I’m sending this out half a day early, because it’s big enough news! If there are any updates between now and tomorrow morning, I’ll do a follow-up.
Just the one story this weekend, because let’s not pretend Singaporeans are talking about anything else, news-wise. Well, maybe complaining about the SimplyGo shambles…
I’m also trying out something new where I don’t come up with sub-headers for each section, just to see if that might be cleaner.
One of the gifts that S Iswaran, Singapore’s (now ex-)transport minister, is accused of receiving is tickets to a show called The Play That Goes Wrong.
This joke writes itself.
Iswaran appeared in court on Thursday morning, where a total of 27 charges were read to him. There are two corruption charges, one relating to obstruction of justice and 24 about getting valuable things as a public servant. Corruption charge #1 accuses Iswaran of corruptly obtaining “gratification” from billionaire tycoon Ong Beng Seng totalling S$145,434—in the form of expensive Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix tickets in 2022—so that he would advance Ong’s business interests in return. Corruption charge #2 is similar, claiming that Iswaran got a flight from Singapore to Doha in Ong’s private jet, a night at the Four Seasons hotel in Doha and a business class flight back to Singapore (all worth thousands of dollars, of course) on Ong’s company dime, again in exchange for advancing Ong’s interests—including in relation to a proposal for a contract with the Singapore Tourism Board to bring the ABBA Voyage virtual concert to Singapore. You know what they say: “Money, money, money, must be funny in the rich man’s world… 🎶”
The obstructing justice charge has to do with Iswaran allegedly repaying $5,700 (the cost of the business class flight) to Singapore GP in May 2023. That leaves 24 remaining charges, which all have to do with nice things that he’d allegedly received from Ong: apart from a bunch of pricey tickets to the F1 races in Singapore over the years, the charges also list tickets to various English football matches (I have heard of those teams but have no knowledge to contribute, sorry) as well as to plays and musicals (this, I know a bit more about). Already mentioned is The Play That Goes Wrong, but Iswaran allegedly also got tickets to Kinky Boots (fun), Waitress (I love the music, check it out), Hamilton (so jelly, I also want to see this live), Book of Mormon (I really wanted to watch this once, but when I got to New York City I changed my mind and went to She Loves Me instead, no regrets), School of Rock (cute), Thriller, &Juliet, Betrayal, Back to the Future (did not know this had been adapted for the stage) and the two parts of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (I read the book, was okay only). Someone had a lot of fun in London’s West End… allegedly.
If Iswaran did receive all these gifts, then that was very naughty. This is what Chan Chun Sing said in August 2023 about public servants and political office holders receiving gifts:
“Civil servants must declare to their Permanent Secretaries any gifts they receive from external stakeholders on account of their official position or work. Officers may be allowed to retain gifts that are valued below $50 if doing so does not affect the integrity of the Civil Service. If officers wish to retain gifts valued above $50, they must pay the assessed market value of the gift to the Government. […] Political office holders adopt a similar spirit and principles in their official activities. There are specific rules spelt out in the Annex of the Code of Conduct for Ministers on the acceptance of gifts and services. In general, all gifts should be refused and returned to the donor without delay. If the return of the gift is impractical, the gift must be handed over to the political office holder’s ministry to be dealt with in accordance with official guidelines. If political office holders want to retain a gift, they have to pay the Government for it at the valuation price. Otherwise, the gifts have to be surrendered to the Government.”
Curiously, the prosecution apparently originally had 36 charges against Iswaran, but dropped it down to 27 by the time they went to court. This was something flagged by Iswaran’s defence lawyer, the high-flier Davinder Singh. It’s not clear what exactly made the prosecution change their mind. In any case, Iswaran is pleading not guilty to all these charges, and says he’s going to focus on clearing his name. The first pre-trial conference is scheduled for 1 March.
Regardless of what comes out of the trial, this case has already brought an end to Iswaran’s decades-long career in politics.
“Given the circumstances, I feel it is right for me to resign from Cabinet, as a Member of Parliament and as a member of the PAP,” he wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Iswaran had first been elected as an MP in 1997, and made a full minister in 2011.
In a follow-up letter, he said that he’d be returning all the money he’d received from his cut-down minister salary and MP allowance since all this blew up in July 2023. “I am doing this even though I reject the charges and am innocent,” he wrote. “My family and I have decided to return the monies because we cannot in all good conscience benefit from them when I was unable, on account of the investigations, to discharge my duties as a minister and Member of Parliament.”
Throughout all this, the PAP powers on.
Chee Hong Tat, who had been acting transport minister while Iswaran was on a leave of absence, is now officially taking over as transport minister. Grace Fu, the sustainability and environment minister, will take over Iswaran’s other role of minister-in-charge of trade relations.
Lawrence Wong says that Iswaran’s case won’t impact the leadership transition timeline, even though it will definitely affect party morale.
When the news first came out that a minister had actually been arrested in a corruption probe, it seemed like a really big deal—I think many of us started imagining dramatic, devious dealings. What was it going to be? Are they going to blow this case wide open? 🍿🍿🍿
This doesn’t make it okay, of course, but to learn that the allegations against Iswaran are about things like football and theatre tickets is really quite underwhelming. And for allegedly advancing business interests like bringing an ABBA concert to Singapore??? Even our corruption scandals are petty AF. 😹
While the total price tag of all the goodies isn’t small, it’s actually not that much at the billionaire tycoon/millionaire minister level. I wonder if Ong Beng Seng even thought anything of some of these gifts; maybe that amount of money just falls out of his pocket whenever he sneezes. (I don’t know, man, billionaires are weird.) I wouldn’t be surprised if Iswaran ended up spending more than that amount just to pay for an expensive lawyer like Davinder Singh.
It is worth asking, though, how this was able to go on for so long. Some of the gifts that Iswaran allegedly received dated back to November 2015. What sort of oversight or audit is there of ministers and other important political office holders? There was apparently no whistleblower, so I wonder how CPIB stumbled upon this. Will there be a stricter check/audit of other ministers now?
And what is going to happen to Ong Beng Seng, the alleged giver of all these fancy expensive things? The Attorney-General’s Chambers says that they’re going to wait until Iswaran’s case is concluded—including the presentation of evidence in court—before they decide what to do with Ong. Why? Considering what a big case this is, it’s likely that it’s going to take some time for it all to be done. Wouldn’t that be quite a long time to wait for the AGC to decide?
What is annoying you more this week? Click on one of the links below to vote.
💰 Iswaran’s case