Are Lee Hsien Loong and Ho Ching as Corrupt as Najib and Rosmah?
“Corruption: a form of dishonesty undertaken by a person entrusted with a position of authority often to acquire personal benefit”
In the last couple of days the world has been drawn to the spectacle of Malaysia’s ex-PM, Najib Razak, being arrested and, after spending a night in detention being charged in court with corruption and criminal breach of trust. This stunning reversal of fortune was almost unimaginable two months ago and has given new hope to those who believe in democracy everywhere but particularly in South East Asia. With a stroke Malaysia has leapt far ahead of Singapore in the good governance stakes and Singaporeans, long accustomed and conditioned by their government to regard Malaysia as a Latin American/Muslim banana republic on their doorstep, can no longer feel smug in their own country’s superiority.
The amount of MYR 42 million covered by the charges may be relatively small compared to the total US$4.5 billion that Najib and his accomplices are alleged to have siphoned off from 1MDB but it is only the tip of the iceberg and more charges will surely follow. If they do then awkward questions will follow for Singapore given that Sarawak Report estimates RM 100 billion is banked overseas.
I had the good fortune to attend a dinner in London last Saturday to celebrate the victory of the Opposition Pakatan Harapan (or Party of Hope) coalition, attended by Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter, MP and PKR Vice President, Nurul Izzah. I also attended subsequent public and private events in the same week where Malaysian civil society activists spoke. Foremost among these was the Malaysian cartoonist, Zunar, whose fearless pillorying of Rosmah’s penchant for jewellery and Birkin handbags costing millions of dollars became legendary. For exposing the corruption and greed of those in power Zunar was charged with sedition (which the PAP also finds a useful colonial-era law that can be used to crush dissent and was successfully used to cow the Singaporean cartoonist Leslie Chew into submission). Had the Opposition not won the election Zunar was looking at a potential jail sentence of 43 years!
Also speaking at that dinner was Clare Rewcastle-Brown the sister in law of former UK PM Gordon Brown. Clare is an intrepid investigative reporter (do we even have one such journalist in Singapore?) instrumental in exposing the fraud and theft going on at 1MDB through her online “Sarawak Report.” At one point she was subject to an NTB ( no travel ban) but this has now been lifted and she was welcomed as a returning hero by Malaysians.
At The Free Word Centre I also heard and met David Diaz-Jogeix and Nalini Elumalai from Article 19 (which campaigns for freedom of expression and a free media) and Shamini Darshni Kalimuthu from Amnesty International. Some of you may remember The Free Word Centre as a place I took Roy Ngerng to visit.
What struck me most about the Malaysian activists, particularly Zunar, was that they were not treating the Opposition victory as Mission Accomplished. Zunar pointed out how the Malaysian media had turned overnight from supporting Najib to vying with each other to support the new regime. Zunar would like to see the media holding the new Government to account and demonstrating independence. Quite rightly he sees the necessity of entrenching checks and balances and reforming institutions to make sure that the new Government cannot just step into the authoritarian shoes of the BN and UMNO and continue in the old repressive ways. The Malaysian activists are impressive in how they see the necessity of making the Government accountable
The reforms that he and the other activists want to see introduced are those advocated by the Reformasi movement and are very familiar to anyone who saw or viewed online my late father JBJ speaking at the launch of the Reform Party here in Singapore. Reformasi has been 30 years in the making so it is no wonder that JBJ was synched with their aims. These aims include abolishing the Printing Presses Act (which is not as draconian as the Singaporean version, the Sedition Act, the Internal Security Act, repealing the recently passed Anti-Fake News Act (which Singapore would have likely followed if Najib had retained power) reforming the Official Secrets Act and introducing a Freedom of Information Act which would protect whistleblowers, checking the powers of the police through setting up independent watchdogs, ensuring an independent judiciary and taking the MACC, Electoral Commission and Human Rights Commission out of the Prime Minister’s Office and placing them under Parliamentary control.
It is worth noting that Zunar and Clare can now travel freely and return to Malaysia whilst our satirical cartoonists and dissidents continue to be banned from their homeland for life.
Given the closeness of Singapore’s and Malaysia’s political and legal systems, all the reforms of laws and institutions advocated in Malaysia apply with equal or greater force to Singapore. My father often spoke of how total reform of the system was required and not just some tweaks and adjustments. Malaysians are set on achieving that albeit in steps.
Singaporeans have long regarded Malaysia as corrupt, chaotic and practising egregious discrimination against its talented and hardworking minorities (while forgetting of course the discrimination the majority race practises against minorities in Singapore. However if the new Malaysian Government keeps to its promises of Reformasi then Malaysia should leapfrog Singapore in the Good Governance stakes.
But can Singapore still hold onto its crown of having a corruption free government (which has always been more of a studiously cultivated illusion than a reality)? Let’s examine our first family, our version of Najib and Rosmah.
The public face is that our First Lady makes a big show of her handbags. But no vintage Birkin for her! She carries an artisan crafted handbag with a market value of S$14 whilst she often dresses as though her clothes have been made from the living room curtains. PM Lee’s sister goes one further and seems to actually wear the home furnishings when forced to change out of sports shorts. Does this ostentatious show of lack of ostentation therefore indicate lack of corruption? Not really. The trainer clad Weiling lives in a condominium corruptly purchased by the Lee family (I should point out here that after shareholders complained they later returned the discounts and claimed not to have known they were getting a special deal on the condominiums not available to the public.) So, more a case of vintage Hermes Birkin clothed in my father’s batik.
Then there is the abuse of power that was the direction of all HDB’s conveyancing business, and presumably a lot of other Government legal work, by LKY to his wife’s (and his) law firm (Lee & Lee) going back to the 1960s. For those of you not familiar with HDB you should be aware that up to 90% of or population lives in a Housing Development Board unit that is purchased on a long lease from the government.
How about PM Lee? Does he abuse his power for personal benefit? I think we can answer categorically, yes! He sued Roy Ngerng in his personal capacity whilst a serving PM. He used his Press Secretary to defend his personal law suit to the world’s leaders and media. Throughout the trial the lawyers frequently slipped and referred to the plaintiff as the PM. The PM is also Chairman of GIC and has appointed his wife as CEO and ED of Temasek. The PM has given his son a job in the Government Technology Agency which comes under the Prime Minister’s Office. Historically all his family have had high positions and control of key industries and departments. Even in what passes for the “private” sector in Singapore they still pick up directorships and sinecures with ease.
Whilst there are allegations that Najib’s stepson benefitted from 1MDB money to set up the production company that made Wolf of Wall Street neither he nor Mahathir appointed their own sons and wives to government positions or State Industries. Anwar Ibrahim’s wife and daughter are MPs but they were democratically elected whilst in opposition, are accountable to the people and can be removed at the next poll. In Singapore we can try asking how much Ho Ching gets paid but we will not get an answer. Indeed Tharman arrogantly said in Parliament that it was not in the national interest for Singaporeans to know how much she is paid (illustrating how Singaporeans are wrong to place their faith for reform in Tharman).
Also Lee Hongyi, the Prime Minister’s son worked for Google for two years. While this might have been a secondment from the Civil Service (to give him a grounding in harvesting citizens’ data and snooping?) it probably should be investigated by the US Justice Dept under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, just as many Asian hires by US banks have been. Both J P Morgan and Credit Suisse have paid substantial fines for giving jobs to Chinese “princelings” because their parents controlled state firms that could direct business to those banks. Presumably Singapore has given substantial business to Google (or its parent company Alphabet)?
There is also the appointment of PM Lee’s personal lawyer, Lucien Wong, as AG.
Appointing family members and friends falls under the definition of abuse of power for personal benefit and therefore corruption in the wider meaning of the term. In this regard the Malaysian former First Family is less “corrupt” than ours. However the Lees would just say that family appointments are based on merit going back to the 1980s when Government sycophants were wheeled out to say that LHL’s glittering career should not be held back because of who his father was.
How about hard cash going into private Bank accounts? There is no evidence of this. Then again there is no evidence as to where most our state money is and crucially even how much money there is. If we try to ask we are told it’s a national secret or that it would take too many man hours to calculate.
The stark facts is that we Singaporeans would not know if there was any corruption. We simply do not have the mechanism for discovering it and this is one of the reasons that Malaysian activists are hard on the heels of the new government to put those mechanism in place. We certainly have not seen any whistleblowing from those who could, Chip Goodyear, Tan Jee Say, Weiling, Hsien Yang and his kids.
I have done my best. I attended the CPF forum run by a government minister Hri Kumar but as we all know he dodged my questions about holes in the accounting and then tried to employ smear tactics. I was also at that forum forced to defend an elderly lady who was doxxed by her own MP and became the victim of hate crimes as a result.
Again I personally took the government to court over the IMF loan after every effort to get the President and the MOF to show some accountability failed. The appeal was partially crowd funded by you, the good citizens of Singapore but even with that show of public interest we got no answers as I was declared to have no Locus Standi. However there was a blind panic in the President’s office after this and the Auditor General finally did a small part of the job he was paid for and found another illegal loan which the Government then had to repay. If I did not scrutinise what passes for Government Accounts these illegal loans would go unnoticed.
When M Ravi took Madam Vellama’s case to court to put a check on the PM’s previously unfettered power I again interceded when a Law Society official tried to get him barred mid-case.
There is a limit to what I can do in my personal capacity. We simply do we have the checks and balances that could prevent the type of fraud that was perpetrated in Malaysia with 1MDB and other projects that are only just coming to light, from happening in Singapore. We do know that the Government over the past fifty years has amassed a much greater control over the nation’s resources. As I have pointed out for years, we have no clue as to what assets the Government owns or their value. The sums as compared to 1MDB are infinitely larger. At the top of this pyramid sits the Lee family.
There are several reasons that the fraud in Malaysia came to light whereas information on our state finances is locked tight. The CPIB, like the MACC, comes under the control of the PM. But Najib was only an adviser to 1MDB and one reason the fraud came to light was that Najib had to use outside individuals and companies to perpetrate it. He did not have the level of control of every business and Industry that the Lee dynasty exerts.
Then there were whistleblowers who passed information to the Wall Street Journal and the Sarawak Report and some fearless journalists. No journalist in Singapore would ever investigate anything unless she was given the green light to do so by those in power.
In addition Najib had a weak spot in Jho Low who blew the money openly and flamboyantly. He gave jewellery to the model Miranda Kerr worth $9million to be linked romantically with him and paid Leonardo DiCaprio US$500,000 just to get on a flight with him. The whole Hollywood connection ensured that the 1MDB scandal became big news globally. Jho Low has been tracked down to Maccau and at this moment it is thought that he is seeking asylum from extradition.
In Singapore control by the ruling family is absolute.
Najib and PM Lee were always very friendly unlike the frequent clashes between his father and Mahathir but obviously the Lee dynasty and the PAP have a vested interest in the Malaysian Opposition failing and seeing the devil they know returned to power. If the Malaysian opposition succeeds – and it is early days yet as Parliament has not even convened- then the pressure on Singapore to finally reform will be insurmountable.
Finally, how to answer the question in the title? Honestly, I haven’t got a clue. This will not change till Singaporeans take ownership of their destinies and start demanding some accountability and control over the assets that should belong to them but that the Lee family keep so tightly within their grasp. More than one-third of the seats in Parliament would be a start.