Singapore’s PAP Risks Losing Seats Over Minister’s Graft Charges
Former Transport Minister Iswaran faces 27 charges including corruption and obstruction of justice
By: Toh Han Shih
Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) risks losing several seats in the next general elections due to graft charges against its former Transport Minister S Iswaran, who has been implicated in corruption involving Singapore’s glamorous Formula 1 car race, which draws thousands of fans from across the world to the city to spend huge amounts of money not only on the race itself but other forms of entertainment, including at the gambling mecca in Sentosa Island.
Since the city-state gained independence in 1965, the PAP has ruled Singapore with all or nearly all the seats in Parliament in a remarkably nearly corruption-free reign. Hence, the loss of a handful of seats may not be a big deal in democracies like the US and UK, but would be a blow to the dominant PAP. Iswaran is only the third cabinet minister to be charged or investigated since the PAP came to power in 1959. The first, Minister of National Development Teh Cheang Wan, one of the architects of independence from Great Britain along with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, committed suicide in 1988 at age 58 rather than face corruption charges. In 1975, Minister of State for the Environment Wee Toon Boon was sentenced to 4.5 years in jail and fined for corruption.
Iswaran appeared in a Singapore court on January 18 to face 27 charges including corruption and obstruction of justice. Under Singapore law, a person convicted of a corruption offense can be fined up to S$100,000 (US$74,428) and jailed for up to seven years or both. On July 12, 2023, Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) announced that Iswaran, who was then Transport Minister and Minister of Trade Relations, was assisting an investigation of the anti-graft agency.
In a letter to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong dated January 16, Iswaran said he resigned as minister, Member of Parliament, and a member of the PAP with immediate effect.
“Yesterday (January 15), the CPIB charged me with various offenses. I reject the allegations in the charges and will now focus on clearing my name,” Iswaran told Prime Minister Lee in the letter. In another letter to Lee dated January 17, Iswaran said he returned his salaries and allowances since the commencement of the CPIB’s investigation in July 2023. In a letter to Iswaran dated January 17, Lee accepted Iswaran’s resignation.
“This, coupled with the shocking jobs statistics, may take a further stab at the PAP’s hold as the government,” an opposition politician told Asia Sentinel. Some 4,100 people in Singapore were retrenched in the third quarter of 2023, compared to 3,200 in the previous quarter, but total employment grew in the third quarter of 2023, according to the nation’s Ministry of Manpower.
The opposition politician, who declined to be named, also cited the rise in property taxes, which went up in 2023 for most residential properties, according to the Ministry of Finance and the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore on November 30, 2023.
“Will this incident have an impact on the party and party morale? I have no doubt that it will, but we cannot allow this political hit to compromise our zero-tolerance stance against corruption,” Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong told reporters on January 18.
However, Iswaran’s case will not affect the timeline of Singapore’s leadership succession, Wong said. Last November, Lee anointed Wong to succeed him before the next general election, meaning the next election will be held sometime after Wong becomes its fourth prime minister and before the deadline of November 2025.
The PAP risks losing the West Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in the next general election. In Singapore’s democratic system, a GRC is a group of several seats in parliament helmed by the same number of lawmakers from the same party, of which at least one must be an ethnic minority. Iswaran, who belongs to Singapore’s Indian minority, was previously a Member of Parliament (MP) in West Coast GRC, which comprises five MPs.
In the 2020 polls, the PAP won West Coast GRC by a slim margin less than four percentage points against the opposition Progress Singapore Party (PSP). In that election, a PAP team of five politicians including Iswaran won the GRC with 51.7 percent of the votes, while Progress Singapore gained 48.32 percent of the votes.
The corruption probe into Iswaran is a “very worrying development” and has had a big impact on West Coast GRC, Singapore National Development Minister Desmond Lee admitted in a report of the Straits Times, Singapore’s main newspaper, on January 8. Desmond Lee was part of the PAP team that narrowly won West Coast GRC in the 2020 elections.
Prior to his downfall, Iswaran was quite popular, said a Singaporean who declined to be named.
“The government should trust the people with the basic freedoms of speech to enable us to hold the government accountable,” Paul Tambyah, chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), an opposition party, told Asia Sentinel.
Links to Formula One
Ong Beng Seng, a Singapore-based Malaysian businessman, has been implicated in Iswaran’s case. The hotel and entertainment magnate was arrested last July and was subsequently released on bail. Singapore’s Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) decide whether to press charges against Ong after the case against Iswaran is completed, the AGC told other media on January 18.
Iswaran, Ong, and Bernard Ecclestone, former chief executive of the Formula One Group, were key figures who brought the Formula One Grand Prix to Singapore, with the assistance of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). Last October, Ecclestone pled guilty in a UK court to a fraud charge related to not declaring millions of pounds which he held in a Singapore-based trust. The 93-year-old British tycoon agreed to pay £652.6 million (US$827.7 million) plus prosecution costs of £74,000 but avoided jail and a trial.
The 27 charges against Iswaran comprise two charges of corruption, 24 charges of receiving gifts as a public servant, and one charge of obstruction of the course of justice. One charge alleges Iswaran took 50 tickets to the Singapore F1 Grand Prix last year, worth S$145,434 (US$108,267).
According to the other corruption charge, in December 2022, Iswaran flew in Ong’s private jet to Doha from Singapore and this flight was valued at US$7,700. He then stayed, through Singapore GP Pte Ltd, a night at the Four Seasons hotel in Doha, valued at S$4,737.63, and returned to Singapore, through Singapore GP Pte Ltd, on a business class flight valued at S$5,700. This is alleged to be an inducement to advance Ong’s interests in a contract between Singapore GP and STB, as well as a proposed contract with STB to establish a virtual concert in Singapore.
In 2022, Singapore GP, a company controlled by Ong, and STB secured an extension for Singapore to host the Formula 1 race through 2028.
On May 25, 2023, Iswaran repaid the S$5,700 fare for his business class flight to Singapore GP. This money was originally at the expense of Singapore GP. According to a charge, Iswaran allegedly made this payment to obstruct the course of justice. The 24 charges of receiving gifts include Iswaran allegedly receiving tickets to the Singapore Formula One races and soccer matches.
Corruption scandals rare
The ruling PAP has prided itself on an ethos of incorruptibility since the days of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Hence, corruption scandals involving ministers have been rare in the Lion City. Last year, the CPIB investigated Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Home and Law Minister K Shanmugam for potential impropriety over their rental of palatial state-owned mansions in huge gardens. The graft buster cleared the two ministers of any wrongdoing.
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong. He is a member of the Progress Singapore Party.