The Palmergate Affair

Michael Palmer’s resignation raises questions concerning governance and politics in Singapore.

Mong Palatino

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. 

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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.