Integrity must form bedrock of politics in Singapore

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke in Parliament yesterday on the Committee of Privileges’ report on complaints about untruths told by former Workers’ Party MP Raeesah Khan. Here is an edited excerpt.

Remote video URL

According to the Order Paper, we are debating what actions Parliament should take, having received the report of the Committee of Privileges (COP).

But as the Leader of the House told us just now, the broader issue before us is how democracy should work in Singapore. What are the institutions, the norms, the values, that are essential for our democratic system to function properly? How do we apply these general principles to specific cases, like the one before us now, so as to protect these institutions, norms, and values? And how can we secure our democracy for the future, so that it can long deliver happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation? These are the three more fundamental questions that I wish to discuss today.

Bedrock of state institutions

The quality of a country's democracy hinges on its people's values: what they judge to be right or wrong, what they deem important, the causes they espouse, the ideals they embrace. Whichever example you look at, at whatever point in history, you will find that good and functioning democracies have clear, strong norms.

These norms are upheld both by the governed and those who govern them, or those who aspire to govern them one day. That is how healthy democratic systems can elect good, incorruptible people with the right values, and drive a virtuous cycle where good democracy begets good governance, and good governance begets good politics. This cycle must be underpinned and sustained by strong institutions.

Parliament sits at the apex of our system of democracy. It is where the most important matters of state are discussed; laws are enacted; supplies of money are voted, with the Government setting the direction and proposing policies, while answering to the public through Parliament, and the opposition holding the Government to account, while also being a government-in-waiting should the ruling party lose the support of the people.

To fulfil its vital role, Parliament must be respected, and its members, processes and proceedings must be trusted.

Clear norms and incorruptible values are essential to protect the dignity and standing of Parliament. The system cannot work if the standing of Parliament is called into question. This is why we need to set the right norms of conduct among  parliamentarians, and guard them carefully.

Tell the truth always, and do the right thing by Singapore, even when it is hard or awkward - in fact, especially when it is hard or awkward. If something goes wrong, or something wrong has been done, own up and take responsibility - do not hide, dodge, or spin further lies, to obfuscate and cover up the original fib.

The right norms can only be upheld by people with the right values because norms are not merely social conventions that people comply with for appearance's sake. They have to be expressions of internal values that people believe in and hold dear.

MPs must be people with integrity at their core, who speak and act in an upright manner, always putting duty before self, and country before party. And our highest duty - our ultimate loyalty - is not to our party, but to Singapore. That is why when taking office, MPs swear "to bear true faith and allegiance to the Republic of Singapore". In fact, this applies to everyone engaged in Singapore politics, MP or not.

As Workers' Party (WP) cadre Loh Pei Ying, who was Mr Pritam Singh's former assistant, told the committee: "It pains me greatly, but to me, beyond anything else, it's important to be truthful to my country." I believe every member of this House will agree with her.

Our democratic system also depends on the people of Singapore - voters - endorsing, insisting on and backing the same norms and values. So, they can discern for themselves - as Ms Loh did - when something is wrong, and hold accountable those in power, or aspiring to power, when their actions fall short of these high standards. That is how a democracy can function properly.

Parliament in session yesterday. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that for Parliament to fulfil its vital role, it must be respected, and its members, processes and proceedings must be trusted. Clear norms and incorruptible values are essential to protecting the dignity and standing of the House, he added. PHOTO: MCI

Public trust

Inculcating voters and their leaders with the right values is the work of decades. It takes unremitting effort and passion, and it does not always succeed.

Most countries are founded and start off on the basis of high ideals and noble values. But more often than not, beyond the founding leaders and the pioneer generation, over decades and generations, gradually things change.

Things start off with passionate intensity. The leaders, who fought for and won independence, are often exceptional individuals of great courage, immense culture, and outstanding ability. They came through the crucible of fire and emerged as leaders of men and nations. They are the David Ben-Gurions, the Jawaharlal Nehrus, and we have our own too. Imbued with enormous personal prestige, they strive to meet the high expectations of their peoples to build a brave new world, and shape a new future for their peoples, and for their countries.

But beyond that initial fervour, succeeding generations often find it hard to sustain this momentum and drive. They start out as healthy democracies, with idealism and zeal. But over time, the tone of the society changes. All too easily - a slip here, a blind eye there, a fudge, a trim - and gradually things go downhill. The texture of politics changes, respect for politicians declines. After a while, the electorate comes to think this is the norm, and you cannot expect better. So, standards get debased, trust is eroded, and the country declines further.

Many political systems today would be quite unrecognisable to their founding leaders. Ben-Gurion's Israel has morphed into one which can barely form a government, despite four general elections in two years. Meanwhile, a stream of senior politicians and officials in Israel face a litany of criminal charges, some have gone to jail. Nehru's India has become one where, according to media reports, almost half the MPs in the Lok Sabha have criminal charges pending against them, including charges of rape and murder. Though it is also said that many of these allegations are politically motivated.

Remote video URL

What is to prevent Singapore from going down the same road? Nothing. We are not intrinsically smarter or more virtuous than other countries. Modern Singapore does not come born with a fail-safe mechanism.

Our founding fathers did their best to build strong foundations and institutions. Even after the Barisan Sosialis, which was then the main opposition party, decided to vacate its seats in Parliament in 1966 and left the field entirely to the PAP, our founding fathers maintained our parliamentary democracy and multi-party system.

As Mr Lee Kuan Yew once explained, at that time, with the PAP completely dominant, he could have changed the Constitution and made this a one-party state. But he deliberately chose not to, because he knew that without the need to contest and win elections, the governing party would over time become complacent and flabby, and that would be disastrous for Singapore.

So the founding fathers took the more robust way. They kept politics contestable. They built up institutions - Parliament, the judiciary, the civil service, the police and armed forces, and later the elected president and the Council of Presidential Advisers - to enable Singapore to operate on a more resilient basis, not dependent on a few key people pulling all the levers, pushing all the buttons, making everything work.

Still, to operate these institutions you need good people, and they needed to recruit, train and deploy ministers, MPs, judges, civil servants, experts in many fields. People of ability and commitment, with a sense of public service, and above all with honesty and integrity, whom Singaporeans could rely upon to do their duty, put Singapore first, and make this country succeed. And that is how the system we have today came to be.

It is incumbent on all of us - each succeeding generation - to protect and build upon this system that we have inherited. This requires us to uphold integrity, enforce rules and standards, apply the same rules equally to everyone, make sure nobody is above the law.

If we can do that - consistently, persistently, unflinchingly - then we have a shot at making things work. People can trust our leaders, our systems, and our institutions. Our democracy can mature, deepen and grow more resilient, as both the governed and the governing embrace and express the right norms and values. Singapore can continue to flourish.

But if we allow ourselves to slacken - loosen standards here, just a bit; overlook a lie there, just this time - the virtuous cycle will stutter and start to fail.

What is the key factor that keeps this virtuous cycle going, that keeps Singapore on the up and not on the down?

It is trust.

On his 100th birthday, former US secretary of state George Shultz reflected on this. This was a year and a bit ago, December 2020, he wrote an op-ed upon reaching 100 years old and he said one of the most important lessons in his long life is: "Trust is the coin of the realm."

"When trust was in the room," he wrote, "good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details."

We saw how this worked in the Covid-19 pandemic. Trust was a key factor why some countries did better than others. I have been saying this for two years, but recently there was a study published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, which confirmed this, studied multiple countries and found that countries with high levels of trust and together with low corruption saw lower infection rates and higher vaccine coverage.

Because the people's trust in government, and in each other, made much more difference to the outcome even more than the resources spent on healthcare, and even whether they had a universal healthcare system or not - what mattered most was: "Did they trust each other? Did they trust their leaders?"

Singapore is fortunate to be one of these high-trust societies. We have tried to build upon it during the pandemic, but it is something that we have today because we have nurtured it for decades and built it up patiently, assiduously, step by step, never allowing it to be eroded, and therefore, having this with us when we go into battle - an enormous asset.

The opposite happened in other countries, for example, in the United States and the United Kingdom. In the US, trust in the political system has all but broken down. Three-quarters of Republican voters have been made to believe the last presidential election in 2020 was stolen, that Mr (Joe) Biden is not a legitimate president and Mr (Donald) Trump should be the president today.

How do you uphold a system, when a large segment of the population is convinced the elected government is illegitimate? Every issue is politicised; government becomes gridlocked; the country suffers. That is the key reason why many Americans refuse to be vaccinated, or to wear masks; why they revolt against measures to keep  themselves safe; and why they have suffered so many Covid-19 deaths.

Or look at the ongoing uproar in Britain about the "Partygate" scandal in Westminster, the "Mother of Parliaments" no less. The scandal has been attributed to "failures of leadership and judgment" in an official government report. By ignoring its own rules, the current UK government has caused a severe breakdown of trust, and lost credibility in its Covid-19 controls.

Singapore may be a high-trust society today, but nothing guarantees that we will always remain one. It is essential that we steadfastly maintain our high standards, ensure that we have leaders who embody the right values, call out wrongs when wrongs are done, mete out punishment when punishment is due, preserve the sanctity of our institutions, never take the public trust for granted, and never allow lies, half-truths and falsehoods to become the accepted norm in politics.

Events leading to COP

That is what is at stake as we deliberate Parliament's response to the Committee of Privileges report.

Ms Raeesah Khan lied in Parliament - twice on Aug 3 last year, and a third time when questioned two months later on Oct 4. Subsequently, she admitted to lying to Parliament.

To deal with this breach of parliamentary privilege, we convened the COP. Ms Khan was called up, as were other witnesses. The COP deliberated extensively, before reaching a reasoned conclusion: that Ms Khan was guilty, and should be fined for each occasion she lied.

But in the process of the COP'S deliberations, two other significant issues arose. The COP has drawn them to Parliament's attention and suggested to Parliament how to deal with them.

First, whether the three WP leaders - Mr Pritam Singh, Mr Faisal Manap and Ms Sylvia Lim - had instructed Ms Khan to continue with her lie in Parliament. If they did, this is surely as serious or more serious a misconduct as Ms Khan speaking an untruth in Parliament. Parliament will need to deal with this, but only after we have cleared the second, even graver matter.

This graver matter is, as the Leader explained, whether after having taken solemn oaths to tell the truth, the three WP leaders told untruths to the COP, in order to cover up their instructions to Ms Khan to continue lying.

It became clear to the COP that there were striking contradictions between what the three MPs claimed to the committee were their honourable intentions, and the hard evidence of what they actually did, or very often, failed to do. And there were serious inconsistencies even between the accounts of the WP leaders.

Being untruthful under oath is no small matter. It means lying, despite solemnly affirming you will tell the truth. In this case, not once, not twice but repeatedly, over many hours of extensive questioning, and on several days.

The COP's assessment is that these untruths were not accidental or incidental errors, but deliberate, premeditated acts, done with a definite intent to mislead and to deceive. They are not just breaches of parliamentary privilege, but if proven in court, they amount to perjury - lying under oath. And perjury is a serious criminal offence.

So, there are two distinct problems. One, whether the three MPs instructed Ms Khan to lie; and two, whether the three MPs themselves lied under oath.

Both, if established, reflect very badly on the WP leaders, and in particular, on the Leader of the Opposition. Both issues, if not dealt with properly, will dishonour Parliament, and bring this august institution into disrepute.

Some ask: "Wasn't Ms Raeesah Khan the one who lied? Why are the WP leaders being treated more harshly?"

As the Leader of the House noted just now, if the committee is right, then Mr Singh and his fellow WP leaders themselves lied and presented untruths to the COP. They lied under oath to protect themselves, to cover up their role, and to push the blame solely onto Ms Khan, claiming that she and other witnesses, like Ms Loh, had lied to the COP. This is indeed more serious than what Ms Khan did, if it is so.

By lying under oath, they sought to frustrate the COP process. They displayed the same kind of misconduct that the COP was set up to address. They betrayed the trust reposed in them as MPs - not least Mr Singh, the Leader of the Opposition. This, if true, is a very grave matter.

So, MPs must decide what Parliament will now do about this. Can we pretend nothing happened? Or if that is too much to stomach, given the strong evidence laid out by the COP, perhaps we lower our standards just a little, note that untruths were told, but argue that it was after all not so serious a lie, and no harm was done?

If we do either of these things, we too would become complicit in dishonouring and demeaning Parliament. We must take the transgression seriously, and act on it. And I am glad that is the conclusion the COP has come to and recommended to the House.

What alternative choices did the COP have? It could have recommended to Parliament to administer a token slap on the wrist. But that would show that we were taking a very serious matter rather lightly. Worse, by lowering our norms, we would be telling Singaporeans that it is really not so bad for elected leaders to lie.

Alternatively, the COP could have recommended that Parliament itself mete out an appropriately heavy penalty. This is something that Parliament has the power to do. But had the COP recommended that, and Parliament decided on the penalty itself, the opposition would surely have cried foul, and accused the PAP of using its majority to persecute the opposition. In fact, they are already insinuating this, as a smokescreen to obscure the real issue - that the WP had lied while under solemn oath.

I believe, therefore, that what the COP recommends is thus the best way forward. Since a criminal offence appears to have been committed, let Parliament refer the matter to the Public Prosecutor.

Let the Public Prosecutor consider the evidence afresh, let the system work. If charges are filed, Mr Pritam Singh and also Mr Faisal Manap can defend themselves in court. The court will have to be satisfied that their guilt has been established beyond reasonable doubt, and if they are innocent, they have nothing to fear.

I commend this course of action to the House. And if I were Mr Singh, I would vote in favour of both motions. Fine Ms Khan, because she is guilty beyond doubt. In fact, Mr Singh's own party member, Mr Dennis Tan, who was on the COP, thinks she should be fined more heavily for the second offence. And if Mr Singh maintains that he and his fellow WP leaders have done nothing wrong, he should also vote in favour of referring his own case, and that of Mr Faisal Manap, to the Public Prosecutor. Indeed, he should demand a court trial, in order to have the full opportunity to defend himself, vindicate his reputation, and clear his name. That is what I would do if I were Mr Singh.

Regrettably, pro-Workers' Party voices on social media have taken quite a different tack. Before the matter can be conclusively determined, if necessary in court, they are doing their best to confuse the issues and rouse sympathy. They are asking the public to clear the names of the three MPs, suggesting that referring their case to the Public Prosecutor is political persecution.

What they are really saying is this: Don't look too carefully at what Mr Singh did, just remember who he is: he is the opposition that you voted for; he is the Leader of the Opposition. By virtue of his position, he should not be referred to the Public Prosecutor; and any action against him must, by definition, be politically motivated; because who he is, is more important than what he has done - even if he may have committed a crime.

Some people may be taken in, and sympathise with this story. They say, why not just let the matter rest? Can't we find a compromise solution? After all, it would be easier for the Government not to have to pursue this matter against the three MPs. We have a full enough agenda.

But as long as the PAP is the Government, we will not shy away from doing whatever is necessary to uphold the right norms in this House, and to imbue Singaporeans and their leaders with the values critical to sustain trust in the system, and critical to our success.

Mr Singh succeeded Mr Low Thia Khiang as secretary-general of the Workers' Party. Mr Low served for a very long time - 30 years as an MP, 17 years as party leader. He sat opposite me, where Mr Singh now sits. Mr Low was a formidable political opponent, but he was a patriotic Singaporean. He set a different tone for the WP. He said he hoped the WP could help to build a First World Parliament for Singapore. He must be saddened that, instead, this is what his successor has done.

Because what has happened is a betrayal of what WP claimed it stood for. But judging by Mr Low's public comments, he is confident the party can ride this out. And it need not be a setback for our democracy either, provided we hold Mr Singh and his colleagues accountable for dishonouring the standards of this House, and also for possibly breaking the law.

Future of Singapore's democracy

We are all engaged in the same project - to build up Singapore's democracy and create a political system that will serve Singaporeans well for many years to come. And to do that, we must uphold the right norms and reinforce the right values.

I know Singaporeans want to see more political contestation, and I accept that. I expect that this is the way Singapore will go, in the longer term. That is how every parliamentary democracy evolves. And it was precisely because I recognised this, that on election night in 2020, after the WP won a second GRC in Sengkang, I offered to make Mr Singh the Leader of the Opposition, and equip him with the resources and support to play his role. That is the way a responsible government can help a credible, responsible opposition to emerge, and contribute to the maturing of our political system.

But the office of the Leader of the Opposition carries certain responsibilities - setting the tone for opposition MPs, enforcing standards of conduct on his own party, and above all, maintaining his own integrity and keeping himself beyond reproach. The Leader of the Opposition does not have a blank cheque.

Integrity is the linchpin of democracy. The stakes of today's debate might have been lower if the opposition were a negligible presence, as they were from 1966 until the 1980s. The PAP was overwhelmingly dominant, the public generally had low expectations of opposition parties and politicians, the tone of the country and its governance was set by the PAP, and the high standards that the PAP imposed on itself.

But with Singapore heading towards a more contested landscape, the competence and honesty of the opposition is no longer an inconsequential matter. The question of "what are the right values and how should we uphold them?" becomes of fundamental importance for both the opposition and the governing party.

Every election henceforth would be about who wins the mandate to run this country. If the system is working properly, the governing party will be re-elected so long as it remains honest, competent, and trusted.

If the governing party falls short, and Singaporeans come to deem an opposition party more honest and incorruptible, more competent, and more trustworthy, then the governing party should be voted out, and that opposition party should be voted in, to form the next government. We cannot assume that the PAP will always continue in government. Nor can we assume that the WP, or some other opposition party, or any other opposition party, will always stay in the opposition.

I do not know when, or how, there will be a change of governing party in Singapore one day. My job as party leader is to make sure the PAP governs well to the best of its ability, so that it retains the mandate of the people for as many elections as possible.

But my duty as the leader of the country is also to maximise the chances that whichever party wins future elections, it will uphold and be held to the same high standards of proper conduct and honesty as the PAP, so that our democratic system can continue to operate properly, whichever party is in charge, and would not go down the drain because a small island city-state like Singapore - the only one in the world like this - needs a strong, effective and good government, whoever leads it.

With our lives and future at stake, everyone participating in the system must be held to the same standards. There can be no excuses, no double standards, and no pardoning of inexcusable behaviour, just because the offending party portrays itself as the underdog.

Mr John Major, the former British prime minister, recently made a speech, triggered by Partygate I am sure, lamenting the state of British politics today. It was a cri de coeur, a cry from the heart.

Let me read you a few excerpts: "There has been cynicism about politics from the dawn of time. We are told that politicians are 'all the same', and this untruth conditions electors to condone lies as though they were the accepted currency of public life."

"But politicians are not 'all the same'. And lies are just not acceptable."

"To imply otherwise is to cheapen public life, and slander the vast majority of elected politicians who do not knowingly mislead."

"But some do - and their behaviour is corrosive. This tarnishes both politics and the reputation of Parliament. It is a dangerous trend."

"If lies become commonplace, truth ceases to exist. What and who, then, can we believe? The risk is… nothing and no one. And where are we then?"

"If trust in the word of our leaders in Parliament is lost - then trust in government will be lost too."

John Major's is a Western view, but in Eastern society too, norms and values are crucial, in fact even more than in Western philosophy, because Western philosophy says checks and balances, but Eastern philosophy says your virtues, your moral standing - that is what give you the right to govern. In Confucian thought, there are four social guidelines (si wei) that hold a state together: rituals, righteousness, probity, and shame (li yi lian chi).

Probity, or desisting from corruption, is about upright behaviour; it is a norm that can be enforced using laws. But shame, a reaction to wrongdoing, is a moral disposition; it is about one's own sense of right and wrong, whether we know we have done the right thing, or we know we have fallen short, even when nobody said so. That has to come from within ourselves, from our own values, and our own consciences. Absent that sense of shame, people may comply with laws for fear of punishment, but they will lack the moral compass to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do, and to take responsibility when they have fallen short of the standards expected of them.

What I personally find most disappointing in the WP narrative and in their response, including in this House today, is the complete absence of any admission that the three MPs have done anything wrong. There is no contrition.

Whether you take a Western or Eastern view, if lack of shame becomes the public norm, our political system will break down, progressively and irreversibly. The public will mistrust not only individual leaders, or particular political parties, but the whole political system. And this has happened too often elsewhere.

If that happens, what do you do? What can you do? How can democracy function when there is no one we can trust to put in charge? How do you put Humpty Dumpty together again? How do you restart from zero? Press reset?

A democracy not founded on integrity stands on shaky ground, and will sooner or later totter. If instead of trust being "the coin of the realm", as George Shultz puts it, lies become "the accepted currency of public life", as John Major said, all the sound and fury of contestation and debate will signify nothing good for the country.

As Singapore politics grows more competitive, we must make sure that the competition is honest, impartial, and above board. Where the system runs properly, and our institutions remain sacred and respected by all. Where good people work together constructively to serve Singaporeans, wherever they stand on the political spectrum.

And, most basic of all, where Singaporeans can trust those who represent them to conduct themselves honestly and honourably, and act on behalf of the public, and of Singapore.

The COP report is long and detailed, but the core issues are few and stark. We have scrutinised Ms Khan's actions, and the rights and wrongs. She has admitted her wrongdoings, and will be punished appropriately for them. We thought the matter could be closed off straightforwardly.

But there turned out to be a much larger problem. Online, people call this Raeesah-Gate, after Watergate. And just like in the original Watergate affair, while investigating Ms Khan's transgressions, the COP unexpectedly stumbled upon a cover-up by WP leaders, even more serious than the original offence.

The COP did not expect this. But now with the findings before us, it is our  responsibility, Parliament's responsibility, for the MPs to take the necessary and appropriate course of action.

Trust is crucial for democracy to work well. Being truthful is fundamental to establishing trust. Honesty is non-negotiable. If you tell lies, how can the public trust you? If someone in a position of responsibility tells lies, and visibly gets away with it, how can the public trust the system? And if Parliament condones lying among its own members, how can Singaporeans trust the institution of Parliament? If we let flagrant, egregious transgressions pass, it will erode trust in our leaders, respect for Parliament, and support for our whole political system, and Singapore will be heading for trouble.

As the longest-serving member of this House, I feel a greater responsibility for this than most. When I first entered this House 37 years ago, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr S. Rajaratnam, Dr Toh Chin Chye, Mr Ong Pang Boon, Mr E.W. Barker and Mr Jek Yeun Thong were still members. Six of the 10 who signed the Separation Agreement on Aug 9, 1965.

I have witnessed first-hand how the founding generation built up this place, handed it to us in good shape. For me, this is a sacred trust. And it should be a sacred trust too, for every MP.

We must all never fail to serve Singaporeans to the best of our ability, responsibly and honestly, and uphold this institution of Parliament, as the foundation of a robust and healthy democracy.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.