The resignation of Singapore Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer yesterday over an extramarital affair came two days after readers of the island’s largest Chinese newspaper called 2012 a year of lust.
Palmer, 44, said he had a relationship with a member of a government agency who worked in a district he used to represent. He’s the second person this year to leave Parliament for private indiscretions.
“Human failings and affairs are common,” said Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at the Singapore Management University. “What is new is the open discussion of these issues, expansion of public sphere and the difficult political navigation of these issues.”
The former heads of the anti-drug agency and the Civil Defence Force were prosecuted earlier this year for obtaining sexual favors in exchange for contracts. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose government has cultivated an image of being clean, ethical and efficient, said yesterday that lawmakers in the ruling People’s Action Party must maintain the “highest standards of personal conduct.”
Palmer, who is married with one child, was the eighth speaker of Parliament. He was elected in October 2011 and presided over the sittings by lawmakers, according to the Parliament’s website.
“I have resigned to take full responsibility for a grave mistake that I have committed,” Palmer said in a statement. “My conduct was improper and it was a serious error of judgment. I have resigned in order to avoid further embarrassment to the PAP and to Parliament.”
Earlier this year, more than 50 men, including a former bank executive and a school principal, were charged for having sex with an underage prostitute. The former Central Narcotics Bureau chief faces four counts of obtaining oral sex last year from a 36-year-old executive in exchange for assisting her companies Hitachi Data Systems Pte and later Oracle Corp. to win contracts with the agency.
Lee has promised that no wrongdoing will be covered up even if it embarrasses the city, which is rated the least corrupt Asian country by Transparency International.
The Lianhe Zaobao newspaper said this week that its readers chose the Chinese character for lust to describe 2012 over nine other words that included change and integrate.
Singapore, where Playboy magazine is banned and the distribution of pornography is an offence, was ranked last month as the least emotional country in the world, according to U.S. pollster Gallup.
The readers’ choice “highlights the many newsmakers who have fallen prey to lust, and that too many events have been tainted by it,” said Goh Sin Teck, Lianhe Zaobao’s editor. “Is this purely a string of coincidences or is this a revelation of how our society has evolved?”
The island’s population has jumped by more than 1.1 million to 5.3 million since mid-2004, driving up property prices and stoking social tensions as the government used immigration to counter a fertility rate that has been below replacement levels for decades.
Other sex scandals in Singapore this year included a university professor who was charged with corruption for allegedly trading better grades for sex with his student. A female teacher was sentenced to a year in jail in October for sleeping with a male student who was a minor, according to the Straits Times.
In January 2008, Malaysia’s then-Health Minister Chua Soi Lek stepped down after he was secretly filmed having sex with a woman in a hotel room. An Indonesian lawmaker who helped pass an anti-pornography law resigned in April 2011 after he was caught watching sex videos during a parliamentary debate, according to the Associated Press.
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director David H. Petraeus resigned last month following the revelation of an extramarital affair with his biographer. U.S. governors who have stepped down after indiscretions include New York’s Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn left the lender after his arrest on sexual-assault charges.
“Singapore is no different from any modern society,” said Terence Lee, who teaches politics at National University of Singapore. “You see it in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, the U.S., the U.K. These things happen, it’s part and parcel of life and people just have to deal with it.”
Yaw Shin Leong, a member of Parliament from the opposition, was expelled from his party in February for “indiscretions in his private life.” The Workers’ Party retained the seat in Hougang district in a by-election to replace Yaw.
The Workers’ Party, the only elected opposition in parliament, said yesterday it’s ready to “offer a choice” to voters as it urged Lee to call for a by-election as soon as possible. Its candidate for Punggol East won 41 percent of votes in the 2011 polls, while Palmer won 54.5 percent of valid ballots cast.
A by-election won’t change the balance of power in government, even after Lee’s party won last year’s polls with the smallest margin of victory since independence in 1965. The PAP has 81 of 87 seats.
In the past year, Lee has cut ministerial pay, accelerated construction of public housing and made permanent a program to provide cash, utility rebates and medical funds for the elderly and low-income households. Still, the country has the highest inflation rate among the developed world’s biggest economies while gross domestic product is forecast to expand at the slowest pace in three years in 2012.
“What is interesting is the continued tests the PAP is facing with another by-election,” said Welsh. “The cases this year highlight the need to remove politicians and civil servants from pedestals and tighten standards for those in positions of power.”
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