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If Singapore had a LinkedIn page, ‘straight as an arrow’ would probably be at the top of our bio. In 2019, we were the 4th least corrupt of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and 3rd out of 180 for absence of corruption on the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index.
Lee Kwan Yew was famously militant that no public official should be above the law. In keeping with his legacy, our politicians’ reputation for being whiter than white has largely endured till today-a rarity in a world where concern, suspicion, and anger around corporate influence on politics is growing, along with the belief that there is one system for elites, and another for everyone else.
In such an environment, the lack of public information around MPs’ financial interests-or, at the very least, difficulties in accessing such information- is striking.
It’s well known that full-time MPs are a minority, and most hold day jobs or juggle external roles like company directorships. Despite this, it can be surprisingly challenging to find out what your MP does when they’re not in Parliament, and what other interests they might be beholden to.
Down The Rabbit Hole
As a topic, MPs’ private interests have always hovered somewhere in our peripheral vision: never quite in the foreground, but with just enough presence to keep the public eye flickering back every so often.
When it crops up, as it does every now and then, it tends to be over how many directorships MPs hold. Most recently, during GE 2020, MP Tan See Leng was forced to clarify that he only held four directorships and not 69, as the social media rumour mill claimed.
But obsessing over how many other hats an MP wears, and whether these take away from their time and energy for public service, misses the forest for the trees. Of greater concern is whether those private interests could come into conflict with their performance of their public duties.
Conflicts of interest are like porn: easy to recognise, but difficult to regulate. Avoiding them altogether can be almost impossible, whether in the private or public sector; more important is whether sufficient checks exist to ensure they’re not taken advantage of. This, however, requires knowing what those interests are in the first place.
In Singapore, politicians are currently subject to various disclosure requirements and safeguards. All of these are fairly extensive. The problem is that they’re also either internal, lack legal enforceability, or yield information in too piecemeal a fashion for anyone to keep track of.
In short, unless you are an extremely dogged and politically engaged citizen with a lot of free time (or a masochistic journalist running on caffeine), there is no easy or efficient way to find out what boards your MP sits on, or what other groups they serve besides their constituents.
My starting point for trying to determine this was the Parliament website, where MPs can publish their CVs. However, this is optional: many do not. Moreover, even where provided, the detail and scope of CVs vary.
MP Cheryl Chan, for example, provides an extensive bullet-point list of her jobs and fiduciary responsibilities, which reflect her involvement in the Linde Group, an MNC in the chemical industry.
However, she appeared to be in the minority. I looked through the bios of around 30 backbench MPs across the different parties for this piece, and found that while most provide a few paragraphs sketching out their employment history, education, and hobbies, few make their fiduciary responsibilities explicit.
Anything further depends on your curiosity, patience, and skill with Google. Short of asking your MP directly, your only other options are to 1) comb through Hansard, or 2) cobble together whatever you can glean from company reports, LinkedIn, and newspaper articles. Neither guarantees to yield anything except a headache.
As an experiment, I tried looking up MP Sitoh Yih Pin, whom a 2011 article cited as having six di…