The (in)significance of sex scandals in Singapore

By popular demand (according to the comments in the last post which I contributed to New Mandala as “Limpeh”), this blog post is my attempt to review of a few recent sex scandals in Singapore. For those who are unfamiliar with the stories, here is a summary:

In December 2011, the Singapore police busted an online prostitution ring. In the list of customers the polivce discovered that around 10% were senior civil servants. One of them was reportedly the principal of a very popular primary school. He is in his late 30s, married, and had a child. He abruptly quit in the same month, much to the surprise of his staff and parents of students in the school.

Separately, two very senior civil servants – one the head of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and the other the head of the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) – were reported by the local media to have been called up for questioning by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) also in December 2011, for having separate sexual relations with the same woman. Their sexual affairs might have compromised the integrity of the procurement of some IT computer systems, because the woman worked for the company which was awarded the IT contract.

Finally, there were substantive rumours that one opposition member of Parliament, Yaw Shin Leong, of the main opposition party, the Workers’ Party, had extra-marital affairs with several women. Yaw decided not to speak out against the rumours and it appears that the Workers’ Party leadership was also kept in the dark about the reality of those rumours. Frustrated by the lack of information from Yaw, the Workers’ Party expelled Yaw in the name of transparency and accountability, thus automatically losing one seat in parliament, triggering a by-election.

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How should Singaporeans, and maybe the rest of mainland Southeast Asia, see these sex scandals? The common response might be outrage, followed by puzzlement. What happened to the much-vaunted morals, integrity and non-corruption of our civil service? Why did the Workers’ Party not check the background of Yaw before fielding him for election? Is expelling Yaw,   a good move or bad move in the short or long term for the Workers’ Party? Is this really, as the commentator in my previous post described, “an unprecedented period in Singaporean history”?

To be sure, there is definitely some basis for feeling some outrage and puzzlement as described above. Yet to be overly outraged and puzzled is to give too much credit to the myth of “Singaporean integrity”. I call this a myth because I believe that the story of “Singaporean integrity and non-corruption” is part of a  hegemonic narrative carefully constructed by the governing Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) over the decades in order to justify and legitimize their political dominance. Put simply, observing that there is no corruption does not mean that there is no corruption. Corruption can be defined differently in different contexts, and can be hidden. If one doesn’t get caught, is it still corruption? If there is an agreement between two parties over the terms and conditions of a contract, is it still corruption?

Furthermore, is there anything innate about the moral fibre of Singaporeans or Singaporean civil servants to render them invincible when faced with sexual temptation? One can certainly expect civil servants to have “higher morals”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will have “higher morals”. The streets and karaoke bars of Geylang, Bras Basah and Selegie, just to name a few areas, are filled with Singaporean uncles and young men looking for temporary sexual trysts with women from mainland Southeast Asia. The Yellow Pages have advertisements for “premium escort services”. That the average Singaporean chooses to ignore them does not mean that they do not exist.

There is a saying among soldiers in the Singapore army: “You can do whatever you want in the army. Just don’t get caught.” Unfortunately, these people were caught.

Elvin Ong is a candidate for the Masters of Philosophy in Politics (Comparative Government) at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.         

About Elvin Ong, Guest Contributor

Elvin Ong is a PhD graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Emory University. He can be reached at elvin.ong@emory.edu.