A general view of the Central Business District and the Merlion, illuminated with a projection during the iLight Marina Bay on March 29, 2018 in Singapore.

Suhaimi Abdullah | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong vowed Wednesday to uphold “zero tolerance” toward any wrongdoing by government officials.

His comments came after a wave of political scandals rocked the Southeast Asian nation in recent weeks, tarnishing the pristine image that underpins its standing as a global financial center.

“The founding generation built up Singapore and entrusted it to our generation in good shape,” Lee said in a parliamentary address Wednesday. “It is incumbent on us to protect and uphold this system, to keep it incorruptible and clean, and maintain high standards of propriety.”

Transport Minister S. Iswaran was arrested last month, alongside property tycoon Ong Beng Seng, in relation to a probe by Singapore’s anti-graft agency, marking the first time in nearly four decades a cabinet official has been involved in corruption.

A day later, the former House Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin resigned after failing to end an extra-marital affair with Cheng Li Hui, a female member of parliament from the ruling People’s Action Party.

These incidents were preceded by an investigation into two other cabinet ministers about their rentals of state-owned colonial bungalows, which eventually exonerated Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan of any wrongdoing.

Lee said actions taken after these scandals showed two aspects of how his PAP government works.

“One, when there is a suspicion or allegation of wrongdoing in the discharge of official duties, especially possible corruption, there is zero tolerance,” he said in the first parliamentary session after these events,.

“Two, when people slip in their personal lives, the PAP will look at the facts of each case carefully, and deal with the matter as humanely and sensitively as possible, according to the principles the Party has established,” Lee added.

Facts and regrets

The prime minister also acknowledged public criticism on the time he took to act on the affair between Tan and Cheng.

“It is a fair question,” Lee said. “In retrospect — and certainly now knowing how things eventually turned out — I agree. I should have forced the issue earlier.”

Lee first learned about the matter following the General Elections in 2020. But out of consideration for their family members, he did not act until nearly three years later.

Why are political scandals and corruption in Singapore so rare?

Tan had agreed to end the relationship when Lee counseled him at that time, but the prime minister found out in February that their extra-marital affair continued.

“I placed much weight on protecting their families, perhaps too much,” Lee said.

Salary slash

On Iswaran’s alleged wrongdoing, Lee said ongoing investigations did not allow him to discuss the matter.

He said Singapore’s Anti-Corruption Investigation Bureau came across information relating to Iswaran while investigating a separate matter. He did not give any details.

“Nobody tipped them off. There had been no public scandal,” Lee said.

Lee said Iswaran’s salary has been cut to 8,500 Singapore dollars ($6,350) until further notice. The transport minister has been put on leave and interdicted from his duties. The reduced sum is nearly 82% less than the lower end of a Singapore cabinet minister’s starting salary of $46,750.

Singapore pays its cabinet officials world-leading salaries, partly in a bid to ward off corruption among its leaders.

“With the investigation into Minister Iswaran, and the resignations of the Speaker and an MP, the PAP has taken a hit but we will show Singaporeans that we will uphold standards and do the right thing, so that trust is maintained, and the Singapore system continues to work well,” Lee said.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Lee Hsien Loong’s comments were made on Wednesday. Due to an editing error, the day was misstated.

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