Friday 14 December 2012

When MPs prove to have feet of clay

Leaders have to send clear signal that such behaviour will not be condoned
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2012

MR MICHAEL Palmer donned party whites for the first time on March 30, 2006. His wife Diane laughed when she saw him.

A few hours later, he was introduced by the People's Action Party (PAP) as one of its 24 new candidates for the 2006 election.

Despite his wife's laughter, Mr Palmer told reporters he would not change the PAP's trademark white-on-white attire, which symbolises integrity and incorruptibility. He said: "I wouldn't want to change it... There are certain values, standards and traditions associated with it. There are certain boundaries you don't cross."

Six years on, Mr Palmer resigned as MP and Speaker yesterday, after confessing to crossing one of those boundaries: an extramarital affair with a People's Association staff member working in a neighbouring constituency.

Political ramifications will follow: Opposition parties want the Prime Minister to hold a by-election in the vacated single-member constituency of Punggol East, and the Workers' Party (WP) has said it will contest there. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he will "carefully consider whether to call a by-election in Punggol East and, if so, when".

Ironically, in February this year, it was a Workers' Party MP's alleged extramarital affairs that resulted in the Hougang seat being vacant. Comparison will certainly be made between the two affairs, how the two men in question conducted themselves and how the parties handled it.

It is hard to gainsay that the PAP handled this better.

Mr Palmer came clean to PAP leaders on Saturday and decided to resign. He apologised to constituents, party and family. The PAP held a press conference four days later to announce the resignation, after arranging for others to take over Mr Palmer's duties.

In contrast, Mr Yaw Shin Leong maintained a strange silence in the face of allegations of affairs, even to his own party leaders. He did not quit his seat. He lost it after WP leaders sacked him - not for his affairs, since he never admitted to any - but for his lack of transparency and failure to account for his actions to his party and constituents.

The result is that the WP's position on MPs' sexual morality remains unclear.

The Michael Palmer affair, in contrast, makes clear just where the PAP stands on extramarital affairs that come to light: It is a no-no.

This is consistent with the PAP's position from inception. A code of conduct published in 1959 in the party organ Petir said: "A PAP Member of Parliament has to be beyond reproach, both in his public and private life."

In 1977, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was reported as saying that while he did not expect PAP MPs to be angels, and accepted that divorces happened, he would not tolerate misbehaviour that came to his attention.

The PAP's position on politicians' sexual mores is a realistic one. It does not expect MPs to be saints. People will have extramarital affairs. And men who are both powerful and well known may have even more temptation to stray.

But discretion matters, as does upholding a party's reputation.

Besides, Mr Palmer was no ordinary MP, but the Speaker of the House, charged with steering its proceedings, upholding its traditions and burnishing its image, at home and abroad.

Hence, it was telling that Mr Palmer's resignation letter explicitly said: "I have resigned in order to avoid further embarrassment to the PAP and to Parliament."

Neither Mr Palmer nor PAP first assistant secretary-general Teo Chee Hean, who chaired the press conference, would be drawn into details of the affair such as its duration, and why Mr Palmer chose Dec 8 - and not earlier - to come forward.

Was his confession motivated by remorse because he genuinely believed he had wronged his family, his party and his constituents? Or was it motivated by a risk of exposure?

While private information should remain private, some details would have shed light on character and motivation.

Some Singaporeans will, however, be asking if Mr Palmer needed to resign over a personal matter. Shouldn't private and public life be kept separate?

The PAP does have a choice: Take a position that the two are separate and discard its white-on-white image or strive to maintain and keep the moral high ground.

Thus far, Singapore under a PAP regime appears to prefer the latter.

This is why senior public servants are facing trial in open court for corruption for obtaining sexual favours. Lecturers and teachers are held to account for alleged sexual misconduct with students.

Today's more permissive ethos may pervade citizens' private lives. But for now at least, Singapore wants to maintain a clean public image.

It adopts a zero-tolerance policy towards people in public positions who develop sexual relationships that put them in potential conflict-of-interest situations.

There is wisdom in this approach, as a slide to sexual permissiveness in public office is a sure way to erode trust in society and to corrode meritocracy (imagine being promoted not on merit, but for willingness to trade sex favours).

Will the Michael Palmer affair do irreparable damage to the PAP's clean image?

I do not think so. Singaporeans do not live in la-la land. They know affairs happen. Mr Palmer is not the first high-profile leader to be caught having an affair, and is unlikely to be the last.

The key challenge for the PAP is, as Mr Teo put it, to respond openly and decisively when an affair crops up.

To maintain its white-on- white image, the PAP must act firmly and decisively when wrongdoing comes to light.

In this respect, it surprised me that Mr Lee and Mr Teo took pains to stress how diligent and good an MP Mr Palmer was, and how his duties as an MP had not been affected by his affair.

This may be the case, but wouldn't it have been more seemly to have also stressed how Mr Palmer's behaviour had betrayed the trust of the party, violated its values and let down the voters who had put their faith in it?

The PAP claims moral authority to lead.

When MPs prove to have feet of clay, party leaders must be seen to set aside their personal sympathy for the man they may have affection for, and send a clear signal that behaviour that crosses boundaries simply will not be condoned.

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