Thursday, 13 December 2012

Parliament Speaker Michael Palmer resigns

Parliament Speaker Palmer quits
By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2012

BARELY a year after a much- heralded appointment as Speaker of Parliament, Mr Michael Palmer's ebullient political career ended in ignominy.

The 44-year-old yesterday quit from the People's Action Party (PAP) and his various positions - Speaker, MP and town council chairman - after admitting to an extramarital affair.

"I have resigned to take full responsibility for a grave mistake that I have committed," a puffy-eyed, visibly shaken Mr Palmer said at a press conference, as he read from a prepared seven- paragraph statement.

"I had a relationship with a member of the People's Association staff working in Pasir Ris- Punggol GRC."

With those words, Mr Palmer, married for 16 years and father of a young son, became the first known PAP MP to resign from the post because of an affair.

Speaking at the PAP headquarters, he apologised to residents, the PAP and his family, and said he was stepping down to avoid further embarrassment to the party and Parliament.

While he kept mum on her identity, The Straits Times has learnt that the woman in the tryst is Ms Laura Ong, 33, the constituency director of the Pasir Ris West Constituency Office.

The PA confirmed yesterday that she resigned on Monday. Former colleagues described the married Ms Ong as attractive, bubbly and capable.

The episode instantly conjured up comparisons with former Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong. He was expelled from the Workers' Party in February for not coming clean on his alleged extramarital affairs.

As was the case then, chatter about a possible by-election filled coffee shops and online forums yesterday as news spread. Opposition parties swiftly called for one.

At the press conference, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean moved to assure residents there that they would be taken care of: Minister of State Teo Ser Luck has been assigned to oversee the ward, while fellow Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Zainal Sapari takes over as chairman of the town council.

Deputy Speaker Charles Chong steps in as Acting Speaker until Parliament meets next month, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will nominate a new Speaker for the House's consideration.

Parliamentary colleagues on both sides reacted with shock and disbelief, as most had not heard about the debacle.

Everything appeared to have come undone for Mr Palmer rather suddenly at the weekend.

A grim-faced DPM Teo said Mr Palmer came to see him and offered to resign on Saturday.

Mr Teo said: "When he saw me on Saturday, he was very sorry for what he had done. I told him to look after his family and to do what he could to make up for the hurt he had caused them."

PM Lee was informed, and both he and DPM Teo agreed that resigning was the proper thing to do. "The Prime Minister met Mr Palmer on Sunday morning, confirmed the decision and then directed that this matter be dealt with decisively, and in an open way," said DPM Teo.

On Monday and Tuesday, the party sorted out the arrangements to continue serving Punggol East residents.

While neither Mr Palmer nor DPM Teo wanted to talk about why the resignation seemed abrupt, it is understood there was a danger of the affair's details being leaked.

Mr Teo apologised to residents in English, Mandarin and Malay: "I am very sorry that we have let the residents of Punggol East down. I assure you that we will put things right and continue to look after you."

He added that he had worked with Mr Palmer for more than six years and knew him to be a "hardworking and good MP, very caring to his residents".

Mr Lee paid tribute to Mr Palmer's good work as Speaker and MP in his letter accepting the resignation. But he stressed that PAP MPs and grassroots advisers must always "uphold the highest standards of personal conduct, especially in dealing with constituents, grassroots activists and staff".

Last night, Mr Palmer turned up to meet and apologise to his Punggol East grassroots leaders. DPM Teo and Mr Teo Ser Luck were also there to meet them.

Those present said the farewell was emotional. Many were teary- eyed. Mr Palmer went around the room shaking every hand. Standing by his side was his wife.

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Posted by Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday, December 12, 2012

PM to 'carefully consider' by-election
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2012

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday he will "carefully consider" whether to call a by-election in Punggol East.

"I will carefully consider whether to call a by-election in Punggol East and, if so, when. I assure Singaporeans that I will make my decision based on what is best for the constituents of Punggol East and the country."

In the statement responding to questions from Singaporeans on the day the ward's MP Michael Palmer resigned after confessing to an extramarital affair, PM Lee said that his first priority was to ensure that residents there continued to be well taken care of.

The country, he added, was also focused on several national issues. These include the ongoing Singapore Conversation, which "is making good progress", the White Paper on population, which is being finalised and will be debated in Parliament next month, and next year's Budget.

Within hours of Mr Palmer's resignation, the Workers' Party (WP) and Singapore People's Party urged PM Lee to call a by-election. The WP, which fielded Ms Lee Li Lian in last year's polls in Punggol East, said it was ready to give voters a choice again.

The Prime Minister's discretion on when and whether to call a by-election was affirmed by the courts recently.

A Hougang voter had filed an application to hold him accountable for calling a by-election in her ward within three months of a vacancy, after her MP Yaw Shin Leong was sacked by the WP.

In August, the court ruled that it is for the PM to decide whether or not to call an election to fill a seat vacated by an elected MP.

A by-election in Hougang was held in May.

It was with great sadness that I accepted Speaker Michael Palmer’s resignation today. He has worked hard as an MP and...
Posted by Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday, December 11, 2012

All MPs of PAP must uphold highest standards of conduct: PM Lee

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong sent this letter to former Speaker of Parliament and MP Michael Palmer after his resignation.

Dear Mr Palmer,

Thank you for your letter. I accept your resignation as a member of the People's Action Party.

You have worked diligently as an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC from 2006 to 2011, and since the 2011 General Election as MP for Punggol East SMC.

As an MP, you have worked long hours, tirelessly attending to the concerns of your residents, reaching out particularly to the needy and youth, and building stronger bonds among them.

As town council chairman, you helped to maintain and improve facilities, with an eye on what was practical and cost-effective.

As Speaker over the past year, you have presided over proceedings in the House with dignity and a sure touch. You maintained order and decorum during question time and debates, struck the right balance of flexibility and firmness in applying the Standing Orders, and won the respect of ministers and backbenchers alike.

It is therefore with great sadness that I accept your resignation and your apologies for what happened.

However, it is necessary that all PAP MPs and advisers to grassroots organisations uphold the highest standards of personal conduct, especially in dealing with constituents, grassroots activists and staff, and that the party be seen to hold its MPs and advisers to these standards.

I am glad that you realise what you did was wrong, and have been forthright in acknowledging the mistake you made.

I hope Singaporeans will give you and your family the peace and privacy to rebuild your lives. I encourage you to continue contributing to our society in your own way, and am confident that in time you will be able to put this mistake behind you.

A serious error of judgment: Palmer
THE following statement was read out by Mr Michael Palmer during the press conference yesterday:

"With great regret, I announce that I have tendered my resignation as a Member of Parliament and as a member of the People's Action Party. I have resigned to take full responsibility for a grave mistake that I have committed. I had a relationship with a member of the People's Association staff working in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.

While the individual did not work with me directly, Punggol East used to be part of the GRC and continues to work with it. My conduct was improper, and it was a serious error of judgment.

I have resigned in order to avoid further embarrassment to the PAP and to Parliament.

I have performed my duties as Speaker of Parliament and MP for Punggol East to the best of my ability, and my actions did not affect my performance of those duties.

I am deeply sorry for letting down the residents of Punggol East, the PAP and everyone who has believed in me and supported me. I apologise unreservedly to them, and to my family. I humbly request that you be kind enough to respect my family's privacy during this difficult period."

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Posted by Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Woman 'a dedicated member of PA'
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2012

THE woman behind the fall from grace of former MP Michael Palmer was known to be a dedicated member of the People's Association (PA) grassroots organisation in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.

A capable organiser, Ms Laura Ong Hui Hoon, 33, worked her way up the ranks and was appointed constituency director of the Punggol South ward in 2006, The Straits Times understands.

After last year's general election, she was transferred to the Pasir Ris West ward, which she considered a "promotion" because it was the ward under the GRC chief, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

"She was very excited about the transfer," said one activist who knew her well.

Yesterday, the PA announced that she had resigned from the post on Monday due to "family commitments" - just two days before Mr Palmer announced his resignation as MP and People's Action Party member.

Those who had worked with Ms Ong said they had not seen her and Mr Palmer together much, and expressed surprise about the extramarital affair.

They said her experience and organisational skills meant she was often called upon by her bosses to take charge of large-scale events covering the entire GRC.

Hence, she had frequent contact with Mr Palmer on these occasions, though she never worked directly under him.

They described her as lively and mature, and someone who took her work in PA very seriously. But she made time for sports at the weekends, and was an avid golfer.

Records from the Registry of Marriages show that Ms Ong has been married to Mr Darren Seng Chee Kwong since March 2006.

Pasir Ris-Punggol sources said Ms Ong and her husband, a businessman, were loving in the first few years of their marriage, but later drifted apart.

They have been separated for some time now, and The Straits Times understands that this separation predated the affair with Mr Palmer.

Repeated attempts to contact Ms Ong on her mobile phone and at her Marine Parade flat, where she lives with her mother and younger sister, were unfruitful.

Ms Ong was said to be very close to her younger sister, Cindy, who followed in her footsteps by joining the PA.

Ms Cindy Ong was deputy constituency manager of the Punggol East ward, where she worked under Mr Palmer, until she resigned abruptly last month.

It is not known if her resignation was connected to the fallout from the extramarital affair.

WP wants fresh polls 'as soon as possible'
By Tessa Wong and Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2012

THE Workers' Party (WP) yesterday urged Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to call a by-election in Punggol East, saying it was ready to contest the single-member constituency.

It should be called "as soon as possible" so that residents can be represented properly, the WP said in a statement.

"The Workers' Party is ready to offer a choice to the voters of Punggol East SMC again in the by-election," it said.

Pointing to Article 46 of the Constitution, it said Mr Michael Palmer's seat in Parliament is vacant as he has resigned from the People's Action Party.

The article states that an MP's seat becomes vacant if he ceases to be a member of, or is expelled or resigns from, the political party for which he stood in the election.

In last year's general election, there was a three-cornered fight at the constituency.

The WP's candidate Lee Li Lian got 41 per cent of the vote, while Mr Palmer won with 54.5 per cent. Mr Desmond Lim of the Singapore Democratic Alliance received 4.5 per cent.

Speaking to reporters last night at his Meet-the-People session, WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang kept mum on who the party intends to field, saying it was premature to say.

He said Mr Palmer's resignation was unfortunate, and added that he personally liked him as Speaker of the House.

"He has managed parliamentary affairs very well and very efficiently. He is well-balanced, giving both front and backbenchers sufficient time to debate."

Mr Palmer also gave the opposition MPs time to engage the office-holders, he said.

Mr Low, however, would not be drawn into making any comparison between Mr Palmer's situation and that of former Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong, whom the WP expelled earlier this year following allegations that he had extramarital affairs. It would be unfair to do so, he told reporters.

But he added: "I hope that those people who have been critical of the Workers' Party, the media as well, I hope they will display fairness and integrity in their comments and their sincerity in what they have said during the episode of Yaw Shin Leong."

Mr Low also declined to comment on the intentions of other opposition parties in contesting Punggol East.

Mr Lim, when asked if he would contest again, said: "You will know on Nomination Day."

The Reform Party, however, is "strongly considering contesting this seat", said its secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam.

The Singapore People's Party (SPP) plans to stay out. Chairman Lina Chiam said "the Workers' Party should have the priority to contest the by-election".

Mr Benjamin Pwee, formerly of the SPP, told The Straits Times he is intending to contest, possibly as an independent, while others are mulling over the idea.

The National Solidarity Party will discuss it at its central executive committee meeting today. The Singapore Democratic Party said it would respond to media queries in due course.

At least three opposition candidates eyeing seat
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 14 Dec 2012

A BY-ELECTION in Punggol East looks set to have at least three opposition candidates.

Besides the Workers' Party (WP), the Reform Party and former Singapore People's Party member Benjamin Pwee have so far expressed interest in contesting the single-member constituency (SMC) seat. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Solidarity Party (NSP), however, are holding their cards close to their chest.

Political observers said yesterday that the higher-than-normal number is inevitable.

Opposition parties have traditionally favoured SMCs as they need to field only one candidate and come up with less cash for the election deposit, compared to running for a group representation constituency.

Opposition veteran Wong Wee Nam said criticism of the WP's performance in Parliament may also be a factor. "These parties could be feeling that WP may not have that great a reputation with voters any more, because some people have been saying they have been too quiet or not speaking up enough," he said.

Contesting would also help boost their parties' visibility, he added.

Dr Wong also said that the SDP and NSP were probably still weighing their options following the number of prospective contenders in the contest.

Meanwhile, the SDP wants the by-election to be held soon, saying it is necessary if Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is to maintain his moral authority.

Its secretary-general Chee Soon Juan said in a statement yesterday that Mr Lee cannot avoid calling a by-election because to do so would be to inflict "severe damage to his and his party's political and moral standing".

Without moral authority, the Prime Minister would find his power undermined and challenged from within and outside of the party, Dr Chee said.

"Singaporeans will lose even more confidence in his leadership and ability to take our country forward. The end result is that our nation will go further in the wrong direction," he added.

Public expectations for by-election 'tough to ignore'
By Leonard Lim and Tessa Wong The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2012

THE last time a by-election took place in a PAP-held single-member constituency (SMC) was in 1981, after Mr Devan Nair resigned as Member of Parliament for Anson to become President.

The People's Action Party lost that by-election to Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers' Party (WP).

With Mr Michael Palmer's resignation yesterday, the seat for Punggol East SMC is now vacant.

The ward of about 33,000 voters was carved out of Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC just before the General Election in May last year. It saw a three-cornered fight which Mr Palmer won with 54.5 per cent of votes. Ms Lee Li Lian of the WP won 41 per cent of votes, and Mr Desmond Lim of the Singapore Democratic Alliance won 4.5 per cent.

Opposition parties now want a by-election in the ward, but Nominated MP Eugene Tan said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong might not see a need to call one.

Mr Tan noted that unlike opposition stronghold Hougang, Punggol East is a PAP constituency, and the party has appointed a caretaker MP for its residents. Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck, an MP for neighbouring Pasir-Ris Punggol GRC, has been tasked to oversee Mr Palmer's ward.

When Dr Ong Chit Chung (Jurong GRC) and senior minister of state Tay Eng Soon (Eunos GRC) died in 2008 and 1993 respectively, their seats were also left vacant until the next general election.

Mr Tan, a law professor, added that the PM now has the High Court's confirmation that he has discretion to decide whether and when to call by-elections. That came in August, when the High Court dismissed a Hougang resident's bid for a court declaration that the PM did not have unfettered discretion in this area.

But Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Gillian Koh pointed to public expectations that would be hard to ignore after the Hougang by-election in May. It was called to fill the seat left vacant by Workers' Party MP Yaw Shin Leong, who was expelled in February amid allegations of an extramarital affair. Dr Koh said: "I think from the (Yaw) events, people may feel that a complete resolution to such a situation is have a by-election." It might thus be difficult to avoid a by-election in Punggol East.

Lawyer and former Nominated MP Chandra Mohan Nair also felt it was prudent that a by-election be called. "It is preferable that every constituency has an MP."

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The Michael Palmer Affair -AsiaOne
Michael Palmer's resignation: Was leak the trigger?
PA explains decision to name Laura Ong

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