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Singapore’s prime minister has defended its reputation for clean governance after a corruption investigation and an “inappropriate” parliamentary relationship tarnished the city-state’s image just as it prepares for a leadership transition. 

Lee Hsien Loong addressed Singapore’s episodes of rare political drama in parliament on Wednesday after they made international headlines.

In the most serious case, transport minister S Iswaran was arrested last month as part of a high-profile corruption investigation that also ensnared billionaire Ong Beng Seng. Both men, who were key figures in Singapore’s successful pitch to be part of the Formula One circuit, have been released on bail. 

Neither Ong nor Iswaran have commented publicly on their arrests. Hotel Properties Limited, of which Ong is managing director, said in July he had not been charged with any offence and was providing information to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau about his dealings with the minister.

In another high-profile case, the Speaker of Singapore’s parliament and a fellow member of the ruling People’s Action party quit as lawmakers last month after revelations that they had an affair.

“With the investigation into minister Iswaran and the resignations of the house Speaker and an MP, the PAP has taken a hit,” Lee said.

The prime minister separately in May asked the corruption agency to conduct a review after questions were asked in parliament and on social media about the government’s renting of colonial-era homes to two of his cabinet ministers. 

For Singapore, which has traded on its reputation as a clean, stable place to do business throughout its rise to become a global finance centre, the episodes are unusually public examples of alleged corruption and unsavoury behaviour within the PAP. The ruling party has governed uninterrupted since independence in 1965 and Singapore’s politicians are among the most highly paid in the world to discourage graft. 

The scandals also come as Lee, son of the founder of modern Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, prepares to hand over power to his deputy Lawrence Wong in what will be only the fourth change of leadership in its history.

Lee, who has not said when he will step down, defended the integrity of Singapore’s governance.

“The way we have handled these incidents shows how seriously the PAP takes our responsibility of governing Singapore, and being accountable to parliament and to Singaporeans.”

He added that he had asked Iswaran to take a leave of absence and cut the minister’s pay, insisting that corruption cases had occurred in the past and had been dealt with thoroughly and transparently.

“That is still how the PAP government deals with such cases. It has not changed under my charge; and it won’t under my successor either,” the prime minister said.

But Lee, who said he first knew of what he has called the “inappropriate” affair between parliamentary Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin and MP Cheng Li Hui in 2020, admitted he should have asked them to step down earlier.

Tan was asked to resign over the affair after a recording in which he referred in parliament to an opposition politician as a “fucking populist” circulated online. The Speaker’s role is meant to be impartial.

“I should have forced the issue sooner,” Lee said of the affair, saying the Speaker’s role meant it raised questions of propriety, but that he had been concerned about the families of the two MPs. 

Opposition leader Pritam Singh of the Workers’ party said in response that the PAP had been less than upfront with “potentially embarrassing issues” and suggested it hire an ethics adviser. 

Singapore will next month hold an election for the largely ceremonial role of president, a vote that is being closely watched as a dry run for the general election that must be called by 2025. 

“I think the PAP is definitely watching public reactions and sentiment around the presidential race,” said one Singapore-based public policy expert, who asked to remain anonymous. “But are these scandals going to somehow sink the party at the next election? I really doubt it.”

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