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When the real scandal isn’t the affair

The worst part about Tan Chuan-jin and Cheng Li Hui's resignations is not the affair. It's that Singaporeans were kept in the dark for so long.

I usually only email special issues to Milo Peng Funders, but let's be real, the events of the past day are too much to be kept behind a paywall.

When Tan Chuan-jin was first made Speaker of Parliament in 2017, I remember he wrote a Facebook post in which he talked about trusting in God’s plan for him. I’m sure God works in mysterious ways, but having said that I’m not sure this was the plan.

If you were in a meeting, taking a nap, or maybe even in the loo for a little too long on Monday afternoon, you missed a lot. Just about a week after video footage of Tan Chuan-jin calling Jamus Lim a “fucking populist” emerged, Tan was forced to resign in disgrace. It was less about saying “fuck” in Parliament—although that was a factor—and more for fucking a parliamentarian. Cheng Li Hui, the parliamentarian in question, also resigned, prompting a bunch of “who is Cheng Li Hui” articles in the media because so many of us had barely noticed her before, despite her presence in Parliament since 2015.

For a country where we’re more accustomed to petty politics like arguments about how clean hawker ceilings are to browbeating opposition politicians for infractions big and small, this month has been A Lot. We’ve had outcry about conflict of interest and inequality (the Ridout Road saga), contempt and disrespect (the hot mic), corruption (Iswaran’s arrest amid the CPIB probe) and now extra-marital affairs and resignations. In my last special issue I questioned whether this is really the “A-Team” that Lee Hsien Loong had claimed the PAP to be. Just a week later, I think it’s clear that the current PAP government is not only not the A-team, but seriously falls short when it comes to transparency and accountability.

Keeping everyone in the dark

Extramarital affairs are usually the private business of those involved, unless they have some direct bearing on a political officeholder’s work and position; for example, if they had run on a platform of ‘family values’ and ‘protecting family’, then an affair is proof of hypocrisy. Affairs can also become relevant if they end up having some bearing on one’s job.

From the press conference that Lee Hsien Loong held after the news broke, we know that he was aware of Tan Chuan-jin and Cheng Li Hui’s hanky-panky some time after the 2020 general election. That’s three years ago. By Lee’s own acknowledgement, it was a serious problem from the get-go for the Speaker of Parliament—who is supposed to not only be neutral and non-partisan, but also seen to be so—to be carrying on with a member of the House. This was not a case where counselling, which the two apparently received, was going to cut it, because this particular affair had implications for the fair conduct of parliamentary business. If the PAP really had the strictest of high standards, Tan would have been out the door in 2020; even if he were to stay on as an MP he should at least have been removed from the Speaker position. Yet he was allowed to continue, and the PAP acted as if nothing had happened. Parliament and the public were kept in the dark.

According to Lee, between 2020 and 2023, he didn’t know that Tan and Cheng were still at it. But he found out again in February this year, and spoke to Tan about it. That was when Tan offered to resign, and Lee accepted. Get that: he accepted. From what Lee said at the press conference, it sounds as if Tan had relinquished both the role of Speaker and his seat in Parliament, and likely also his membership of the PAP. The moment Lee accepted, Parliament should have been Speaker-less and down one MP. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Tan continued to show up for work as both an MP and Speaker of Parliament—and drawing a very generous salary for it, too—without anyone realising that he’d already resigned… for months.

This is absolute BS.

Hypocrisy and double standards

Recall the shock, horror and outrage the PAP expressed during the drama over the lie Raeesah Khan told in Parliament. Remember the uproar over what Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh knew and when, and why he hadn’t said anything sooner. An entire Committee of Inquiry was convened, with hours and hours of questioning and eventually even police involvement. Is this current scandal, involving the ruling party and people in high positions of power, going to get the same treatment?

Are we going to get a Committee of Inquiry into why Lee didn’t say anything sooner, and how many people in the PAP knew that the Speaker position had been undermined by Tan’s workplace romance? Is there going to be an investigation into whether, while their “inappropriate relationship” was going on, there had been any situation in which there was conflict of interest between Tan’s position and his connection to Cheng Li Hui? Or are we going to just watch as the PAP, with the aid of a compliant media, spins a topsy-turvy, gaslighting narrative about how this episode—like all the others we’ve seen recently—actually shows how high their standards are?

Serving the people’s interests?

In justifying why Tan’s resignation hadn’t been made public back in February, Lee said that the priority had been to make sure that the constituents under Tan’s charge were well taken care of. This explanation doesn’t work: other MPs have vacated their seats for various reasons before, and the PAP had rushed to assure us that their team members could cover them and that there was nothing to worry about. So what made Tan so indispensable that they sat on his resignation from February to July? (I think the events of the past week have already shown that he is not their strongest soldier.) If Lee hadn’t received new information about the ongoing affair, prompting him to decide that Tan had to go right away, how long were they planning to keep this resignation from Parliament and the public? Were they going to just sit on it until whenever Lee decides to call an election, then have Tan bow out of politics ‘gracefully’ without anyone knowing anything?

If the PAP were really so concerned about serving the people’s interests and making sure that people of the affected GRCs would be taken care of, then they should have called a by-election once Tan resigned. (They should also be calling by-elections in every other scenario where an MP steps down, regardless of whether they are in GRCs or not.) That would have been the right process through which the voters of that constituency would have the chance to choose who they want to represent them and their interests. How has keeping them in the dark about their representative’s resignation served them?

While we’re on the subject: this Parliament is now down five MPs (if we include Iswaran's leave of absence) from when it first sat after the general election. Four PAP GRCs and one WP GRC are missing a representative each. I don’t care how hardworking the other members of the team are with Meet-The-People Sessions and town council matters; voters also elected those five people to represent their interests and vote on bills and motions in Parliament, and now they’re losing out on these representatives. Yet there are no by-elections, and Lee says he has no plans to call a general election right now. Tsk.

It doesn’t serve Singaporeans’ interests when the government talks a big game about integrity and “high standards” and how they “will not sweep anything under the carpet”, but also keeps crucial information—like how the minister for transport had actually already been arrested, or that the Speaker of Parliament was undermining the neutrality of the position by jumping into bed with a fellow party MP—from the public until circumstances force their hand.

P.S. That other (alleged) affair

Yesterday (wah lau, what a day) we also saw video footage circulating of Workers’ Party MP Leon Perera holding hands with Workers’ Party member and GE2020 candidate Nicole Seah over dinner. WP hasn’t said much yet, just that they’re “looking into the matter”.

This is also not nice, but unless the allegation is that they’re going on hot dates with public funds, an alleged affair is more their own private, messy business than the Tan Chuan-jin/Cheng Li Hui hook-up. It’s up to the WP to decide if they want to continue fielding Perera or Seah as candidates in the future, and if they do, then up to the voters if they want to elect them. But I suspect that, if the WP doesn’t kick them both out right away, the PAP will try to make hay about how they did the ‘right thing’ but the WP didn’t, even though the contexts are different. 😡 😡 😡 Basket.