Singapore's political scandals put ours in perspective

Bernard Chan compares our illegal structures with sex and corruption

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

Singapore, like Hong Kong, prides itself on clean government. Yet, like Hong Kong, the Lion City has been hit by a wave of scandals involving officials and other supposedly respectable members of the establishment.

In Hong Kong, the uproar has been about unauthorised building works on people's homes. Over the last year or two, two chief executives and a surprising number of senior officials have been accused of having such works on their properties. Hong Kong people like real estate, and the gossip magazines have been full of details about unauthorised additions in buildings and gardens.

In Singapore, the big scandals have been about sex, and as with the exposés about unauthorised building works here, it is hard to keep up with them all.

Two senior officials in government departments have been accused of accepting sex for contracts. A law professor allegedly accepted sex for grades from a student (not to mention several other shocking incidents in the education sector). Some 50 men, many public servants or businessmen, allegedly used an underage prostitute. The speaker of parliament, a senior member of the ruling party, recently resigned after admitting he had an affair with a community worker.

One difference between the two cities is that in Hong Kong, we have a vibrant and outspoken free press. Some media outlets thrive on gossip and rumour, to the extent that scandals here can become a form of entertainment. Most of us, including thick-skinned officials, have enough of a sense of humour to know when the press is exaggerating. That should help keep issues in perspective.

In Singapore, things are more controlled, and officials are not used to allegations and insults. They certainly do not see the funny side of them.

Having said that, the cities' respective scandals are worlds apart. Some of the allegations in Singapore amount to corruption - an extremely serious offence in both cities. The underage prostitute story could also involve criminal offences. These, too, would be no laughing matter in Hong Kong.

Maybe we should learn something from what both cities are going through. Singapore's spate of sex scandals has raised some big questions. Is the country undergoing some sort of moral decline in its top levels of leadership? Has the strict and controlled nature of the political system and media played a part in insulating the establishment from scrutiny? Does the country need a more open system at this stage of its development? These are hefty issues for Singapore.

Should the unauthorised building works prompt that level of outrage and soul-searching in Hong Kong? Some people clearly seem to think so. Or at least they think they can score political points by appearing angry. But let's put things in perspective.

In Singapore, the building and construction authority's information booklet says no planning approval or authorisation is needed for lean-to extensions, sheds, trellises, partition walls, awnings, cantilevered roofs, single-storey huts, glass enclosures of terraces, boundary walls and gates and a lot of other items that we in Hong Kong see as illegal structures. It seems this is one area where Singapore is free and Hong Kong is authoritarian.

If it seems that a lot of politicians in Hong Kong have unauthorised building works, it is because a lot of property owners do - including my own family, who are currently getting several problems rectified. Of an estimated 800,000 such works in 2000, the Buildings Department says more than half have been removed, but there must be many that are unknown, or still being built. Many owners do not even know they have them.

It is not hard to accuse a lot of property owners of having an illegal structure - then of negligence, and then of covering something up. You just need to look hard enough.

In Singapore, a government official was found to have accepted sex from a manager in a private-sector supplier in exchange for commercial advantages. There is uproar. In Hong Kong, a government official is found to have a laundry rack on his wall. There is also uproar. But ask any Singaporean: there is no comparison.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council