OP-ED: The Iswaran Corruption Case: Much Ado About Nothing? Not Quite.

A rare case of political corruption has caught the attention of many Singaporeans. The talking point? The seemingly small amounts of monies involved – $300k+ worth of F1 tickets, musicals at the London West End and football matches – that former Transport Minister Iswaran allegedly received from Malaysian tycoon Ong Beng Seng.

Some have pointed out that these things are part and parcel in the private sector, especially when major business deals are involved. Part of the usual entertainment expense, they say. They wondered if the government is making a mountain out of a molehill. Why so strict, they ask.

Others have noticed the amounts and the nature of the alleged offences pale in comparison to the political corruption cases in other countries. One does not have to look far – across the causeway, we have a high-profile case where hundreds of millions were siphoned out of a sovereign wealth fund. When we cast our sights further, the trials and allegations involving former Italy PM Silvio Berlusconi include the bribery and corruption of police officers, judges, and other politicians. There is no lack of other examples in the region and across the whole; the list goes on.

Are we too strict? Far from it. This is standard of the political culture in Singapore that we have set for ourselves, and this is the standard that we need to defend. Having black sheep in politics is a fact of life – it is something that can be deterred, but also something that is impossible to be eradicated completely.

We should take confidence from the fact that the current government has continued to maintain the ‘zero tolerance’ stance on corruption and continued to keep the system clean. Singapore’s clean government and civil service has been the one of the main reasons for our phenomenal success as a country thus far, which is why it is imperative that we cannot allow these standards to slip. Once the public and international trust in Singapore’s system is gone, we are finished as a country. Investors would leave, and good people would not join politics.

Said Lee Kuan Yew in 1987: “there is no way a Minister can avoid investigations, and a trial if there is evidence to support one.” Nothing has changed since then. Juxtapose this with what Lee Hsien Loong said last year: that “this commitment to honesty and incorruptibility is absolutely non-negotiable.” Iswaran is no small fry. He was a full minister and a key member of the 4G team; the fact that the government acted against him speaks volumes about its commitment to keep the political system clean. In fact, I would even applaud the PAP for having the courage and conviction to do what is right in such a pivotal year for the party – with the upcoming leadership handover later this year.

Those who feel that standards have dropped since the ‘old days’ under Lee Kuan Yew should also note that there had also been several high-profile corruption cases back then, which were also investigated and dealt with: Former National Development Minister Tan Kia Gan (1966), Former MP and NTUC President Phey Yew Kok (1979) and Former National Development Minister Teh Cheang Wan (1986). I am happy that Iswaran is similarly being investigated and dealt with. There should be no excuses, no exceptions, no special treatment. Not even if you are a PAP minister. Not even if you are one of LKY’s descendants.

And as voters, it is important for us to hold all our politicians – both in the government and the opposition – to the same high standards of integrity. This applies to the Workers’ Party Pritam Singh too. Given that he had asked Raeesah Khan to “take it to the grave” and cover up her lie made in Parliament, one wonders how a WP-government would have dealt with a major corruption scandal within its own ranks. And would Pritam Singh be able to set a good example for the entire public sector to follow?

We should hope that whichever party comes to power in the future, even if it is no longer the PAP, will continue to uphold such high standards. For there will be dire consequences for a small country like Singapore if we allow our high standards to drop. There is much at stake.

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