It seems the Government has not learned its lesson from the recent fiasco involving the Lee siblings, a saga which Lee Hsien Loong admitted had damaged Singapore’s reputation.
“These allegations are entirely baseless,” Mr Lee said in July in a ministerial statement to address the allegations by his two siblings that he had abuse his powers in his dealings involving the late Lee Kuan Yew’s house. “But they have already damaged Singapore’s reputation. Unrebutted, they can affect Singaporeans’ confidence in the Government. I therefore have no choice but to address them promptly and publicly.”
Indeed, the circus of the three Lee siblings arguing and fighting in public was a national embarrassment and spectacle which damaged Singapore’s international reputation and shook Singapore’s confidence in the People’s Action Party Government which Mr Lee leads.
Yet, the Government is once again engaged in another saga which similarly threatens to further erode the trust Singaporeans have in it. We are not referring to the sham which is the changes made to the Elected President scheme, or the farce of installing an unelected president in Halimah Yacob.
We are instead referring to a simpler matter – that of the advice rendered to the Prime Minister by the Attorney General on the changes to the Elected President scheme, and who should be counted as the nation’s first Elected President.
It all started when PM Lee told Parliament in 2016 that the Government “have taken the Attorney General’s advice”, and that “we will start counting from the first President who exercised the powers of the Elected President.”
That is, the count will start from President Wee Kim Wee, and not President Ong Teng Cheong who was the first Elected President to contest in an actual open election, winning some 53% of the vote in the process.
Since PM Lee made those remarks, Singaporeans have been puzzled by why the count was from President Wee and not President Ong which, incidentally, the Government itself had recognised as Singapore’s first Elected President for at least the last 17 years.
Questions were asked in Parliament, namely by Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim, but the responses from Government ministers have obfuscated the matter further, rather than providing clarity. Indeed, the more the ministers try to explain – or threaten those who dared ask questions about it – the more murky the waters have become.
DPM Teo, for instance, had said he could “confirm” that PM Lee had indeed been advised by the AG.
MPs and the public took this to mean that the AG had advised the PM on how and when to count from, vis a vis the first Elected President.
Ms Lim sought clarification and all seemed to have been settled.
The PM himself remained silent in Parliament.
Then earlier this year, the matter was raised again in Parliament, with Ms Lim once again seeking clarity on whether the PM would release the AG’s advice to the public.
This time, it was Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing, scolding Ms Lim for raising the matter again and warned Ms Lim against impugning the “integrity” of the prime minister by doubting Mr Lee’s earlier remarks in Parliament that he had received AG’s advice. Mr Chan then challenged Ms Lim to raise the matter with the courts.
Former presidential candidate, Tan Cheng Bock, took up the cudgel and went to the courts.
There, former PAP MP and now deputy Attorney General, Hri Kumar, denied that PM Lee had said the AG had advised him on when or how the count should be done. He claimed that the AG advice referred to a more general sort, regarding the Elected President scheme, and nothing specific about when or where exactly the count should start.
This promoted Ms Lim to yet again raise the matter in Parliament, after three attempts to speak on it by filing an Adjournment Motion.
She had wanted to know if the Government has made a policy decision or a legal decision when it decided to count from President Wee and not President Ong.
She charged that the Government may have misled the House, which is a serious matter.
Law Minister K Shanmugam responded on behalf of the Government, and said Ms Lim “protests far too much.” Mr Shanmugam basically agreed with the deputy Attorney General.
But Mr Shanmugam’s remarks caught the attention of Dr Tan, who questioned if the minister had contradicted his own words – that the minister had, last year, said the Government would make public the Ag’s advice, but was now saying it would not.
According to a Yahoo News report, “Shanmugam had told the media last September that the government would make the [AG] advice public.”
“The Minister was quoted in a Channel News Asia report, “Once we get the advice, we will send it out. Certainly by the time the Bill gets to Parliament, which is in October, I think we will have a position and will make it public.””
“We will send it out.” Anyone reading those remarks would, quite reasonably, conclude that yes, the government will make public the AG’s advice.
Mr Shanmugam said that was not what hemeant.
He then duly lambasted Dr Tan for being “bitter” (presumably for being disqualified from standing for election in September because of the changes to the Elected President scheme this year), and that Dr Tan had “spliced my remarks, rearranged them, and put them together in a way to suggest something which I did not say.”
The minister said his remarks last September was referring to “when the circuit breaker for holding reserved election will come into effect”, and not to the advice the AG had purportedly given PM Lee.
This whole farce over a simple matter is thoroughly regrettable, and once again shows Singaporeans the incompetence of a Government, and PM Lee himself personally, in clarifying a simple matter.
One could also say, as it was with the Lee fiasco, that this episode threatens (if it has not already) Singapore’s reputation, and damages trust in the Government and in an important institution such as the Attorney General’s Chambers, through no fault of its own.
The PAP Government’s bluster over such a simple matter – to obfuscate, to use threats, to make personal attacks on those who question them over a matter which many Singaporeans are deeply concerned about – shows an utter lack of transparency and an inability to address an issue simply.
The Prime Minister should release the Attorney General’s advice and allow Singaporeans to judge for themselves, and bring this matter to a close.
It is puzzling why the Prime Minister has himself remained utterly silent since his original remarks about the AG’s advice, amidst all the controversy.
While Mr Chan and Mr Shanmugam may say that it is not the Government’s practice to release such legal advice from the AG, do they not realise that there can be exceptions especially in a matter of such monumental importance, one which ultimately relates to the election of a person who would protect Singapore’s reserves and, according to the Government itself, Singapore’s future?
Would you not want to be as transparent as possible?
If the Prime Minister could release confidential and private emails between himself and his siblings in order to protect the Government from allegations of abuse of power, why does he not now do the same, having been accused of possibly misleading Parliament, an equally serious matter?
Did PM Lee not say, in July when he addressed Parliament over his dispute with his siblings, the following?
“Much as I would like to move on, and end a most unhappy experience for Singaporeans, these baseless accusations against the Government cannot be left unanswered. They must be and will be dealt with openly and refuted.”
And did he also not say:
“When there are questions and doubts about the Government, we bring them out, deal with them openly, and clear the doubts. If anything is wrong, we must put it right. If nothing is wrong, we must say so.”
And despite what Mr Chan and Mr Shanmugam may say, the Prime Minister does have the choice to release the AG’s advice.
In fact, it was Mr Chan himself who confirmed this in his response to Ms Lim in Parliament earlier this year, when he said “it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative as to whether he wishes to release the advice…”
Indeed, DPM Teo also told Ms Lim last year, when Ms Lim queried if the Prime Minister would release the advice, that while it is “not the usual thing that is done to publish a lawyer’s advice because that is something which is provided to the Prime Minister… I would ask the Prime Minister to consider.”
“I would ask the Prime Minister to consider.”
In other words, PM Lee has the choice to release the advice.
So, it all comes down – once again – to a simple question: why has PM Lee apparently chosen not to make the AG’s advice public?
Why has PM Lee remained silent on this matter despite the confusion, the apparent contradiction, the linguistic sommersaults, and the threats and warnings and the to-and-fro from various parties?
This all will only lead to Singaporeans speculating that there is indeed something the Government is hiding.
If not, why would it not release the AG’s advice?
Surely, this matter is of more import than that of a petty sibling dispute.
So, if you could release personal communications regarding a private matter between siblings, why are you refusing to release communications between public institutions regarding a matter of public interest?
“What is it that the Government is hiding?” is a legitimate question, under the circumstances.
PM Lee can clear all this up and he should.
Make public the AG’s advice, before further trust in our public institution is eroded.