Am I going to see you at the Singapore Independent Media Fair later today? I'll be running Mekong Review's booth all afternoon!
Teo Chee Hean's conflict-free, totally independent review
I was trying to find a bunch of news items to put in this week's wrap, but let's not kid ourselves: the topic of the week is going to be the ministers' Ridout hideouts.
Reports by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) and also Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean have been published. They found that there is nothing to find. No conflict of interest, no inside information, nothing improper. Just two ministers spending big, big money to live in big, big houses on big, big land. Totes legit.
Is anyone surprised? Probably not. Is everyone satisfied? Based on the social media comments I've seen, definitely not.
Firstly, can anyone really say that the review led by Teo was independent? These ministers are all from the same party, a party that would obviously prefer to have this all go away and Singaporeans forget about it as quickly as possible. We also learn from these published reports that when K Shanmugam recused himself from any government decision-making process in the course of renting 26 Ridout Road, he directed the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) to approach Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah if they had any issues, and also gave the heads up to Teo himself that Indranee might approach him if there was any matter that was beyond her. No issues came up, so I suppose Indranee never went to Teo, but even so, how can we say that he's an independent and neutral party?
There are other questions too. The things that popped into my head when I read the news articles, then the reports themselves, have also been asked by others on social media.
Before renting the place, Shanmugam had visited 26 Ridout Road and expressed concern about a piece of land next to the property that was overgrown. He then negotiated with SLA through his property agent for the land to be cleared before he leased the property, but was still "not confident that the adjacent land would be maintained in a way that would keep the place free of health and safety issues." Why? Does he have so little faith in SLA's ability to do their job in managing state land?
Whatever the reason, Shanmugam then says that he can maintain that plot of land at his own expense. He told CPIB that he didn't want to actually lease the land as there would be "legal obligations attached to leasing it". But SLA didn't think it was right for a tenant to maintain land beyond the boundary of the plot he's leased, so they spent $172,000 to clear the site, replant greenery and fence the area to include it within the 26 Ridout Road boundary. Does this mean that Shanmugam even came 'round to leasing the land, or is adding it to the 26 Ridout property different from leasing it separately? What were those "legal obligations" that he was concerned about, and do they apply right now? Also, has any other tenant successfully negotiated with SLA for a decent chunk of land to be added to their property like this? How common or normal is this?
Another question I've seen asked multiple times: after adding a giant plot of land that took the size of 26 Ridout Road from 9,350 square metres to 23,164 square metres—more than double—why didn't the rent go up? The current rent of $26,500 for that land size works out to about 11 cents per square foot.
That said, what struck me the most as I read the report was the stunning amounts of money we're talking about here. Vivian Balakrishnan—he of "do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?" fame—currently pays $20,000 a month in rent to live in 31 Ridout Road, and forked out $200,000 for improvements to the property. Shanmugam spent over $400,000 to fix up 26 Ridout Road, and also $61,400 to build a car porch. He now pays $26,500 a month in rent, plus an additional $25,000 a year for the maintenance of that big plot of land. Basically, the guy drops about $28,580 a month to live on that property. According to the 2022 Labour Force in Singapore report, the median income of full-time employed residents was $5,070 per month last year. So our law and home affairs minister, ultimately still a public servant, spends over five times the median monthly income just on rent and land upkeep. If their members can pay for this sort of accommodation, no wonder the PAP insists that housing is affordable in Singapore.
In the face of these eye-watering amounts of money spent on housing—how many people do K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan need to house, anyway?—I find myself simmering with indignation. Even if everything was above board, even if there was no sneaky business, this is obscene expenditure from our public servants while ordinary Singaporeans drown in anxiety over the cost of living. This isn't just about bureaucratic procedure and legislation. As Jolene Tan wrote in May, this is clearly excessive, not to mention hypocritical when the PAP government criticised the Minimum Income Standard's research for coming up with a budget they said was too high and "in excess of basic needs for an average household". If they find a budget of about $1,600 per month per capita "in excess", what do they call this? How does it look when ministers from a ruling party that insists that we cannot have a living wage in Singapore, that we cannot provide more welfare (especially financial assistance that doesn't require brutal means-testing), that we must raise the GST even when people are still struggling, etc. etc. are spending such large amounts of money to live in bungalows on plots of land big enough to fit entire shopping malls? It doesn't matter that the landlord in this case is the state—I find the argument that we should be grateful to the ministers for deigning to rent these properties ludicrous—this is a clear demonstration of the gulf that exists between Singaporeans and the people who wield power over us.
The Online Criminal Harms Bill slips under the radar
This is barely going to be noticed at all, but the Online Criminal Harms Bill is likely to be passed in this coming parliamentary sitting, while we all freak out about Ridout.
Like other legislation before it, the Online Criminal Harms Bill is overly broad and can apply to a huge range of offences or alleged offences. It also limits judicial oversight. In a nutshell: the issues flagged by activists in relation to POFMA and FICA? They're still present here.
Were you at Pink Dot?
Were you at Pink Dot last weekend? I was! I didn't get to see that much of Pink Dot, though—I spent almost the whole afternoon and evening at the Transformative Justice Collective booth talking to people about our work and drawing their attention to our upcoming abolitionist festival. It was great that so many people came to find out more, and some even signed our petition calling for a moratorium on executions. So I missed all the performances and speeches! But I did get to participate in the formation of the pink dot, which I always find to be a moving and powerful experience.
This year's Pink Dot theme was about accepting family of all types. It's a relief that Section 377A has finally been repealed, but that's not good enough when LGBTQ people are still discriminated against in so many aspects of life, including in the formation of family units.
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