Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau case and the Public Service's Code of Conduct
Oral Reply by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Education and Minister-in-charge of the Public Service to Parliamentary Questions on Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau case and the Public Service’s Code of Conduct
Parliamentary Sitting: 2 August 2023
1. Mr Speaker, Sir, I will take the Parliamentary Questions relating to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) case and the Public Service’s Code of Conduct together.
2. Several Members (Dr Tan Wu Meng, Ms Joan Pereira, Mr Leong Mun Wai, Mr Gerald Giam, Mr Dennis Tan) have posed questions relating to timelines and circumstances surrounding the CPIB investigations involving Minister Iswaran, and on the information put out in the initial statements by the Government. I must emphasise that what information to put out on ongoing investigations are operational judgement calls that Law Enforcement agencies make. Other parties, including Ministers, defer to the judgement of these agencies, and do not and should not independently release such information.
3. Those familiar with how Law Enforcement agencies operate, including CPIB, will know how they usually make their announcements. The standard practice is that agencies do not disclose the names of persons who are being investigated or arrested. There are good reasons for this.
4. Say someone has been picked up, arrested, and investigations are ongoing. If it is immediately announced that the person has been arrested and is being investigated, it may prejudice the person. The impression that he has done wrong will be there, even if subsequent investigations do not result in any charges being brought against him. Thus, to be fair to the persons involved, Law Enforcement agencies generally refrain from immediately naming the persons being investigated.
5. There are situations where agencies will depart from this norm and mention names. In Minister Iswaran’s case, given that it involved a Minister, CPIB decided to disclose on 12 July 2023 that Minister Iswaran was assisting CPIB with investigations into a case uncovered by CPIB. At that point, CPIB did not state that Minister Iswaran had been arrested, as it wanted first to establish more facts of the case, including hearing his side of the story.
6. These are decisions for CPIB to make. What Law Enforcement agencies, including CPIB, reveal at any point in time takes into account their operational considerations in the cases they deal with – including preserving the integrity of evidence, protecting the confidentiality of ongoing investigations, and avoiding impact on other related parties.
7. That is why the Prime Minister’s initial statement and Deputy Prime Minister’s doorstop interview on 12 July took reference from CPIB’s press release on the same day. This was the proper thing to do because Ministers, including the Prime Minister, should not reveal more than what the Law Enforcement agencies are prepared to disclose. While Ministers do have the final decision-making power, they will usually take the advice of the Law Enforcement agencies.
8. Two days later, on 14 July, Hotel Properties Limited (HPL) issued a statement saying that Mr Ong Beng Seng had been “given a notice of arrest” by CPIB. The media asked CPIB about this. By then, investigations had been ongoing for three days and CPIB had obtained more facts. CPIB made the operational judgement call that it would be appropriate at that point to confirm that both Mr Ong and Minister Iswaran had been arrested.
9. Some Members (Mr Saktiandi Supaat, Mr Gerald Giam, Ms He Ting Ru) have asked about the considerations for timely and mandatory disclosure of information about a political office holder who is under investigation. The primary considerations are what I have just outlined.
10. Singaporeans are understandably concerned about this matter. In due course, further details of the investigations will be made public. But I hope we can all recognise that we must give CPIB the time and space they need to do their work. This was a case that CPIB had uncovered by themselves. We can rely on CPIB to conduct its investigations thoroughly and independently, and to see this case to its logical conclusion – as it has with every other case it has investigated over 70 years.
11. May I caution Members that the CPIB investigations are still ongoing. Minister Iswaran has not been charged, much less convicted. Members should therefore avoid speculating on or prejudging the outcome of the investigations.
12. Mr Leong Mun Wai and Mr Louis Chua asked whether all CPIB investigations require the Prime Minister’s concurrence and if CPIB is obliged to seek the Prime Minister’s concurrence to open formal investigations of potential offences that CPIB has uncovered.
13. While CPIB reports directly to the Prime Minister, it is functionally independent. CPIB does not require the Prime Minister’s concurrence to conduct its investigations. In this case, it kept the Prime Minister informed and sought his concurrence to initiate formal investigations of Minister Iswaran because the investigations concerned a Cabinet Minister. The Prime Minister concurred within a day of receiving Director of CPIB’s report.
14. Under Article 22G of the Constitution, in the event the Prime Minister refuses to give his consent to a CPIB investigation, the Director of CPIB can go directly to the elected President for his/her concurrence to proceed with the investigation. In reality, we have never had a Prime Minister who has impeded CPIB’s work.
15. I should also remind Members, there are Constitutional safeguards for the appointment or removal of the Director of CPIB, which require the concurrence of the President.
16. There were also several queries by Dr Tan Wu Meng and Mr Leong Mun Wai seeking more details on CPIB’s investigation findings. Members must remember that this is an ongoing investigation. Therefore, I am unable to disclose further details at this juncture. This is to ensure that investigations are not jeopardised and affected individuals or entities are not prejudiced.
17. Mr Don Wee asked why Minister Shanmugam and Minister Vivian continued with their duties while being investigated by CPIB on the Ridout bungalow issue. There is a crucial difference between that earlier CPIB investigation into Ministers Shanmugam and Vivian, and CPIB’s ongoing investigation involving Minister Iswaran. For the Ridout bungalows matter, the two Ministers had asked the Prime Minister for an independent investigation into their rental of SLA Black and White bungalows, and the Prime Minister had tasked CPIB to do the investigation. The Prime Minister had no reason to believe that the Ministers had committed any wrongdoing then, and therefore saw no need to put them on leave of absence during the investigation. The CPIB investigation subsequently cleared both Ministers. The Prime Minister could have asked the Ministers to take leave of absence should evidence have surfaced during the investigations that warranted it.
18. For the case involving Minister Iswaran, CPIB came across some information concerning him, while investigating a separate matter. It then decided it should look further into the matter. In these circumstances, Prime Minister’s assessment was that it was necessary to suspend Minister Iswaran from his official duties while the investigation took place.
19. Mr Leong Mun Wai asked whether Minister Iswaran’s gazetted ‘Leave of Absence’ from his duties from 7 to 9 July was related to the CPIB investigation. For the record, Minister Iswaran took leave of absence from 7 to 9 July for personal matters. Senior Minister of State Chee Hong Tat covered his duties during that period. The leave of absence arising from the CPIB investigation was effected only on 12 July.
20. Next, on the Code of Conduct for Ministers, Mr Zhulkarnian asked if there will be a review of the Code. The Code of Conduct for Ministers has been in place since 1954 and was last updated in 2005. The Code sets out the principles and rules on how Ministers should act and conduct their personal affairs. The general principles remain valid. We will continue to review and update the Code of Conduct for Ministers regularly, taking into account evolving circumstances and needs.
21. For example, the Government recently announced that, going forward, officers with access to privileged information that can influence the outcomes of decisions related to state-owned properties, must make a declaration before they can rent Government properties managed by their agencies. The same would apply to political office holders.
22. Let me now address the questions raised by Mr Yip Hon Weng, Ms Hazel Poa, Mr Dennis Tan and Mr Gerald Giam relating to the Public Service’s Code of Conduct, and avenues for public officers to report wrongdoing and protection of whistle-blowers.
23. The Public Service’s Code of Conduct sets out the principles and rules that public officers must abide by. It is periodically refreshed to ensure that the integrity and high standards of the Public Service are upheld.
24. In the course of their work, public officers may come across different requests, be it from colleagues, friends, members of the public, or political office holders. When handling these requests, officers are expected to maintain a high level of professionalism, and safeguard the confidentiality of official information, as well as the political impartiality of the Public Service.
25. Should an officer be unsure of a request because it seems inappropriate or unrelated to official work, he should consult and seek guidance from his supervisor. If the request comes from his supervisors, or a more senior officer, the officer can escalate the matter appropriately through the chain of command – including directly to his Permanent Secretary, the Head of Agency, the Head of Civil Service, or the Minister in-charge of the Public Service.
26. The Code of Conduct is reinforced through various channels such as annual quizzes, declarations, induction programmes for new entrants, milestone programmes, and regular Service-wide reminders.
27. There is an established Internal Disclosure Policy framework within the Civil Service, where officers can report any wrongful practices that they have observed in their Ministries to their Permanent Secretaries. Statutory Boards have their own equivalent processes. All reports are treated with utmost confidentiality, and every effort is made to protect the officer’s identity. There is a non-retaliation clause to further protect the interests of the officer who made the report. If a report is made in good faith, no action will be taken against the reporting officer even if the investigation finds no wrongful practice. Between 2020 and 2022, no report which was surfaced through this channel was referred to CPIB for investigation.
28. In addition, there is a Public Service Protocol for the Reporting of Corruption. Under this protocol, public officers are expected to directly report to the Police or the CPIB at the earliest opportunity when they learn of any act of corruption or have reason to believe that such an act may have been committed in their Ministries. The identity of the person making the report will be kept confidential. This is provided for under the Prevention of Corruption Act. CPIB also accepts anonymous reports.
29. CPIB treats all reports received seriously, whether the complainant is named or anonymous. Of the 83 cases registered for investigation in 2022, 13 (16 per cent) were from anonymous sources. Public sector cases form a small portion of the cases CPIB investigates each year. In 2022, four public sector officers were prosecuted in Court for offences investigated by CPIB.
30. Mr Gerald Giam asked about the rules for declaring meal invitations and the threshold values for doing so. The rules for the Civil Service on accepting gifts and hospitality are designed to maintain incorruptibility and to prevent officers from becoming beholden to any person or organisation. Civil servants must declare to their Permanent Secretaries any gifts they receive from external stakeholders on account of their official position or work. Officers may be allowed to retain gifts that are valued below $50 if doing so does not affect the integrity of the Civil Service. If officers wish to retain gifts valued above $50, they must pay the assessed market value of the gift to the Government.
31. In the course of their work, officers may be invited to meals by local or foreign stakeholders. They may accept when there are legitimate work-related reasons, or when it is impractical or impolite to reject the meal. Unlike gifts, it is more difficult to ascertain the value of a meal. In such instances, civil servants should declare and seek approval from their Permanent Secretaries if they receive any meal invitation, either before the meal, or if that is not possible, immediately after. This is especially if they assess that the value of the meal or hospitality is incongruent with the professional nature of the meeting and may give rise to perceptions of influence peddling and conflict of interest — real or perceived.
32. I should share with this House, that civil servants are so sensitised on these matters that even when they receive gifts of fruits or sweets – as is customary on many of our festive occasions – such gifts are usually distributed in the agency or to a community organisation. We do not keep them.
33. Political office holders adopt a similar spirit and principles in their official activities. There are specific rules spelt out in the Annex of the Code of Conduct for Ministers on the acceptance of gifts and services. In general, all gifts should be refused and returned to the donor without delay. If the return of the gift is impractical, the gift must be handed over to the political office holder’s ministry to be dealt with in accordance with official guidelines. If political office holders want to retain a gift, they have to pay the Government for it at the valuation price. Otherwise, the gifts have to be surrendered to the Government.
34. Mr Speaker, Sir, I have come to the end of my response. May I suggest that the House seek clarifications in three segments. The first segment is on our principles of governance and Ministers’ conduct. The second segment can address the technical issues relating to the CPIB investigation. The third segment can address questions relating to the Public Service. Should the queries be sufficiently addressed, it may not be necessary for Members to pose identical PQs for future sittings.