The Palmergate Affair
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The Palmergate Affair


The most talked about political issue in Singapore last month was the sudden resignation of Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer after he admitted to having an extramarital affair with the constituency director of the People's Association (PA) of another district. Following his disclosure Palmer resigned as both the Speaker and Member of Parliament, as well as a member of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Predictably, this affair sparked an intense, lively, and even humorous discussion among Singaporeans concerning the sex lives of their public officials. Indeed, 2012 offered them much to talk about on this subject.

Early last year, for instance, Parliamentarian Yaw Shin Leong was expelled by the opposition Worker's Party after allegedly engaging in an extramarital affair. 

Meanwhile, former Central Narcotics Bureau chief Ng Boon Gay is currently on trial for allegedly soliciting sexual favors from a 36-year-old executive in exchange for awarding her firm government contracts. Similarly, Civil Defense Force Commissioner Peter Benedict Lim Sin Pang is facing 10 counts of corruption related to a sex-for-contracts controversy involving three separate women.

But the “Palmergate” scandal is particularly noteworthy because the issue goes beyond the personal sex life of the former speaker to raise questions about several aspects of governance and politics in Singapore. 

First, Palmer’s resignation has left the constituents of Punggol East without a representative in parliament. But the government has not announced when it will hold a by-election to find a replacement for Palmer. After Palmer resigned, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong issued a statement citing a constitutional provision that allows him to call a by-election but fails to specify a fixed timeframe in which he is obligated to do so. This suggests that it is time to improve the system of filling vacancies in parliament in order to ensure citizens are able to exercise their right to be represented in government. 

Second, and more importantly, Palmer’s illicit relationship with a PA official may be a private matter, but it reveals the arguably inappropriate ties between PAP and the PA. In the modern age, the PA is largely a grassroots’ organization that aims to foster social cohesion among Singaporeans of different ethnic backgrounds, as well as serve as a neutral mediator linking the Singaporean government and the people. Thus, in theory the PA should not favor any party. In reality, however, many of the PA personnel are PAP appointees, supporters, and even politicians. “The uncomfortable truth that Singaporeans have to confront is that the People’s Association is literally in bed with the PAP,” writes political analyst Ng E-Jay. “A supposedly non-partisan statutory board whose professed aim is to build social cohesion and represent the interests of all Singaporeans is nothing but an extension of the ruling party, both in spirit and in substance.” 

It’s unfortunate but understandable that “Palmergate” diverted public attention away from the labor strike conducted by Chinese bus drivers last month, the first such strike in Singapore in more than two decades. After all, labor unrest is just a less “sexy” topic than, well, sex scandals involving public officials. But the public attention being given to Palmergate also provides a good opportunity to initiate public conversations about important topics, such as choosing the right leaders, reforming the electoral system, and reviewing the mandate and operations of publicly-financed grassroots organizations.

U.S.the corruptors
January 8, 2013 at 23:54

Singapore has some of the strictest regulations governing business operations unlike what can be found in the U.S. The recent case of the Steubenville rape scandal only shows how corrupt the U.S. actually is, not much better than the one that recently happened in the Asian sub-continent. There is a great deal of prejudice and malice against Singapore especially from the western press which likes to see the island become a modern-day version of the famed banana republic existence forged by the west for Latin America nations in the 20th century.

1942 Sook Ching horror
January 8, 2013 at 16:34

Singapore must be wary of the likes of Palatinos, Holmes', Kecks, and other "well-wishers"  who seemingly have only good plans and good intentions for the island. Well, let them know that the road to hell is wholly paved with good intentions. Singapore must never forget what happened in February 1942.

Jess Guzman
January 7, 2013 at 17:43

Good riddance to your kind and the US.  Amerikan forces should go back where they came from .. the other side of the planet.  Nobody invited them here.  Their presence are bankrupting their own country,  Close your bases and save some pennies, jock!

January 6, 2013 at 01:28

Sounds like the PA acts very much in the same way than the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, similar as much in its "responsibilities" as in its ties to the one true ruling party. The difference, of course, is that Singapore does bill itself as a true quasi-democracy. It might be some years before the PAP further loses its full grip onSingaporean politics and gives way to a more electorally equitable system – PA and all. 

Leonard R.
January 5, 2013 at 00:51

It's an open secret in ASEAN that Singaporean companies often tend to be some of the most corrupt, dishonest & fly-by-night businesses around. Why should their politicians be any different?
The US Navy should NOT base naval assets in Singapore. The Chinese governing class there cannot be trusted. Put the new boats in the Philippines, Bangladesh or Burma – anywhere but Singapore. 

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief