fbpx

In a Rare Move, Singapore Charges Official With Corruption

It was an unprecedented set of events in Singapore: a government minister charged with corruption and then hauled to court.

S. Iswaran, the transport minister, was formally accused on Monday of taking bribes including a ride on a private jet and tickets to the musical “Hamilton” and soccer games in Britain. By the time he appeared in court on Thursday and pleaded not guilty, he had resigned from his post.

Singapore has long touted a squeaky clean image and a lack of graft. But in recent months, several scandals have tarnished the governing People’s Action Party’s reputation — and, in effect, the country’s.

Allegations of impropriety involving Mr. Iswaran became public in July. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ordered him to take a leave of absence while the authorities investigated Mr. Iswaran’s dealings involving a billionaire who helped bring the Formula 1 auto race to Singapore. The charges unveiled against him include two counts of corruption and one charge of obstructing justice. He is also facing 24 counts of “obtaining, as a public servant, valuable things” worth more than hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“One can’t deny that this is a body blow to the P.A.P., to the government and to Singapore,” said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University. “This is a system that has always prided itself in high public life standards and incorruptibility. When you have a series of allegations that a minister had compromised himself, that does raise legitimate concerns.”

In addition to Mr. Iswaran’s case, the P.A.P. last year faced questions of impropriety in the real estate dealings of two ministers involving government bungalows, and pertaining to the speaker of Parliament’s extramarital affair with another lawmaker. Although the government found no evidence of wrongdoing or corruption in the real estate matter, the incident raised questions about the privileged positions that ministers have in Singapore at a time of rising living costs.

Singapore has consistently been lauded for its lack of graft. It was the fifth-least-corrupt country in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2022, the only Asian country in the top 10.

Mr. Lee, the prime minister, said the government has and will continue to deal with Mr. Iswaran’s case “rigorously in accordance with the law.”

“I am determined to uphold the integrity of the party and the government, and our reputation for honesty and incorruptibility,” Mr. Lee said in a statement. “Singaporeans expect no less.”

Voters get to weigh in during the next general election, which has to be held by 2025. The P.A.P.’s share of the popular vote has slid in recent elections, and it is facing a growing challenge from an opposition that has criticized the P.A.P.’s decades-long, one-party dominance.

The party is also 10 months away from a major leadership transition, during which Mr. Lee, the prime minister, is expected to step down and hand power to the so-called 4G, or “fourth generation,” of leaders that included Mr. Iswaran.

Lawrence Wong, who is set to take over as prime minister, emphasized the party’s stance on graft.

“The P.A.P. stance on corruption is non-negotiable, this is part of our DNA,” Mr. Wong told reporters. “There can be no compromise, no relaxation, no fudging on this, no matter the political price.”

Mr. Iswaran has said that he would return all the money that he had earned as a minister and a member of Parliament since being placed under investigation in July. During that period, the government had reduced his monthly wages as a cabinet minister to $6,300, a fraction of the benchmark ministerial monthly salary of about $41,000. (Singapore’s ministers are among the most highly paid in the world, and the government has justified this in the past by saying it would prevent corruption.)

On Thursday, the government made public a letter he had written to Mr. Lee, dated Tuesday, saying he was resigning and would “focus on clearing my name.”

Nearly all the charges against Mr. Iswaran stem from his dealings with the billionaire property tycoon Ong Beng Seng, who brought the Formula 1 race to Singapore in 2008 and is also under investigation.Twenty-four of the charges stem from November 2015 to December 2021, when Mr. Iswaran is accused of obtaining from Mr. Ong “valuable things” with a total value of about $160,000, according to Singapore’s corruption watchdog.

These include tickets in Britain to the “The Book of Mormon,” “Hamilton” and soccer games of the English Premier League, according to local media reports. He is also accused of accepting tickets to the Formula One race in Singapore, as well as a flight to Doha, Qatar, on Mr. Ong’s private jet, a one-night stay at the Four Seasons in Doha and a business-class ticket from Doha to Singapore, the broadcaster said.

The two charges of corruption pertain to Mr. Iswaran allegedly receiving bribes totaling about $124,000 from Mr. Ong in September and December 2022, according to Singapore’s corruption watchdog. These were allegedly in return for advancing the tycoon’s business interests involving the Singapore Grand Prix, as the Formula 1 race there is known, and the Singapore Tourism Board.

If found guilty, Mr. Iswaran is likely to face imprisonment. But few expect him to face an extremely lengthy jail term — the judge is likely to rule that any sentences could be served concurrently and hand down a proportionate term for the charges.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *