SINGAPORE — The Singapore Parliament debated for nearly six hours on Monday (3 July) on the issues raised from the rentals of two black-and-white bungalow properties along Ridout Road by ministers K. Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan.
Here are five key takeaways from the debate, which centred on potential conflicts of interest, political optics and independence of investigations:
Q1: Why did the two ministers decide to rent the two Ridout Road properties?
Law and Home Affairs Minister Shanmugam wanted to sell his good-class bungalow in Astrid Hill and move into a rental property, after being advised that it would be wiser not to have most of his savings in a single asset.
In his ministerial speech on Monday, he considered various rental properties, including black-and-white colonial houses which he had always admired.
Shanmugam stated that most of the rent paid for 26 Ridout Road, amounting to $26,500 per month, comes from renting out his family home. However, there is a deficit, which he covers with the income he earned as a lawyer.
As for Foreign Affairs Minister Balakrishnan, his family decided to rent 31 Ridout Road so that they could live together while his grandchildren are still young.
Dr Balakrishnan chose to rent 31 Ridout Road despite its "advanced state of disrepair" and invested significant money to make the house habitable.
He mentioned that his family spent over $200,000 on renovations, knowing that this expense would not be recoverable once the tenancy ended.
Q2: Were there possible conflicts of interest, and did the ministers address them?
Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean - who was appointed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to investigate any wrongdoings amid the Ridout Road rentals - raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest regarding 26 Ridout Road.
He believed that if Shanmugam - who had authority over renting out the property as the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) comes under his ministry's purview - remained in the chain of command, a conflict could have arisen.
However, Shanmugam had acknowledged the potential conflict and took steps to address it, by removing himself from the chain of command and the decision-making process. To ensure transparency, he asked the then-deputy secretary of the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) to provide him with a list of available properties.
Rather than directly contacting the SLA, Shanmugam instructed the deputy secretary to inform the permanent secretary. This way, the permanent secretary could report to the head of the civil service or PM Lee if deemed necessary.
The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) conducted an investigation and concluded that Shanmugam had recused himself from the rental process of the 26 Ridout Road property. The investigation found no evidence of corruption or criminal wrongdoing. There was also no indication that privileged information was disclosed during the rental transaction.
As for Dr Balakrishnan, there was no conflict of interest as his responsibilities did not include SLA.
Q3. Do the ministers’ rentals of the Ridout Road properties create public perceptions of inequality?
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh argued that the crux of the Ridout Road rental debate is not about corruption allegations, but about political optics.
On the decision by Shanmugam to ask the then-deputy secretary of Ministry of Law for a list of state properties available for the public to rent, Pritam questioned its appropriateness, saying that it is incongruous, in the eyes of many, for a minister to be asking a civil servant details which pertain to information for personal use.
In response, SM Teo said the list of state properties available for rent is not privileged information, and are readily available to "credible, prospective tenants". Shanmugam also explained that by approaching the deputy secretary, there was total transparency amid the entire law ministry.
Bukit Batok MP Murali Pillai also raised questions about public perception, saying that there had been comments about whether ministers living in private properties are able to relate to the common people, and whether such acts engender a picture of inequality.
In response, PM Lee said he does not object as long as ministers live within their salary, comply with the laws, and continue to do their duties as a minister and serve Singaporeans.
Shanmugam also insisted that his empathy for the people did not decrease as he went from living in a rental flat as a child to living at Ridout Road. "My residents judge me by my heart and my commitment to serve, not by how much I earn and where I live," he said.
Q4. Were the investigations headed by SM Teo Chee Hean independent enough?
Some MPs had suggested that SM Teo, whom PM Lee had appointed to helm the Ridout Road investigations, may not be sufficiently independent to conduct the probe.
They suggested that a third party, such as the Auditor-General's Office or an independent judge, could have done so.
PM Lee disagreed, saying that it is his responsibility to set the standards of what is ethical and proper.
"I cannot outsource (these investigations). For example, to appoint an ethics adviser to tell me what is proper or not proper. I have to know what is proper or not, otherwise I shouldn't be here," he said in Parliament.
PM Lee added that he entrusted the investigations to SM Teo as he is his most senior minister in terms of years in Cabinet and experience.
Q5. Were there any measures implemented following the investigations?
The Singapore government will implement a new declaration requirement for officers in government ministries and statutory boards who have access to privileged information and the ability to influence decision outcomes.
Under the new requirement announced by SM Teo in his ministerial speech, the Public Service Division will collaborate with ministries and statutory boards to establish a standard declaration process for specific groups of officers.
These groups will include individuals involved in leasing and valuation matters or those with access to privileged information.
The declaration attests that the officer has taken "adequate steps" to prevent conflicts of interest. For instance, they may choose to recuse themselves from overseeing or processing the rental transaction.
The scope of these properties encompasses a range of commercial and residential state properties, such as black-and-white bungalows, terraces, factory or office spaces, business parks, shops in neighbourhood centres, and hawker and market stalls.
Additionally, the Prime Minister will review the declarations required for property transactions involving ministers and Members of Parliament from the People's Action Party.
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