The Straits Times says

Holding the moral line in politics

The public will sympathise with the family of former PAP MP for Bukit Batok David Ong, and indeed with another family drawn into the public eye by what he described as a "personal indiscretion". They are collateral victims of actions that he now regrets deeply, and deserve a chance to "heal and rebuild", as he put it .

The People's Action Party and Mr Ong believed that an immediate departure from his MP's post and from the party was in order, given the nature of the indiscretion - an extra-marital affair. That reflects the political accountability that the Singapore system demands of its MPs when the moral code, which society expects to be upheld, is breached.

What this sorry episode reaffirms is that morality does matter in politics here, unlike the blurring of lines elsewhere. In many countries, infidelity is no bar to politicians who spring back not just from extra-marital affairs but also sexting and prostitution scandals. Forgiving such indiscretions is rightly seen here as a step down the slippery slope of moral decline, which would undermine the high standards of integrity set by the nation's founding fathers.

Mr Ong's request for privacy during this difficult period should be accorded due consideration, of course. There is general acceptance that political leaders and their families require private space to conduct their personal lives, without which the burden of public service would prove onerous. However, there is also a public expectation for elected officials to behave honourably and to come clean if and when their conduct goes beyond the pale. It does them and their political colleagues no good when details of their unfortunate personal choices emerge from other sources, gaining wider currency in the process. In the Internet era, it would be unwise for those in public life to believe they can remain spartan with details when personal predicaments of their own making arise.

Members of Parliament would be aware that moral misjudgments on their part have an impact that go beyond their personal lives. Arising barely six months after 73 per cent of Bukit Batok voters had entrusted Mr Ong with the job, his sudden departure leaves them with no elected MP, forcing them to return to the polls. In tiny Singapore, where even a by-election contest cannot easily be separated from national politics, this poses an unnecessary distraction at a time when the nation needs to hunker down to tackle larger issues amid global uncertainty.

Being the third such affair involving MPs in the past four years, sections of the public might tire of erring MPs precipitating by-elections in this manner. It would be a pity if the actions of these few tarnish the good work of the many who have devoted years in serving the public.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2016, with the headline 'Holding the moral line in politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe