I haven’t yet seen a good enough reason why Michael Palmer should resign from parliament, and I have a feeling the government is going to do everything possible to prevent disclosure — if there is a good reason. And this hanging chad of a story may end up damaging our politics.
Yes, I know he has admitted that he had an affair with a officer of the People’s Association who was indirectly related to his constituency, but if having extra-marital affairs alone disqualifies one from political office, then I think we’re going down a slippery slope. Politicians should not be expected to be saints. If we narrow the qualifications for office to such throttling moralistic standards, then we deprive ourselves of possible talent.
There are enough reasons why a politician should step down, for example, for romantic affairs that create a conflict of interest, abuse of power or a breach of confidentiality. Did Palmer’s affair give rise to one of these situations? The problem at this point is that we don’t know. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has been eager to stop the story from going further than that he had a romantic affair. If there had been conflict of interest, abuse of power or breach of confidentiality, admitting so would tarnish the PAP even more, so if indeed there is something more to disclose, the PAP isn’t going to do it willingly.
But this silence would do Singapore a disservice, because it would give the impression and set a precedent that merely having an extra-marital affair is enough to demand political sacrifice. Setting such a standard would be troubling.
Maybe there is nothing more to disclose. Maybe it was nothing more than a romantic affair. If that’s it, then to have to sacrifice Michael Palmer is the sorry comeuppance for the PAP trying to make hay out of the Yaw Shin Leong affair earlier this year.
The two are not entirely comparable. In Yaw’s case, his stubbornness in not explaining his actions even when it was beginning to hurt his party indicated a serious flaw in his character. Poor political judgement, a shocking lack of communication skills and an overall lack of transparency are all reasons relevant to the job and sufficient to strike a politician down. If Yaw had said that yes he was having an affair and even if he said that he was divorcing his wife and choosing his new love, I think Singaporeans would have understood. It was his arrogant non-transparency that made him unfit for office, not that he was having an affair.
Amid our prurient interest in extra-marital affairs, it is important to make this careful distinction between a flaw, mistake or wrongdoing relevant to the job and one that isn’t.
In any case, there is at least one minister who has gone through a divorce. Palmer notwithstanding, the PAP can hardly claim to be consistent.
So what really is the story with Michael Palmer? Does the PAP know more than they are telling? Or is there really nothing more to tell, in which case a damaging, moralistic precedent had been set.
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A more pressing problem is the PAP’s short-sighted cowardice in maintaining that by-elections are almost entirely a matter of discretion for the prime minister. I know a court has ruled that this is the law (but is being appealed), but I’ll say this: the court is wrong and deserves all the disrepute it gets for having said what it said.
In trying to preserve maximum discretion for the executive, this government is again doing Singapore a disservice. Instead of building institutions and setting precedents that will evolve into hallowed conventions that are trusted and above politics, it would rather destroy them for its short-term tactical advantage.
If the prime minister doesn’t call a by-election immediately, we will know whether he’s an asset or a liability for us all.
In any case and as a general principle, calling and organising elections should not be left to politicians. A by-election should be automatically triggered and run by an independent elections commission once a seat falls vacant unless there is less than six months to the pre-scheduled next general election. So, going beyond the question of Punggol East constituency, Singapore needs to set up such a commission.
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But there is one more thing about the Yaw and Palmer affairs that show up our democratic deficit. What if a member of parliament, becoming a centre of controversy with accusations more serious than romance alone, refuses to resign AND his party does not push him out? Can such a scenario arise? Yes. Imagine if a party has a razor-thin majority in parliament and is loth to lose even one member. The result of such an impasse is that we’d have a person of doubtful integrity in our legislature, maybe even in our cabinet.
Here is where a recall election (strictly speaking: a recall referendum) should be an option. If voters in that constituency manage to collect a threshold minimum of signatures, the independent election commission shall by duty-bound to organise a poll so that voters can decide whether to throw him out.
The Palmer event should make us stop and think what kind of system we have and how it can be improved. My worry is that Singaporeans get so absorbed by the details of the affair, they fail to see the larger questions it poses.