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Singapore’s High Commissioner refutes The Economist’s allegations of CPIB’s lack of independence, but without a POFMA direction

SINGAPORE: In a recent interaction, Singapore’s High Commissioner to the UK, Mr Lim Thuan Kuan, strongly rebutted allegations published in an article by The Economist.

The UK-based magazine questioned the independence of Singapore’s anti-graft agency, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), citing its hierarchical reporting structure, as it reports directly to the Prime Minister.

The Economist, in an article titled ‘A Slew Of Scandals Puts Singapore’s Government On The Back Foot,’ suggested that the CPIB might not maintain impartiality due to its reporting line. This conjecture was specifically directed at the ongoing CPIB investigation into Transport Minister S. Iswaran, overseen by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Refuting The Economist’s claims, Mr Lim clarified that the CPIB does not require the Prime Minister’s approval to conduct its investigations. The Prime Minister’s agreement was sought in the case involving Minister Iswaran due to his cabinet position. Mr. Lim further explained, “No Prime Minister in Singapore has ever prevented the CPIB from conducting an investigation.”

In his letter, Mr Lim emphasized the provision in Singapore’s Constitution, unique among Westminster-style democracies, which allows the CPIB director to carry out investigations even without the Prime Minister’s consent if the President agrees. The appointment or removal of the CPIB director also requires the President’s agreement, adding another safeguard.

The Economist also scrutinized the CPIB’s review of two state-owned bungalows rented by Ministers K. Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan. The article implied a potential lack of impartiality, as the investigation was cleared by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, a friend of Mr Shanmugam and a member of the same branch of government.

In response, Mr Lim revealed that it was Prime Minister Lee who had asked the CPIB to investigate. The Bureau conducted a thorough examination and found no evidence of corruption or wrongdoing, a conclusion concurred with by the Attorney-General’s Chambers. This outcome was also accepted by the Opposition Leader in Parliament.

Mr. Lim highlighted Singapore’s fifth-place ranking in the 2022 Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), trailing only three Scandinavian countries and New Zealand.

The Singaporean High Commissioner questioned The Economist’s claim about the CPIB’s lack of independence. Such an assertion, considering Singapore’s track record, would strike many Singaporeans as deeply offensive and uninformed, he said.

In a firm rebuke, Mr Lim asked, “Would The Economist suggest that the head of Scotland Yard is not independent because he is appointed on the advice of the UK Home Secretary, in consultation with the Mayor of London?”

He emphasized that both the current and future Prime Ministers are steadfast in their commitment to investigating any case of corruption, no matter who it involves. “Singaporeans and foreign investors alike can be certain of this,” he affirmed.

Speculation has arisen as to why Singapore’s government chose to respond through a diplomat’s letter instead of issuing a POFMA directive as it has done in the past with certain individuals and publications.

Is this an indication of the People’s Action Party government’s selective intimidation or its hesitation to confront more formidable entities, knowing that The Economist would likely not comply with its directives?

Meanwhile, the allegations in The Economist’s article resemble those made by Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who had been threatened with legal action by Ministers Shanmugam and Balakrishnan over the Ridout Road rental issue.

Now, it remains to be seen whether the two ministers will consider taking similar action against The Economist, or if they are hesitant to engage in a legal battle outside of Singapore.

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