Irony abound: Shanmugam’s condemnation of ‘special treatment’ amidst Ridout rental controversy

Mr K Shanmugam, Minister of Law and Home Affairs, recently emphasized Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s (LHY) legal troubles, suggesting that LHY should defend himself against the defamation claims by the minister and Dr Vivian Balakrishnan in a Singapore court if LHY finds them to be baseless.

He stated in a Facebook post, “What Mr Lee wants is special treatment…Mr Lee should explain why he is entitled to make libellous statements, yet be exempt from the rules that apply to the rest of us.”

This statement was issued in response to LHY’s proposal for independent arbitration in the hopes of finding a peaceful resolution to his ongoing dispute with the two ministers.

LHY detailed, “We could each select an arbitrator of high international standing. This would ensure fairness and impartiality. While proceedings would be conducted in private, the decision would be made public, guaranteeing transparency and closure.”

Before this proposal, LHY had suggested the ministers pursue their suit in London’s courts. However, the two instead sued him in Singapore and served him legal papers via Facebook Messenger in mid-September.

They chose this unconventional method with court approval in hand, claiming the challenges of serving him in the UK, where he currently resides.

LHY is accused of suggesting that the ministers acted corruptly, receiving preferential treatment by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) through unauthorized tree felling and state-funded renovations of 26 and 31 Ridout Road.

Both ministers have categorically refuted these allegations, while LHY alleged that the two ministers were pressuring him to issue a public apology that he perceived to be falsified.

Unanswered questions regarding the Ridout Road property leases from SLA

One cannot help but think about Mr Shanmugam’s own leasing of the No. 26 Ridout Road property upon his mention of ‘special treatment’.

The publicization of the lease of the Ridout properties by Reform Party Secretary General Kenneth Jeyaretnam has sparked discontent among the population, prompting a response from the Singapore government.

This response came in the form of a series of Ministerial Statements on 3 July, addressing queries from Members of Parliament, particularly concerning decision-making processes, transparency, and due diligence in listing the property on the Singapore Property Information eXchange (SPIO).

While no misconduct was found by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), parts of the transaction have continued to fuel public scepticism and discussion.

In 2017, while serving as the Minister of Law, Mr Shanmugam acquired a list of available properties from the then-Deputy Secretary of MinLaw. In June 2018, he leased a 23,164 sqm parcel of land for a 3+3+3-year term at S$26,500 under his wife’s name, after negotiating with SLA to incorporate the adjoining land into the existing plot.

According to SLA, the rental was based on prevailing market rate, and the rental was renewed at the same price.

Renovations and improvements on the property were undertaken by SLA – a statutory board under the purview of the Law Minister, with the house renovated at S$515,400 and the new land cleared and fenced at S$172,000, with these costs said to be recovered from the tenant’s rent. Satellite imagery suggests the renovations were completed between September and October 2018.

Responding to a question from MP for Potong Pasir SMC, Mr Sitoh Yipin during the July Ministerial statements, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Mr Teo Chee Hean affirmed, “The CPIB looked into the matter and found no evidence to suggest any abuse of position for personal gain…” and further explained the process through which information on property availability is handled and shared by SLA or managing agents.

Following Mr Teo’s response, Mr K Shanmugam stood and added: “I could have approached SLA directly. They would have given the list. I know that they would give this information to credible, potential tenants. We call them prospects. You are a landlord, you have properties you want to rent, it is in your interest to give the information if you believe that the person is someone who is able to rent what you have. You will make available the information.”

“So, I could have asked SLA directly, and I know that SLA has given this information to others who will fall within the category of credible, prospective tenants: embassies and so on, companies, business persons. And I think from SLA’s perspective, I would be a credible, prospective tenant who is not going to run off without paying the rental.”

Responses from the Second Minister for Law, Edwin Tong, to pointed questions from MPs Ms Poh Li San and Ms Hazel Poa displayed a noticeable indirectness.

Both MPs raised specific queries about the SLA’s actions regarding the property at 26 Ridout Road, seeking clarity on why certain actions were or were not taken given the singular bid and subsequent renovations.

MP for Sembawang GRC, Ms Poh directly inquired, “For 26 Ridout Road, which had only attracted one bid, did SLA not solicit additional bids after the extensive refurbishment was completed to test if the price was still a fair market price?”

Similarly, Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Ms Hazel Poa asked, “Why was 26 Ridout Road not listed on SPIO? But with hindsight, when it is apparent that a Minister is interested in renting the property, would it not have been better to have listed the property on SPIO?”

Ms Poh’s query specifically probes the logic behind not reassessing the market value of the property post-renovation. At the same time, Ms Poa’s question underscores the transparency and fairness of the property listing given the involvement of a political figure.

However, Mr Tong’s responses navigated around a direct answer to the two, opting instead to outline SLA’s general practices, thereby leaving the MPs’ queries essentially unanswered.

While the ministers have clarified both in and outside of Parliament that they did not receive preferential treatment from the SLA through unauthorized tree felling and state-funded renovations of 26 and 31 Ridout Road, the question pivots more toward whether any ordinary resident could receive the same treatment or find themselves in similar circumstances.

For instance, could an ordinary Singaporean citizen or resident request a property list, which includes properties not listed on SPIO, from a Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Law? Would anyone confidently bid for a dilapidated property at a market price intended for a property in livable condition? Or even negotiate an increase in leased land from 9,350 sqm to 23,164 sqm, without any increase in rental or cost, even if the maintenance cost is to be borne by the tenant?

This doubt is further exacerbated by Mr Teo’s qualifier, wherein he denied saying anyone could go to SLA and simply obtain a full listing of those properties. “I said any credible prospect. So, it’s not just anyone, but any credible prospect.”

In the wider discourse on defamation, examining available data from defamation suits in Singapore, especially those linked to political figures, enriches the context of Mr Shanmugam’s suggestion for LHY to defend himself in the local court.

A general analysis suggests that a significant percentage of defamation cases in the past twenty years have involved political figures suing politically active individuals or entities.

The 304 cases involving defamation between March 2000 and August 2023 are not a small amount, but definitely not “countless,” as the Law Minister suggests with his statement that “countless Singaporeans” have sued for defamation.

While Mr Shanmugam scrutinizes LHY’s actions as seeking ‘special treatment’, the dealings and events surrounding his own interactions with the SLA and the leasing of the Ridout Road property seem to suggest he may be applying a double standard – or worse, demonstrating hypocrisy.

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