Singapore minister resigns after being charged with corruption in a first for the city state

S. Iswaran, Singapore's transport minister, leaves the Singapore State Courts in Singapore, on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. Iswaran was charged with corruption, the latest development in the biggest political scandal to hit the city state in close to four decades. Photographer: Ore Huiying/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Singapore’s now former transport minister S. Iswaran was accompanied by lawyers at the Singapore State Courts on Thursday, January 18, 2024.Ore Huiying/Bloomberg/Getty ImagesCNN — 

Singapore’s Transport Minister S. Iswaran has resigned after being charged with corruption on Thursday, the prime minister’s office said, confirming a historic development for a city state that prides itself on having a squeaky-clean government.

The charges against Iswaran are part of the biggest corruption probe to engulf Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in decades. The scandal, which also ensnared a hotel tycoon best known for bringing the Formula 1 Grand Prix to the city, was one in a series of controversies for the government in the past year that sent shockwaves through the country.

Iswaran is the country’s first sitting minister to be charged with a criminal offense.

Billionaire hotelier Ong Beng Seng smiles during a news conference in Singapore May 11, 2007. Singapore will host a Formula One race in 2008, Iswaran said on Friday. Iswaran told a media briefing that a first race could be held in September or October next year and might be a night race. An F1 night race would be the first in the world, although several Grand Prix drivers have spoken against it, citing safety concerns.  REUTERS/Vivek Prakash (SINGAPORE)

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Iswaran, whose political career spanned nearly 30 years, faces 27 charges, including corruption and obstructing justice, Chief Prosecutor Tan Kiat Pheng said in court Thursday.

According to charge sheets seen by CNN, these included allegations that he was gifted by Malaysian billionaire Ong Beng Seng, more than 160,000 Singapore dollars ($119,000) in bribes in exchange for advancing his business interests. Those gifts allegedly included business class flights, luxury hotel stays, tickets to the F1 Grand Prix, English Premier League matches and West End musicals.

The former minister was flanked by his legal team at court on Thursday morning and pleaded not guilty. He is currently on bail.

In a statement sent to CNN, Iswaran said he rejected the charges and allegations against him. “I resigned as (a) Cabinet Minister, Member of Parliament and as a member of the People’s Action Party because I believe it was the right thing to do,” the statement read.

“These past months have been most difficult for my family and me,” Iswaran added. “I am innocent and will now focus on clearing my name.”

Iswaran was arrested alongside hotel tycoon Ong in July. Ong is also the sole shareholder of the Singapore Grand Prix, organizer of the marquee sporting event. In his capacity as Singapore’s Transport Minister, Iswaran served as an advisor to the Grand Prix’s steering committee.

Setback for a clean country?

Singapore has long had a reputation for clean governance and is currently ranked number 5 in the world in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index.

Corruption probes involving ministers are rare in the country, where officials are paid well to discourage graft. The average annual salary of ministers is about 1.1 million Singapore dollars (nearly $834,000), according to the government.

The last corruption case involving a Singaporean minister was in 1986.

Teh Cheang Wan, who served as the Minister for National Development and was known for his proposal to ban sales of chewing gum in Singapore, was probed for allegedly accepting bribes from private companies. Although he maintained his innocence, he died before being charged.

Singapore’s anti-graft agency, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), which reports directly to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has been leading investigations into Iswaran’s case.

In a statement Thursday, Lee said he had accepted the resignation of Iswaran, who had agreed to return his government salary received since the probe was launched last July.

A combination picture shows banknotes seized during a police raid, in Singapore, in this handout picture released on August 16, 2023. Singapore Police Force via Facebook/Handout via REUTERS    THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT

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“The Government has dealt with this case rigorously in accordance with the law, and will continue to do so. I am determined to uphold the integrity of the Party and the Government, and our reputation for honesty and incorruptibility,” Lee said in the statement.

Lee is the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister and founding father.

The corruption probe into Ong and Iswaran comes at a sensitive time for Lee as he plans to step aside after nearly 20 years leading the country. Singapore will hold its next round of general elections in 2025.

“The case has already hurt the PAP government (which) will have to redouble its efforts to rebuild the trust and confidence of https://berdasarkanapa.com Singaporeans,” Eugene Tan, a former nominated member of Singapore’s parliament and an associate law professor at Singapore Management University, told CNN.

“What is in its favor is the government acting resolutely and taking the hit for one of its own allegedly falling far short of the public life standards expected of him.”

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