Parliament: Singapore must avoid danger of influence peddling, says Shanmugam
SINGAPORE – In a small country like Singapore, it is inevitable that people appointed to high positions have deep connections with others they may have met through work, in school or even during national service, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said on Wednesday (Nov 4).
This is why people appointed to these positions must have the moral fibre to do the right thing, to guard against soft corruption and influence peddling which can be more insidious than outright corruption, he added.
Mr Shanmugam made the point when delivering his ministerial statement on the case about former domestic worker Parti Liyani, who was accused of theft by her then employer, prominent businessman Liew Mun Leong, and convicted by the State Courts.
She was acquitted by the High Court on appeal, sparking a public outcry among some, who asked why she was charged in the first place and whether Mr Liew had exerted any improper influence in the case.
Stressing that internal reviews by the police and Attorney-General’s Chambers had shown there was no improper influence, Mr Shanmugam said: “If we had seen anything wrong by way of influence peddling, swift, open action would have been taken.”
In fact, the “serious, insidious risk” of the powerful, influential and wealthy in society enriching themselves and favouring their families and friends to the detriment of society is something that Singapore’s leaders have been vigilant about, he added.
He cited founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and old guard minister Goh Keng Swee who had warned about the type of nepotism – “the insidious ‘old boy’ type, whereby no illegalities are committed” – which will cause the fundamental structures of the modern state to be “eroded like the supporting beams of a house after termites have attacked”.
Both Mr Lee and Dr Goh had reminded public officers that they exercise power as trustees for the people and should never use it for personal enrichment.
Mr Shanmugam said: “We have to be very careful to try and stamp it out wherever it appears. And make no mistake, it will keep appearing, in big and small ways.”
He also cited the letter Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sends out at the start of each new term of Parliament, in which he reminds MPs to uphold integrity, honesty and incorruptibility and to be wary of those who may cultivate and lobby them with gifts or favours.
Addressing MPs directly, the minister said: “Even before it reaches the kind of conduct referred to in PM’s letter, if we feel that there is some conduct that requires a closer look, we take a closer look.
“I am referring here to conduct which is not criminal nor a breach of ethics, but which in our view should be avoided. Something that may be legal but, for example, lead eventually to something which is of not-so-good odour.”
Mr Shanmugam disclosed that when he had sensed such situations cropping up, he had asked MPs to “have a cup of coffee with me” and the issue was usually resolved.
He added: “And if it is not resolved, then they don’t remain as MPs.”
He also said the Government has not and will not try to stop or intervene if any MP is investigated and censured over criminal behaviour.
Singapore’s smallness presents a more “challenging environment” in managing connections and interactions among those in positions of influence, Mr Shanmugam acknowledged.
For example, Professor S. Jayakumar, who held both the posts of minister for law and minister for home affairs between 1985 and 2008, had had links to others appointed to high office at that time, including Attorney-General Tan Boon Teik, Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, and commissioners of police Goh Yong Hong and Tee Tua Ba.
Mr Shanmugam, citing himself, said he had spent 22 years in private practice and worked with many senior counsels and lawyers and also appeared before many judges.
“Our small size means these connections and interactions are inevitable. And so, we will always have to be very careful, always remember we are fiduciaries,” he said.
“It is critical that whatever the relationship, the Government maintains high standards of probity of conduct, so that decisions are made on objective and impartial assessment.”
Mr Shanmugam warned that where influence peddling has been allowed by governments, big businesses have been able to influence policies through aggressive lobbying, in some cases even leading to “state capture”, a type of corruption in which businesses are able to take control of state assets for their benefits.
He gave the example of the United States, where influence peddling is accepted as part and parcel of politics and it is not against the law for officials to set up meetings on behalf of lobbyists who want to lobby regulators on behalf of big businesses.
This is not good for the healthy functioning of society, he said, adding that a study has found that regulators in the US were less likely to initiate enforcement action against banks that lobby, versus banks that do not lobby.
In South Africa, corruption scandals involving the country’s former president Jacob Zuma and the wealthy Gupta family are an extreme example of influence peddling in the form of state capture, he added.
On how Singapore can ensure its system stays clean, Mr Shanmugam said it is essential to have a media that highlights such issues, a well-educated and aware population that holds the Government accountable, and Parliament where these issues are debated.
“We also had in our three PMs the strong will to ensure a clean system and the decisiveness to act when something was wrong,” he said.
“Regardless of your rules, regardless of your system, the rot starts at the top. If the top is clean, then your systems can work well. We’ve got to make sure of that. And if it (the rot) starts, then very few things can save such a country.”
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