviews from CPIB and SM Teo were only released last Wednesday after the deadline for MPs to file their parliamentary questions was over.

PM Lee’s initial reaction, upon hearing about the Ministers’ rentals, was one of confidence in their integrity. “I had every confidence that my ministers and the SLA officials who dealt with them would have done the right things and handled the rentals properly,” he said.

However, following continued public interest and the Ministers’ request for an independent investigation, PM Lee tasked the CPIB to conduct a formal investigation.

This decision was made in spite of his firm belief in the Ministers and the system, with an intention to definitively establish if there was any corruption or wrongdoing.

PM Lee’s aim was not just to legally establish the lack of any wrongdoing, but also to ascertain whether there was any misconduct or impropriety beyond the law.

He appointed Senior Minister Teo to review the SLA’s processes and probe into potential preferential treatment or privileged information disclosure.

PM Lee addressed criticisms about SM Teo’s independence for this investigation, stating that while corruption and wrongdoing are dealt with through independent processes like a CPIB investigation, “ethics and standards of propriety” are the Prime Minister’s responsibility.

The Prime Minister used the discussion to underline the Government’s and the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) commitment to maintaining stringent standards of integrity and propriety.

Mr Pritam Singh, the leader of the opposition and Secretary General of the Workers’ Party, queried PM Lee on the scope of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) investigation.

Mr Singh wanted to clarify whether the CPIB was directed to examine the ministers’ adherence to the code of conduct.

PM Lee responded that the CPIB was instructed to probe any potential criminal or corruption offenses, necessitating a thorough investigation of all facts related to the case.

He added that though the code of conduct wasn’t the focus, it was indirectly examined due to the overlap with the issues at hand.

He then noted the role of SM Teo’s review in complementing the CPIB’s investigation, by further establishing the policies, backgrounds, and overall operation of the system.

Subsequently, Mr Singh raised the issue of ministers requesting personal use information from civil servants.

“It is quite incongruous in the eyes of many for a minister to be asking a civil servant. Details which pertain to information for personal use. I think this is the crux of the issue and when people intersected with the ministerial code of conduct and let your letter of prudence, does the Prime Minister not agree that actually that is this is an issue that has been flagged out and that there is a better way to address a problem of a similar nature when it crops up?” said Mr Singh and queried if there could be a better way to handle similar situations in the future.

In response, PM Lee noted that the issue of ministers instructing civil servants wasn’t public knowledge until it was disclosed in the report.

“My view is he (Mr Shanmugam) could have done it a different way. He could have done it this way. He has given the House the reasons why he did it this way.I think those are cogent reasons, which I accept.” said PM Lee.

At the conclusion of the nearly six-hour debate, SM Teo stressed the underlying issue of equity and fairness. He spoke on the importance of a clean government, upholding integrity among those in public service, and the PAP’s commitment to building an inclusive and progressive society.

“This is important so that we can build a system with a strong foundation, which will help to bring in good people to continue to serve in government, to take Singapore further forward,” said SM Teo.

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