by Augustine Low
They beat around the bush, they talked of snakes and sacrifice, and in the end, they sang praises of how honesty and integrity won the day.
Once again, the People’s Action Party (PAP) managed to turn controversy into victory.
Yesterday’s Parliament session on ministers’ occupation of Ridout estates showed us why Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean is their best man for the occasion.
He could answer questions without answering yet make the questioner look like he is stupid enough not to get it when he tries to clarify.
There was question after question on conflict of interest, but each time SM Teo answered in a way that he understood best.
He kept harping on the three types of conflict of interest: actual, potential, and perceived. Apparently, if you take steps to avoid the first two, you then eliminate the last one.
Minister K Shanmugam and Minister Edwin Tong also swatted at conflict of interest, like swatting at mosquitoes.
On the key issue of Minister Shanmugam asking his ministry’s deputy secretary for a list of public properties to rent (which were not all listed or made public), he said he did it to maintain “total transparency.”
Minister Shanmugam spoke at length on how he grew up poor and made it as a successful lawyer, then made the sacrifice to be a minister, the sacrifice of a big pay cut, and then said he was not suggesting he had made a “special sacrifice” because it is a privilege to serve Singaporeans.
The minister said he rented 26 Ridout Road in 2018 because he wanted to put his own Good-Class Bungalow (GCB) up for sale.
But later on, he said he was renting out his bungalow while staying at 26 Ridout Road. It is not known why after five years, he still has not managed to sell his bungalow.
Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said he rented 31 Ridout Road so that the extended family could live under one roof. He did not say whether he rented out or sold his own GCB.
SM Teo told the MP for Sembawang GRC that the Ministers’ Code of Conduct does not compel the two Ministers to answer whether they are renting their properties while staying in Ridout Road when she asked.
During a site visit to 31 Ridout Road, Balakrishnan and his wife saw a leaking roof, holes on the wooden floor, major termite infestation, trees which had uprooted, unkempt undergrowth and “actually we saw snakes both inside and outside the house.”
All that would have terrified just about anybody: but the minister and his wife proceeded to take up the rental for the property.
Of course, now we know that the Singapore Land Authority ended up spending a total of $1,257,900 on “essential repair works” for 26 and 31 Ridout Road to make the two bungalows habitable for the ministers.
And now . . . for the victory speech.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he appointed SM Teo to conduct the independent review “to maintain the government and the PAP’s long-standing, high and stringent standards of integrity and propriety.”
He said that “Minister Shanmugam and Minister Vivian Balakrishnan have done nothing wrong, and they retain my full confidence.”
PM Lee added that the session in Parliament is a demonstration of how the PAP is determined to uphold standards.
“The government has not and will never tolerate any compromise or departure from the stringent standards of honesty, integrity and incorruptibility that Singaporeans expect of us.”
With that, the case is closed.