Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he instructed Transport Minister S. Iswaran to go on leave as the city-state’s anti-graft agency started a probe, the first involving a cabinet minister in almost four decades.
The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau uncovered a case and asked to open a formal investigation that would involve interviewing Iswaran and others, Lee said in a statement on Wednesday, without specifying the reasoning for the investigation or the target.
“We will be upfront and transparent,” Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said in a Facebook post. “We will not sweep anything under the carpet, even if they are potentially embarrassing or damaging.”
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Iswaran, 61, was elected as a member of parliament in 1997 and was appointed to the cabinet in 2006. As transport minister, his key focus is to rebuild Singapore as an air hub in the aftermath of the pandemic and boost the nation as a maritime center. He’s also Singapore’s minister-in-charge of trade relations.
The transport ministry referred queries from Bloomberg News to the statements by Lee and the CPIB. Iswaran didn’t reply to an email seeking comment. In Iswaran’s absence, Senior Minister of State Chee Hong Tat will be acting minister for transport.
The anti-graft agency said it will investigate the case thoroughly to establish the truth and to uphold the rule of law.
Singapore pays its top officials among the world’s highest public salaries and prides itself on its image for low corruption. Ministers are paid about S$1.1 million ($822,000) a year, according to the Public Service Division’s website.
The city-state is ranked as the fifth-least corrupt country in the world, according to the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
“The optics certainly don’t look good for the PAP government, which has always prided itself on incorruptibility,” said Eugene Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University. This is the first graft probe by the CPIB involving a cabinet minister in 37 years, he added.
In 1986, then-Minister for National Development Teh Cheang Wan was investigated for accepting bribes. He died before he could be formally charged in court.
The investigation adds to the challenges of the ruling People’s Action Party, which is navigating a succession plan. The island is scheduled to hold a general election by 2025, though polls could be held earlier. The PAP, which has ruled Singapore since its independence in 1965, is seeking to strengthen its hand after its worst showing in the 2020 election.
Last month, a government review into colonial bungalows rented by two cabinet ministers found no evidence of corruption or criminal wrongdoing after the opposition questioned whether the officials were paying less than market rates for the properties.
—With assistance from Nurin Sofia, Kevin Varley and Faris Mokhtar.
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