Skip to content

These resignations aren’t like those resignations

A couple of days after Tan Chuan-jin and Cheng Li Hui of resigned from PAP, Leon Perera and Nicole Seah resigned from WP. Both cases had to do with extramarital affairs. But the situations aren’t equivalent.

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
6 min read

It’s been a long day and I’ve finally finished writing this at 2:50am. Who could have guessed that Singaporean politicians would have such serious rizz? And now the journalists are suffering for it.

So there we have it. The sensual hand-stroking over dinner was a sign of an affair between Leon Perera and Nicole Seah. Both have now resigned from the Workers’ Party, not just for stepping out on their spouses but also because they’d lied to the party in late 2020 or early 2021. Back then, Perera’s driver had approached WP’s leadership saying that the two were meeting “very often” at restaurants and hotels, and that he’d seen them holding hands and hugging. But when asked, both Perera and Seah denied it, and the matter faded away because WP leader Pritam Singh wasn't sure how much stock to put in the driver's testimony since he didn't know the guy, and Perera told him that he was in the process of firing this same driver, suggesting that there could have been some ‘disgruntled employee’ thing going on.

When the video footage surfaced on Monday, both Perera and Seah finally admitted that they’d hooked up sometime after the 2020 general election (what was it about that election that was such a turn-on for politicians?!) but had since ended their relationship. This left the WP with a big headache, especially with a parallel situation going on in the PAP.

It’s not one-to-one

With the two affairs coming to light in the same day, it’s inevitable that people will make comparisons. I know many people who wished that Perera and Seah could have made heartfelt apologies and promised to redeem themselves by working doubly hard from now on, instead of just bowing out. But it was always highly unlikely that the WP would pick that path; if they did, the PAP would have probably made hay about how they demonstrated “high standards” by making Tan Chuan-jin and Cheng Li Hui resign, while the WP let Leon Perera and Nicole Seah off. Especially in a context where people expect politicians to be cleaner-than-clean role models, this would likely have resulted in a narrative about how the WP doesn’t run as tight a ship as the PAP, and are therefore less trustworthy or reliable. Since the PAP dropped Tan and Cheng, I suppose the WP felt like they, too, had to excise their exposed duo. It also doesn’t help that Perera and Seah had lied to senior party members about their affair before; with the trust now broken, WP wasn’t going to keep them around.

Still, this isn’t a one-to-one situation. The context is different, because of the different roles that people had, and the different amounts of power involved. As mentioned in the previous special issue, the real scandal of the Tan Chuan-jin/Cheng Li Hui affair is not their naughty activities, but the fact that he was the Speaker of Parliament carrying on with a parliamentarian. And the problem with Lee Hsien Loong’s response was not his failure to put them under surveillance to make sure that their relationship had ended, but that he allowed Tan to continue in that Speaker position even when Tan had already irrevocably undermined his ability to be neutral and impartial. On top of that, Lee allowed Tan to continue occupying the positions of Speaker and MP for months after Tan had actually resigned!

Perera and Seah’s affair, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same implications for governance. Sure, we might find it icky because he was originally supposed to be her mentor for party matters and he’s also quite a bit older than her, so there might be some problematic power dynamics there (similar to how companies and institutions tend to ban direct managers dating their subordinates). But at the same time, Seah is an adult and there haven’t been any allegations of coercion, so we can assume that the affair was consensual, in which case it is a mess of their own creation that they are responsible for cleaning up. Perera wasn’t occupying a position like Tan’s, and Seah wasn’t even elected to Parliament, so there aren’t the same governance issues at play. And while it was bad that they lied to their party in the first instance, that’s a party discipline matter for WP to deal with—which is why Pritam Singh said that, if they hadn’t resigned, he would have pushed for them to be expelled from the party anyway.

None of this is to say that one affair is more excusable than the other. We don’t have to like any of them. There’s no need for us to justify or rationalise either case, although I think it’s worth making the point that we don’t know what the circumstances were with each person that led them to make the decisions that they did. It’s much more useful for us to remember that we do not elect politicians to be paragons of virtue, but to make laws and debate policies. Regardless of our opinions on extramarital dalliances and our addiction to drama and salacious gossip, the affairs aren’t what’s crucial here. Transparency, conflict of interest and governance are. Seen through the lens of these priorities, it’s clear that these are not equivalent scandals.

What does this mean, politically?

PAP has seen one set of resignations, WP another. Both parties have to deal with the embarrassment of addressing adultery within their ranks. Both have been dealt a blow. But they aren’t equal blows, either.

As I’ve argued in the previous section, the PAP’s problem is more severe from the governance standpoint. But the setback is bigger for WP.

The ruling party lost a Speaker and a backbencher—both roles that they can probably replace without too much headache, given their size and dominance. (Losing Tan the Speaker is not as big a problem as losing a minister; it’s not like he was in line for the premiership anyway.) They’ve lost face and got bad press from this, but have enough legacy, party machinery and resources to help them earn goodwill back.

The opposition party, on the other hand, was already fighting an uphill battle. They don’t have the same resources, and more often than not have to work against the hegemonic ‘national’ narratives spun by the PAP. Their mistakes and missteps tend to get blown up far bigger than the ruling party’s boo-boos, creating an impression that the opposition aren’t as competent or reliable as the ruling party. It’s not easy for any opposition party, including WP, to change hearts and minds and to present themselves as a credible alternative. Party members and volunteers have spent countless hours walking the ground to build that trust and reputation, and this Perera-Seah affair has put a big, fat dent in all these efforts. Both were also key members of the party, with Perera having led the media team and Seah the youth wing. It might not be as easy for WP to replace them as it is for PAP to plug their gaps.

Questions, questions

At the WP press conference, a journalist asked Pritam Singh what he thought about the timing of the revelations about Leon Perera and Nicole Seah. There wasn’t that much that he could say in response because, as he pointed out, everything would be speculative. But it’s certainly not gone unnoticed that the timing is pretty sus. Perera and Seah ended their relationship some time back, so the video isn’t new. This suggests that someone shot—or at least got hold of—that video of them, then sat on it, potentially for years, only to release it on the morning of the exact day that Tan Chuan-jin and Cheng Li Hui’s affair was made known to the public. Wah, damn zhun sia. Also, how did AsiaOne identify and get hold of Perera’s driver so quickly, to the point where they could produce and publish a video interview on the same day?

I’ve heard a bunch of conspiracy theories. None of them can be substantiated at this point. Still, it’s hard to get over the sneaky feeling that something dirty has happened, even though we can’t confidently put our finger on what that is.

Bigger than affairs

There have been four resignations in the span of three days, and now we’ve got five empty parliamentary seats in the House, yet no by-election or general election on the horizon. Politician sexy-times are the least of our problems; we should turn our attention to actually important matters. It’s not like we’re short on those. Apart from the problems I outlined in the previous issue and the question of when Singaporeans are going to get to vote in new representatives to replace the missing ones, here’s a (not comprehensive) list of other important matters we shouldn't lose sight of:

  • What’s going on with CPIB’s corruption probe? We’ve got a press conference about Tan Chuan-jin and Cheng Li Hui’s resignations, but nothing about S Iswaran’s arrest beyond Lawrence Wong’s doorstop (where he failed to tell us that Iswaran had already been arrested).
  • The government is supposed to be looking into Singaporean entities involved in arms transfers to Myanmar. Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister for foreign affairs, said at the beginning of this month that investigations are ongoing. Can we get more regular updates, please, and how long do the investigations need to take, anyway?
  • The Auditor-General has released a report flagging weaknesses and flaws in multiple government agencies, including giving contracts to debarred contractors and co-mingling official funds with staff members’ personal funds. This is much more un-good than married politicians co-mingling with their colleagues.
  • There was an accident involving three lorries on Tuesday morning. At least one was a worker transport lorry. Twenty-six men were taken to hospital. When when when are politicians going to get their act together and make transporting migrant workers by lorry illegal?

Let Tan Chuan-jin, Cheng Li Hui, Leon Perera and Nicole Seah pick up after themselves. I'd like more answers on these above matters, please.

Special Issues

Kirsten Han Twitter

A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.

Related Posts

Members Public

G*d Is A Woman: The ins and outs of a cancellation

Thoughts on WILD RICE's latest play, G*d Is A Woman.

Members Public

Answering questions from the book launch!

In which I answer the questions submitted on that we didn’t get to address at my book launch on 1 September.

Members Public

PE2023: We’re all just doing the best we can

There are lots of opinions flying around about how people should vote on Friday. But your vote is yours alone.