Thursday, 21 September 2023

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The double-edged sword of personal indiscretions: How PAP set a new standard for Singapore’s politicians

by Schrodinger’s Speaker

In February 2012, during the height of Yaw Shin Leong’s affair rumour scandal, the Worker’s Party had to make a very difficult decision.

The difficulty was not about the decision to expel Yaw. By that time, the writing was already on the wall. Yaw had to go: better to cut off a festering limb than to allow the whole body to become infected.

The difficulty had to do with what reason to give for the expulsion. This was because the WP did not want to go down the slippery slope of stating that the reason for expulsion was due to the fact that Yaw had had extramarital affairs or “inappropriate relationships”.

There were practical reasons to avoid this. Firstly, it would have required WP to conduct an internal investigation into its members’ personal lives. This would have been messy, difficult and uncomfortable.

More pertinently, the party would then be unable to claim plausible deniability with regard to any details that might have emerged.

But there was a more important reason: it would have set an uncomfortable precedent that had not existed thus far in Singapore politics – that a political party is responsible for how its members conduct themselves in their personal lives, and more specifically that members who engage in extramarital affairs must necessarily resign or be expelled from the party. At the time, this was a standard that even the People’s Action Party (PAP) did not hold itself to.

Once that standard was set, any such incidents in future would have to be held to this standard.

The solution that the WP decided on was elegant, but it required Yaw’s cooperation. The party convened a CEC meeting that Yaw did not attend. In his absence, the CEC called for a vote to expel Yaw, which was passed.

This allowed the WP to call a press conference the next day and explain that the reason for Yaw’s expulsion was due to the fact that he did not turn up at the CEC meeting to account for his actions to the party. This fell short of the standards of transparency and accountability expected by the party of its MPs.

From WP’s actual press statement: “Shin Leong has been accused of several indiscretions in his private life. By continuing not to account to the Party and the people, especially the residents of Hougang, he has broken the faith, trust and expectations of the Party and People.”

Let’s look carefully again at the reason given for Yaw’s expulsion: it wasn’t because of his alleged extramarital affairs.

It was due to the fact that Yaw failed to account for his actions to the party and his constituents, and that was the behaviour that the party deemed so unacceptable that they decided to expel him. His “indiscretions” were mentioned, but the actual basis for expulsion was a lack of accountability and transparency.

That this statement was carefully and deliberately worded can clearly be seen in this video of the press conference.

During the subsequent Q&A session, Sylvia Lim says “…as we have said, we have taken this decision because we have certain expectations as far as accountability and transparency are concerned. We are not making any statement as to whether the allegations are true or not, but we are saying that we expect, especially our MPs, to be responsible.“ (emphasis ours)

Let’s go back to why all this is important.

It’s important because the WP was trying to avoid setting a standard that could come back to bite them in the ass. It allowed them to sidestep the need to start policing their members’ personal lives. It kept the focus on the party’s values rather than personal moral standards.

And then, less than a year later, Michael Palmer’s affair came to light and the PAP decided to do the one thing that it hadn’t ever done before, certainly not under Lee Kuan Yew, which was to accept the resignation of a member specifically because he had engaged in an extra-marital affair.

We can only speculate, but that was probably a rushed decision to try to set up a contrast with how the WP had handled things. The PAP wanted to be seen as being decisive in such matters.

Unfortunately for the PAP, it has now fallen into a trap of its own making, and every one of its members will now have to resign if found to be guilty of personal indiscretions. Standards must be maintained, right?

It was a trap that the Worker’s Party tried so very hard to avoid making back in 2012. But that is probably irrelevant today.

The PAP has set the standard, and it would be difficult for the WP to go, “wait a minute, we never set this standard for ourselves”.

Like it or not, to be a politician in Singapore today, you have to be whiter than white, regardless of what your party colours are.

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