Governance of a City-State
Commentary: Addressing gaps in representation and expectations of Singapore political leadership

The news on Wednesday (Jul 19) that Member of Parliament (MP) Leon Perera and Ms Nicole Seah resigned from the opposition Workers’ Party (WP), after having an extramarital affair, came hot on the heels of Monday’s announcement that MPs from the governing People’s Action Party (PAP) – former Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin and MP Cheng Li Hui – also resigned over an affair.

This is the latest in a series of tumultuous events in local politics. A week ago, Minister of Transport S Iswaran was arrested as part of a Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) probe.

This is also after the Jul 3 parliamentary sitting to address the rental of Ridout Road state properties by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam and Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. Suspicions of conflicts of interest and abuse of power were categorically dismissed after investigations by CPIB and a senior minister, a fact that distinguishes it from the rest but it was no less troubling when brewing from early May.

What is their cumulative impact on the political landscape? What can be said of our expectations of the quality of our leaders and political parties?


First is the matter of the impact of vacant parliamentary seats – five of them in the 93-seat parliament (three from PAP and two from WP) – raising the issue of adequate representation.

Besides Mr Tan’s Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and Ms Cheng’s Tampines GRC, there is notably the question of minority representation – the raison d’etre for GRCs.

Three seats were previously occupied by minority race MPs: Aljunied GRC’s Mr Perera; WP-held Sengkang GRC’s Ms Raeesah Khan who resigned in November 2021 after making unsubstantiated allegations of police misconduct; and Jurong GRC that has “given up” its anchor, former Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Jul 7, to contest the upcoming presidential election.

While Mr Iswaran remains a member of the House, he is also unable to undertake his MP duties in West Coast GRC during his leave of absence amid the CPIB probe, making this the fourth gap in minority representation.

Taking reference from 2017, parties will look to other MPs in the GRC or neighbouring GRCs to cover their duties, as Mr Zaqy Mohamad did when current President Halimah Yacob left Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC to bid for the role.

WP’s Mr Faisal Manap from neighbouring Aljunied GRC now fills the void Ms Khan left, while Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Law Rahayu Mahzam was Mr Tharman’s fellow Jurong GRC MP.


Could a general election be imminent, to fill these seats? With two years before the expiration of the current 14th Parliament, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday that his government has a full policy agenda ahead of it, with little bandwidth to call a general election.

Nor presumably can we expect by-elections. Mr Lee has not done so in past instances when GRCs lost an MP.

There is currently no legal requirement to do so, only that it must be done through an election if there is a desire to plug the gap. Mr Lee also said that “the other members of the GRC will step up and will make sure that constituents are well looked after, that’s one of the advantages of the GRC system”.

Similarly for WP, party chair Sylvia Lim said on Wednesday that the Aljunied MPs are collectively responsible for the residents in the constituency and will take over the Meet-the-People sessions in Mr Perera’s Serangoon ward.

This could remain an issue for citizens generally, but it will be pitched against the pragmatics of whether constituents on the ground itself feel they are adequately served and represented in the day-to-day issues in town council management and at Meet-the-People sessions.

The minority ministers in government will also have to demonstrate their ability to carry that burden of representation for their party too.


Of greater concern are the standards of conduct in the governing party and the leading opposition party.

The string of bad news about PAP MPs raises the question of whether there has been a systematic erosion or abandonment of its value system. Mr Lee strenuously reiterated his party’s continued commitment to high standards of good personal conduct and probity. This, he said, is far more important than the fortunes of individual political leaders or any embarrassment caused.

On the matter of Mr Iswaran, citizens know it is vitally important to allow CPIB and the legal system to follow due process in the spirit of “one rule for all” and presumed innocence till proof of guilt emerges. After all, this is what they would expect for themselves.

Questions arise however about timelines, particularly about gaps in when these developments took place, when the party leadership decided to deal firmly with them, and when the public was informed.

It was only on Jul 14, two days after the public was told Mr Iswaran was assisting CPIB with its investigations that it was revealed that he had been arrested on Jul 11. We have just learnt that it is the sole prerogative of the agency to decide what information it wishes to release and when.

The public were also unsettled to hear that Mr Tan and Ms Cheng’s affair had been known to the party after the 2020 general election and that Mr Tan had even offered to resign in February this year. Mr Lee explained that they had been counselled and provided assurance they would end the affair but had persisted.

There is a need to allay suspicions of attempts to hide inconvenient truths until there was no choice but to admit to them. To leave the public to stew in doubt, speculation and even conspiracy theories would be even more harmful than the poor judgment of these individual leaders.

Further explication of the facts but also how the leadership chose to address them in those gaps of time bear repeating. Mr Lee has indicated that he will make a ministerial statement in parliament on Aug 1.

On Wednesday, what we learnt about the case in WP was that Mr Perera and Ms Seah convinced their party leaders that there was nothing to the rumours and were taken at their word. It is not clear if the whistleblower was directly interviewed before Mr Perera convinced them those were words of a disgruntled employee.

Ms Seah, it was also revealed, had told her family about the affair after ending it but again, the party leaders seemed to be none the wiser till the video recording of their liaison emerged. Much time lapsed, and the question was whether everyone held out till there was no choice about the matter.


Finally, the question is where the bar on personal morality should be set for political leaders: What sort of personal conduct do we expect of our leaders in how they act in Parliament and outside of it, where they live, who they consort with, what their private interests are, and if these influence decisions in government and their public roles at all?

While the politicians involved in extramarital affairs decided to resign from their respective parties, there is a narrative emerging in public discourse that private conduct that does not affect how parliamentarians conduct their duties need not come under scrutiny by party or government.

Is there just one standard in judging what is right and acceptable among political leaders of all party colours? Is private conduct a separate matter from performance in public office or politician? Or is public conduct a reflection of personal values and morality such that a distinction just cannot hold?

The point is that party leaders make their judgment, but citizens too wish to have the facts to judge for themselves. It is far better to allow them to do so than have them believe what they read on the internet.

This is the political culture we must nourish – a citizenry that wants and waits for the facts, seeks authoritative explanations, spots the gaps, asks and asks again for help to decide what they think is acceptable and unacceptable.

The controversies must drive us all back to the basics – to refresh the most critical aspect of our political compact with our leaders which is to deliver exceptional, open, honest, and efficient government at the national and local level in Singapore.


Gillian Koh is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.

This piece was first published in CNA on 21 July 2023.

Top photo from Flickr.

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