CLOSING SPEECH BY MR TEO CHEE HEAN, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER AND COORDINATING MINISTER FOR NATIONAL SECURITY, JULY 4
Thank you, Madam Speaker,
We have had two days of debate on this matter. Members from both sides of the House and our Nominated Members of Parliament have asked probing questions as they should. I would like to thank the members who have spoken for their views and questions. More than 30 members have spoken.
What have we covered in these past two days? The debate is first and foremost, focused on the integrity of Government, whether we have clean and honest government, and how we address issues of conflict of interest. Second, whether there is any basis for the allegations that have been hurled at the Government. Third, where do we go from here.
First, our rules for avoiding conflict of interest. In my Ministerial Statement yesterday, I explained how we maintain separation between private interest and public interest for political appointment holders as well as public officers. There is the Code of Conduct for political appointment holders, Rules of Prudence for Members of Parliament from the People’s Action Party, and the public service Code of Conduct.
Let me reiterate. Every political appointment holder and public officer is expected, at all times, to act according to the highest standards of probity, accountability, honesty and integrity in the exercise of his public duties.
As Members of this House know, we treat allegations of misconduct very seriously. As I said yesterday, there are various avenues for members of the public, and public officers themselves to report suspected misconduct. If there is specific evidence on the abuse of power by any political appointment holder, public officer, or his or her family members, I can assure you that they will be held to account and the necessary actions taken, if shown to be true.
Public Officers are expected to be above board and impartial in their dealings, including with members of the public who happen to be family members of political appointees.
Our senior public officers frequently receive ideas and suggestions from members of the public, including those who may be friends or family members. Most of them are well-motivated. For instance, I have received many suggestions on what I should do about football in Singapore. I am confident that our senior public officers will go through the due process, to evaluate which of these ideas and suggestions are good and useful ones, and to put aside those which are unsuitable, regardless of who these may have come from.
Mr Charles Chong asked about the poll to our public officers. As part of regular stakeholder engagement, the Public Service Division (“PSD”) periodically seeks the sentiments of public officers on issues that matter to them. The PSD conducted a poll because the allegations made by Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang go beyond private matters and extend to the integrity of Government and public institutions. Madam Speaker, our officers continue to have confidence in the integrity of our institutions. Most officers thought there is some impact on the credibility of the Singapore Government among Singapore, but Singapore’s reputation will recover. The Public Service will take this opportunity to reinforce the importance of understand and living the Public Service Code of Conduct.
Singapore ranks highly on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for corruption. Others are watching and evaluating us as we conduct this debate.
They are watching today too, as we debate and address these allegations of abuse of power and they will see that we are prepared to do so openly in this House, facing the issues directly to clear the air on these issues. Prime Minister, myself, Ministers, we have accounted to all of you. Every Member of Parliament must speak freely in this House and we are expected to do so. But when a person casts a shadow on the whole of Government and its workings from outside this House, then that is a different matter and there are rules governing this.
Mr Low Thia Khiang, Mr Kok Heng Leun, Ms Sylvia Lim, Mr Png Eng Huat asked about the appointment of the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General. There were also questions asked about the role of the Attorney-General and the Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law K Shanmugam with respect to No. 38 Oxley Road. Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah has comprehensively addressed these issues yesterday, and there is no need for me to add anything. We have strict rules on avoiding conflict of interest, and they are scrupulously maintained.
Second, the allegations on the abuse of power.
Deed of Gift
Minister Lawrence Wong has addressed issues related to the Deed of Gift between the Executors and the National Heritage Board (“NHB”) for the purpose of a major exhibition on our founding leaders in September 2015. Let me add my perspectives.
To recap, the Deed of Gift had several unusual conditions. One of these was the condition requiring the display of one part, but not the whole paragraph, related to Mr Lee’s wishes for the House, as stated in his will. The other was the $1 buy-back clause for the items donated.
These were matters related to a private disagreement at that time, regarding the will and how Mr Lee had expressed his wishes regarding the house. It was a private matter at that time.
If the NHB is to be faulted for anything, it is that they were drawn, through this Deed of Gift, into this private disagreement. When Minister Lawrence Wong informed me of the conditions set out in the Deed, I was not comfortable with them. And I’ll explain why. NHB, a public institution, was being drawn into a private disagreement, and the major exhibition was being used to put out only a part of Mr Lee’s wishes on the House. Members will recall that Mr Lee said in his will that the whole paragraph could be made public so that his wishes on the matter could be made known.
Madam Speaker, there was really no need to make the display of this paragraph a condition for the donation at all. But to make the display of only one part of the paragraph and not all of it, was drawing NHB, a public agency, and this public exhibition it was organising, into presenting a particular point of view, which was incomplete.
NHB had already signed the Deed of Gift, and I agreed with Minister Lawrence Wong that in the circumstances, we should proceed with it, rather than have a public controversy.
The point I am making is that contrary to this being an abuse of power, these were efforts to keep NHB, a public agency, and to keep a major public exhibition neutral. To keep them neutral in a matter which was then a private disagreement.
It is ironic that these efforts to keep our public agencies neutral is now being distorted into allegations of abuse of power for private interests.
Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, Ms Sun Xueling, Mr Henry Kwek, Mr Louis Ng, Ms Jessica Tan, Mr Tan Wu Meng, Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Mr Mahdev Mohan, Mr Kok Heng Leun, Mr Christopher de Souza, Er Dr Lee Bee Wah, Ms Kuik Shao Yin, Ms Rahayu Mahzam, Mr Low Thia Khiang, Mr Murali Pillai, Mr Leon Perera, Mr Lim Biow Chuan, and several others today as well, have spoken on the Ministerial Committee.
Madam Speaker, in my Ministerial Statement yesterday, I have clarified various issues related to the Ministerial Committee. I explained that the Ministerial Committee was formed to examine (i) the historical and heritage significance of the property, (ii) the wishes of Mr Lee Kuan Yew in relation to the property, and (iii) the possible plans for the property and the neighbourhood, and the options to move forward.
These are all matters which the Government has to take responsibility for, and must plan for. These are not private matters. I have also explained why we are starting the process now, to have drawer plans ready, for reference by the government of the day, when a decision needs to eventually be taken.
There is nothing unusual nor mysterious about this. This is just the normal process of Government doing its work, properly, calmly and objectively. Usually, people will find this quite boring, so there is nothing to get excited about when we form yet another committee.
Several Members, Mr Low Thia Khiang, Mr Kok Heng Leun, Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Mr Louis Ng and Mr Leon Perera have asked why do we set up a Ministerial Committee and not rely on the usual Government agency process to study the options on the House. I want to clarify that the Ministerial Committee is not replacing the agencies in their work. Instead, it provides coordination and oversight on the matter of No. 38 Oxley Road. As Ms Chia Yong Yong had said yesterday, it is only appropriate to give due consideration to Mr Lee’s wishes. While at the same time, as Minister for National Development hadjust explained, the National Heritage Board has been documenting the historical significance of the House while the Ministry of National Development and the Urban Redevelopment Authority have been studying options for the property, as well as the planning and zoning implications. The assessment of buildings of significance is an inter-agency effort, where various Government agencies will do the baseline research work. The establishment of a Ministerial Committee merely seeks to improve coordination and oversight on the matter. This also does not preclude the conduct of consultations with heritage professionals and the public at an appropriate stage.
Mr Murali Pillai and Ms Jessica Tan asked why the Ministerial Committee did not reveal its composition earlier. Madam Speaker, we had informed Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling that “how the Committee functions is within Cabinet’s prerogative to decide”. We could decide to bring in other members as and when needed. For instance, the Minister for Transport if we look at traffic issues, or the Minister for Home Affairs when we look at security considerations. Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang decided to send their representation to the Committee and to all Cabinet members. Since the Committee reports to Cabinet (less PM), there is no issue with this, and they have been doing so. What was material and relevant had been communicated to them. In any case, should the Cabinet need to make a decision related to this matter, all Cabinet members (less PM) would be involved and collective Cabinet responsibility applies. So, this is really not an issue.
So we should put to rest the allegations about the committee by Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang. But before I come to this, let me answer some of the questions that Mr Lim Biow Chuan has. Mr Lim Lim Biow Chuan asked whether the Prime Minister has any influence over the Cabinet’s or the Ministerial Committee’s decision. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did not. But Mr Lee Hsien Loong, as a private person, was invited to convey his views to the Ministerial Committee, in the same way that his other siblings were. And they did so formally and in writing. This is proper and correct and the lines are clear.
Mr Lim Biow Chuan also asked whether we are able to make decisions independently and several members of Parliament have asked this question as well. Madam Speaker, when I took command of the Navy in 1991, at the age of 36, I made a decision that I must be prepared to step down at any time, if ever I have to do something which is against my principles. I continue to be guided by that. So, as I said, we should put to rest the allegations of the committee by Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang. Essentially, all the siblings knew about the committee, and what its terms of reference are. They knew that neither the Committee nor the Government was going to make a decision on the house as Dr Lee Wei Ling is residing in the house and no decision is needed now. They knew that the Committee was examining a range of options and had no pre-conceived ideas on the outcome. They also knew that the Committee was not the place where decisions on the legality of the Will can be made, and this is a matter between the beneficiaries. In fact, they have been making representations to the Committee and sending their representations to the Cabinet members at large. And the circumstances of the Last Will only became relevant because their representations to the Committee had relied on one part of the Last Will (the first half of the Demolition Clause) as evidence of Mr Lee’s thinking.
I have provided Members with letters and dates to establish these facts. So, I will leave it to Members in going through the facts and chronology, whether there is any basis at all, about Dr Lee Wei Ling’s and Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s claims and allegations about the committee. Madam Speaker, I think we should put this matter to rest.
It is not for me to delve into the motivations behind Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling’s allegations of abuse of power. But they should not allege abuse of power simply because they were unhappy or felt uncomfortable about being asked to volunteer their views and clarifications on Mr Lee’s wishes regarding No. 38 Oxley Road.
Madam Speaker, the allegations have made no basis. The opposite is true. Prime Minister Lee did the correct thing to recuse himself. And Cabinet and Government carried out its roles and responsibilities properly.
So where are we now? I informed Mr Lee Hsien Yang that I would personally not support the options at either end of the range. Those were my personal views. At one end, preserving the House as it is for visitors to enter and see the private spaces. And at the other end, demolishing the house and putting the property on the market to develop new private residences such as luxury apartments. Mr Lee Hsien Yang in his statement on 1 July 2017 stated the same thing.
The Committee has also been studying various intermediate options. I personally think there are merits in these intermediate options. These studies are ongoing. Mr Lee Hsien Yang has in his public statements indicated that he is open to some of these options.
Mr Lee Hsien Yang also acknowledges that no decision is required now as Dr Lee Wei Ling continues to live in the property. There is no disagreement on this. This is also the position of the Government.
In his statement on 1 July, Mr Lee Hsien Yang also said that he also recognised that “no man stands above the law”. There is no disagreement here either. As I have explained, Government has a duty to go through due process for when a decision needs to be taken, at some future time.
So, Madam Speaker, as Ms Indranee Rajah and Er. Dr Lee Bee Wah have also concluded, it appears to me that there is really no good reason to disagree and create such a public furore. So let us continue doing the work that is needed, calmly and objectively, to study the possible options for the time when a decision has to be made.
As I have said yesterday, I will consult my colleagues to see if it is useful to put out a range of possibilities, to let the public ponder on the matter, without having to arrive at any decision. But I need to weigh this against arousing emotions again, when what we can really benefit from now is time for calm reflection, especially when no decision is needed now.
In summary, Prime Minister and Ministers have cleared the air and showed that we have acted properly. I have described the robust processes we have for Political Appointment Holders, civil servants and government MPs to address potential conflicts of interest. We help officers understand and live the Code of Conduct, and deal with errant officers firmly.
This shows that this government is open and transparent, and accountable for what it does. Especially in Parliament, we demonstrate that too. This also shows that we have institutions to make sure that we continue to have good and honest government in Singapore. I hope that these unfounded allegations will stop. They have no basis, and undermine confidence in our system of governance, and unfairly tar our public officers who are trying their best to do their duty.
Madam Speaker, I hope that with the conclusion of this debate, we can put the allegations of abuse of power to rest. But where do we go from here? As a nation and as a people.
Like many Singaporeans, I am sure that members of this House have been deeply saddened, shocked and confused by the events of these past three weeks.
I am certain that Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew would not have wanted this to have happened. Madam Speaker, I would like to add a personal note. I have known Hsien Loong and Hsien Yang for over 40 years. We served together as colleagues and comrades in the Singapore Armed Forces. I have held both of them in high regard for their intellect, objectivity, commitment and dedication to Singapore.
The Hsien Loong I see now, today, is the same Hsien Loong I have known all these years – an upright earnest person who stands by his principles, and does what is right. As Ms Sun Xueling, Er. Dr Lee Bee Wah and others have mentioned, and many Singaporeans know, Hsien Loong has done much for Singapore, and he has much more to contribute serving Singapore and Singaporeans as our Prime Minister. I hope that he will contribute his knowledge and experience to Singapore for a long time to come.
Hsien Yang too has contributed much. He was my colleague and we worked together. He has contributed much in the Singapore Armed Forces, and in the private and public sector. We have met a number of times since his father passed away. We spoke to each other with consideration and respect as we always have.
It is with deep sadness that the Hsien Yang I see now is not the Hsien Yang I knew. I see hurt and strong emotions consuming him. I do not understand what underlying deep-rooted reasons there may be for this.
For Hsien Yang, I hope that these strong emotions that I see now in his heart will dampen over time, and that he will find peace and solace within himself. He has more to contribute to Singapore if he chooses to. I wish Hsien Yang and his family well, as I always have.
I have known Wei Ling also for many years, though not as well. She must have been going through a very difficult time over the past few years, living with her parents and looking after them while they were unwell. And losing both of them, while stoicly facing her own health challenges.
For Wei Ling, the Government has said that we will not do anything to affect her right to continue living at No. 38 Oxley Rd. I wish her happiness, time to do the things which she enjoys with her friends, now that she has the time, and above all, good health and a long life.
Madam Speaker, when Mr Lee passed away, it was an emotional period for all Singaporeans. And how much more so it must have been for the immediate members of the family. When emotions are raw, misunderstandings can arise, and feelings can be hurt. When I met Hsien Loong and Hsien Yang in the weeks after Mr Lee’s passing, and Wei Ling a little later, my words to them were “let time pass”.
I hope that with the passage of time, and the cooling of emotions that the siblings can resolve their private disagreements within the family. Singaporeans too, can give the space to Prime Minister Lee and his siblings to work through their disagreements. I hope that is possible.
Madam Speaker, the Government however, still has to carry out its responsibilities objectively, fairly and calmly. I would like to assure this House, and all the siblings, that on the matters that I have the responsibility to deal with, in particular with regard to No. 38 Oxley Road, I will continue to deal with them objectively and fairly, all the time working for the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans.
The way forward
Madam Speaker, Hsien Loong, Wei Ling and Hsien Yang, are the sons and daughter of Mr Lee. I agree with Mr Tan Wu Meng, that all of us too, are also “sons and daughters” of Mr Lee. Mr Lee and his generation of leaders fought hard for all of us, and gave us the Singapore we have today.
He, and our pioneers brought us all up. Built this house which we call Singapore. We have learnt the lessons that he taught us, and which he demonstrated through his own example. No one is above the law, or bigger than our collective interest, as Ms Chia Yong Yong has passionately pointed out.
Mr Lee himself understood that he too had to abide by the processes and system that he helped build; and that the Government has a duty to consider the public interest and not just those of private individuals. He and his generation built the institutions which uphold these principles. But most of all, he taught us, all of us, to uphold these principles.
Madam Speaker, we, all of us, are also the “sons and daughters” brought up by Mr Lee. We have not been written into Mr Lee’s will. But what he has left to all of us, is more precious, more valuable. He left us Our Singapore, Our big House, which he worked together with us to build. And which we are all proud to call our home. This episode is a painful one for all of us.
But I am confident that this big house we call Singapore will remain strong and robust. Mr Lee and our pioneer leaders put in firm foundations - robust processes, institutions and a system of governance which we have continued to strengthen. Members of this House, Ministers, PM, our public officers, all Singaporeans - we were all brought up to do our utmost to respect and uphold the values, institutions and processes that are built upon the foundations laid by our founding generation.
Madam Speaker, when Mr Lee passed on, Singaporeans came together. Our hearts wept, and we grieved together. That moment united all of us, reminded us of who we are and what we stand for. It uplifted us, giving us renewed spirit to face the future together.
I hope that as we ponder the options for No. 38 Oxley Road, and how best to remember the struggles of our independence years, and the values that Mr Lee and our pioneers passed down to us, this should also be an occasion to unite us. There is no reason why this should divide us. Mr Lee in his wisdom left us enough room to decide, and placed his trust in us to do so.
Madam Speaker, the House that Mr Lee and our pioneers left us is a strong one. It is built on firm foundations. I am confident that all of us, all Members of this House, all Singaporeans, our public officers will build upon the firm foundations of our House, Singapore, and make it even stronger.
This is the legacy that Mr Lee and his pioneer generation left us. This is what they would expect us to do. We can all rise above this. We have the confidence and ability to do so. Let us unite together and fulfil that promise.