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'I should have forced the issue earlier': PM Lee on affair between Tan Chuan-Jin and Cheng Li Hui

SINGAPORE — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (Aug 2) said that in hindsight, after learning of an extramarital affair between former lawmakers Tan Chuan-Jin and Cheng Li Hui, he should have “forced the issue earlier” rather than place "perhaps too much" weight on protecting their families.

SINGAPORE — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (Aug 2) said that in hindsight, after learning of an extramarital affair between former lawmakers Tan Chuan-Jin and Cheng Li Hui, he should have “forced the issue earlier” rather than place "perhaps too much" weight on protecting their families.

“By giving the matter some time, I had hoped to give them a softer exit, and save them and their families the pain and embarrassment that they are suffering now,” Mr Lee told the House, during a ministerial statement in Parliament.

"Regrettably, in the end, Mr Tan and Ms Cheng did not stop the affair, and both had to go."

The affair emerged in the public eye on July 17 when Mr Tan — a former Speaker of Parliament — and Ms Cheng — an ex-Member of Parliament — resigned from both parliament and the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Mr Lee told the media during a press conference then that he was first alerted to it after the last General Election held in July 2020.

On Wednesday, Mr Lee revealed that he initially learned of the affair in November 2020.

He also explained his approach and thinking in relation to the issue, while reiterating that the two MPs were separately spoken to and counselled. Both Mr Tan and Ms Cheng said they would stop the affair but did not.

Mr Lee spoke to Mr Tan about it most recently in February. Mr Tan admitted his mistake and offered his resignation at the time. 

Mr Lee accepted this but told him that he had to first ensure that residents in Mr Tan's Kembangan-Chai Chee ward under the Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency were taken care of. His affair with Ms Cheng also had to stop, said Mr Lee.

A few weeks ago, Mr Lee decided that the pair had to resign after he came across information that strongly suggested they had continued the affair, he added.

Around the same time, a video clip of Mr Tan caught on a hot mic using unparliamentary language was circulating online.

Mr Lee told the House on Wednesday: “I have been asked: Why did I take so long, more than 2 years, to act? It is a fair question.

"In retrospect — and certainly now knowing how things eventually turned out — I agree. I should have forced the issue sooner.”

Mr Lee said these relationships “happen from time to time” and will undoubtedly happen again in the future.

In such cases, what the PAP does depends on several factors: The circumstances, how inappropriate or scandalous the behaviour was, and the family situations. The party also has to be conscious of the impact on innocent parties, particularly the spouses and children, Mr Lee noted.

“This is not a new position — it reflects the PAP’s long-standing practice, since the days of Mr Lee Kuan Yew,” said Mr Lee, referring to Singapore’s founding prime minister.

Mr Lee said that while there was no single template applying to all extramarital affairs, there can be at least three situations.

In the first situation where the involved individuals are spoken to and if they stop the matter, it ends there with no further action to be taken, said Mr Lee.

“The second situation — where immediate action has to be taken. For example, when one party has supervisory power over the other party. We have in the past taken immediate action in a few cases,” he added.

“Third situation — where the relationship raises some questions of propriety, beyond it being an extramarital affair per se. The parties will be talked to, but the matter cannot end there.

“Even if the affair stops, some action has to follow but what that action is and when it is taken, depends on the nature of the facts and the boundaries that have been transgressed.”

Mr Lee said Mr Tan’s and Ms Cheng’s affair fell into the third category.

Mr Lee asked members of the House to consider if they would object to having the Speaker being married to an MP.

“I think the answer is no — that would be perfectly all right. There is no direct reporting line between the Speaker and an MP. Thus, an open, legitimate relationship between the Speaker and an MP is not in itself objectionable,” he said.

He added that while this situation did not fall into the category where immediate action had to be taken, the Speaker has some official capacity vis-a-vis MPs, which puts other MPs and staff in an “awkward position”.

“After I spoke to Mr Tan in November 2020, he told me that the relationship would end. I took it to be so. I therefore felt there was some leeway to take some time, to decide what further steps to take,” Mr Lee said.

In this context, Mr Lee offered some possible actions that could have followed.

“On the basis that the extramarital affair had stopped, I would have asked Mr Tan to step down as Speaker sometime before the end of the term, but in a way which would reduce the public embarrassment to him and his family,” he said.

“As to whether one or both should also resign as MPs — I hadn’t decided at that time, but quite likely both would have had to leave at some point.

"On reflection, as I said, I should have forced the issue earlier, certainly before mid-term,” Mr Lee added.

The Prime Minister also told the House that while there was no doubt that Mr Tan and Ms Cheng behaved improperly, innocent family members were involved.

“Likewise for the case involving a former member across the aisle, in the Workers’ Party (WP). All their families are suffering,” Mr Lee said.

Two days after Mr Tan and Ms Cheng resigned, WP senior members Leon Perera — who was MP for Aljunied GRC — and Nicole Seah also resigned from the opposition party over an affair.

Mr Lee added: "I hope that MPs and the public can empathise and have compassion for the families, and give them the privacy and space they need to heal.”

Later, in response to a question by MP Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied), Mr Lee clarified that Mr Tan’s parliamentary seat did not become vacant in February, when his resignation was accepted by the Prime Minister.

“Taken strategically, the actual implementation was to come at a time convenient to me. The formal process to resign — he would have had to write to the Deputy Speaker, and that was legally done (on July 17),” Mr Lee said.

Mr Giam also asked the Prime Minister if a conflict of interest had occurred due to the affair between Mr Tan and Ms Cheng, and if this was not earlier revealed to the House.

Mr Lee referred Mr Giam to his ministerial statement, reiterating his question on whether it was okay for the Speaker to be married to an MP.

“We’ve had a minister who has been married to an MP, both serving simultaneously in the House. Nothing wrong. Speaker and an MP serving in the House, is there anything wrong? I don’t think so,” Mr Lee said.

This differs from an extramarital affair, which “puts everybody else on edge” and in an “awkward position — MPs as well as staff”, Mr Lee added.

An affair would not be accepted in Singapore's context either, he noted, describing the situation between Mr Tan and Ms Cheng as one where an extramarital personal relationship crosses with a public relationship.

Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai then asked the Prime Minister to confirm that he would not have asked Mr Tan to resign after his hot-mic remarks came to light, had Mr Tan not been having an affair.

Mr Lee confirmed this.

“It was wrong for him to say that. It was bad that it was picked up, and it lowers the tone of the chamber,” he added.

“No member should say that in the House — dare I say, no member should say that even outside of the House, but I hazard to guess that maybe not all of us abstain completely all the time.

“But we do expect standards of behaviour in this House and especially in the (Speaker’s) chair. What he said was wrong but I would not have considered that alone (to be) the basis to ask him to resign.” CNA

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