The Straits Times
Published on Dec 15, 2012

Lessons from Palmer's case


THIS has been an unusual year, with several high-profile corruption and sex scandals involving senior civil servants, academics, a church and an opposition MP.

We now close the year with the shock resignation of the Speaker of Parliament over his "improper conduct" ("Parliament Speaker Palmer quits"; Thursday).

A few lessons and observations can be gleaned from this latest episode:

First, our leaders are not infallible. They are human after all. Nevertheless, and rightly so, the public expects the highest standards of personal and moral conduct from our politicians. Most observers would agree that Mr Palmer's resignation was the right course of action.

Second, since no selection process is perfect, and human failings cannot be predicted, no political party should claim the moral high ground and be so quick to condemn other parties when such failings occur.

Earlier this year, the PAP's leaders came down hard on the Workers' Party over former Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong's alleged extramarital affairs and the way it handled the case.

Questions were raised about the WP's candidate selection process and whether the WP knew about the alleged affairs before the May 2011 general election.

One can argue that Mr Palmer's case is even more serious, given his senior position as the Speaker of Parliament.

Finally, this episode once again raises unnecessary speculation as to whether a by-election will be called to fill the vacated MP seat.

The courts have ruled that the Prime Minister has full discretion in such matters. But it will be hard for PM Lee Hsien Loong to go against public expectations and the precedent set by Hougang.

There will be a perception of unfairness if a different standard is now applied for a PAP ward.

The Government should therefore seriously consider amending the Constitution to make the holding of by-elections for vacated MP seats mandatory within a certain timeframe.

This will remove the politicking inherent in the current situation where the PM has full discretion, and indeed help the PM by removing the need for him to make such a decision. It will be healthy for Singapore's political development.

Kelvin Quek