Thursday, 21 September 2023

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PM Lee’s troubling decision: The reappointment and maintenance of Tan Chuan-Jin as Speaker despite knowledge of his affair

The recent revelation and subsequent resignation of Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin, over an extra-marital affair notably involving another Member of Parliament, Cheng Li Hui, has sent shockwaves through Singapore’s political landscape.

This raises not only questions about personal integrity and public trust, but also draws attention to the actions – or perhaps the inactions – of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Secretary-General of the People’s Action Party (PAP), who, despite knowing of the affair, reappointed Mr Tan to the position of Speaker in August 2020 and allowed him to continue in the role until yesterday.

While PAP deserves credit for eventually taking decisive action, removing both MPs from their posts despite the embarrassment and political cost, the timing of this action, allegedly spurred by potential legal action from Mr Tan’s spouse and similar to the case of the former MP for Bukit Batok SMC, prompts questions about whether such action would have taken place without such external pressure.

In the House, the Speaker is expected to remain impartial and fair to all MPs, regulating and enforcing the rules of debate.

The Speaker determines who has the right to speak, introduces the question for the House to debate and vote on, and while not participating in debates, can abstain from, or vote for or against a motion, provided they have an original vote as an elected Member. The Speaker has no casting vote.

As the guardian of parliamentary privileges, MPs look to the Speaker for procedural guidance, and he provides rulings on any point of order if necessary.

Upon Mr Tan’s appointment as Speaker of Parliament in 2017, then Leader of the House, Grace Fu, offered praise on behalf of PM Lee.

She said: “Prime Minister (Lee) has said that you ‘stood out as the best choice’ as the next Speaker of Parliament. Everyone who has interacted with you can attest to your patience and willingness to listen to both sides of a debate. In the years ahead, the many complex and multi-faceted challenges facing Singapore will need fair, frank, and honest debate. This House can expect a Speaker who will conduct the proceedings with impartiality and enable Members of Parliament to serve their fellow Singaporeans in building a better society.”

However, in light of recent events such as his interactions with Members of Parliament like NCMP Leong Mun Wai, his hot-mic blunder, and private indiscretions, this glowing endorsement stands in stark contrast.

In a sobering moment of reflection, we must consider the implications of PM Lee’s knowledge of Mr Tan’s affair, which was revealed to have come to light to him after the 2020 General Election. It is unknown when the affair commenced or if anyone has had prior knowledge of it.

Despite being privy to this information, PM Lee reappointed Mr Tan, sparking a series of troubling questions.

Did this decision leave room for compromise in the high office of the Speaker? Could this knowledge have been used as an unspoken bargaining chip, consciously or not, influencing the conduct of parliamentary proceedings such as the Committee of Privileges on Workers’ Party’s MPs and debates?

Moreover, given that PM Lee was aware of the affair, did other PAP cabinet members or senior party members also know, and did they too, inform Mr Tan of their knowledge of the affair?

It’s important to note that PM Lee counselled Mr Tan and Ms Cheng about their relationship, expressing his wish for its termination.

However, despite the persistence of the affair, the Prime Minister chose to keep Mr Tan in office until the potential for legal repercussions arose. This delay in taking decisive action, until faced with external pressure, has undoubtedly cast a shadow over PM Lee’s decision-making process.

The uncomfortable reality we now face is the inconsistency between Mr Tan’s lauded public image and the private actions that led to his resignation.

The situation is further complicated by PM Lee’s seemingly contradictory decisions. He preached about maintaining party discipline and standard of conduct, yet allowed Mr Tan to continue in a role requiring the utmost integrity and impartiality, despite knowing of his indiscretions.

Political leadership extends beyond appointing capable individuals; it also involves ensuring they uphold the highest standards of integrity in both public and private life.

In this context, PM Lee’s handling of the Tan Chuan-Jin affair serves as a stern reminder that timely action and transparency are paramount, particularly when personal impropriety risks compromising the sanctity of high public offices.

Finally, this situation raises a larger issue: the potential precedent it sets.

Could there be instances where individuals are appointed to positions of authority, despite knowledge of their personal indiscretions, potentially subjecting them to undue influence?

This unsettling notion strikes at the heart of our democratic principles.

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