Michael Palmer’s affair is old news by now. I never really thought much of the man, beyond what I reported in 2011. I haven’t even met him before, even though I live in his constituency. I haven’t heard anything good or ill about him. All I know about him is that he ran his campaign as though he were running for the post of chairman of the residents’ committee. For all the talk about his affair, I haven’t seen anything that definitively disqualifies him from office.
Yes, he had an extramarital affair. He was upfront about it, he admitted it publicly, and he resigned immediately. We see the People’s Action Party’s Public Relations machine going into full-blown crisis mode. Palmer is sent off with praises in the press, the other half of the affair, Laura Ong, is named named in the press, and resignations fly.
And yet, questions remain.
1. What disqualifies someone from being a leader?
Yaw Shin Leong resigned over an extramarital affair. Michael Palmer resigned over an extramarital affair. Regardless of what happened, it looks like a precedent is being set for acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour for leaders. The next time a senior civil servant, Member of Parliament, or other leader is found to have an extramarital affair, people will want him to step down. People will demand his resignation.
But leadership is a rare thing. Skills can only be cultivated so far. Not everybody can be a leader, or wants to be, and nobody is without flaw either. Yaw failed the leadership test by denying allegations, refusing to communicate, and lack of transparency regarding his actions. Palmer met the leadership test by clarifying matters and admitting to his deeds.
Palmer has done nothing so far that demonstrated a lack of leadership ability, and adultery is not a crime. As little as I care for him, Palmer was still the people’s choice. In the short term, dropping a leader who fails to meet moral standards may ameliorate the public. But in the long term, it means that person’s skills, experience and capabilities are no longer available for public service. That person needs to be replaced, usually by someone with lesser skills and experience.
The PAP may be comfortable with that decision now, given its stranglehold on Parliament. But suppose, in the future, the ruling party has a slight majority, and every MP counts. If a situation like Palmer arises again, would the party demand a resignation? Would it accept one? What about the people?
What is the moral threshold for unacceptable behaviour? There isn’t a set answer. Incidents like this are setting precedents. I’m not sure if I like that.
2. Why resign?
On first glance, the answer is easy. Palmer did something wrong, so he must make up for it. But it’s not illegal, and if the relationship had no implications for the public sphere it should be a private matter for Palmer and his family to sort out.
On second glance, it’s about face. Yaw was criticised until he resigned, most notably by the PAP. If Palmer didn’t resign immediately, the PAP would face criticism for being hypocrites. If there’s one thing the PAP cares about, it’s about the appearance of integrity and uprightness. On the other hand, Palmer himself might have resigned of his own volition, without input from elsewhere, in order to redeem himself.
But is that it? The actual details of Palmer’s affair hasn’t been disclosed to the press. Is it a mere romantic liaison, or is there more to the affair than what is being reported? Laura Ong was reportedly a member of the People’s Association, and it’s an open secret that the PAP and the PA are very tightly-knit. The whole affair also apparently came to light because a whistleblower threatened to reveal the whole affair to the press. For all the hot air being generated, I still don’t know if the affair is strictly romantic in nature, or if there’s more to the whole affair than meets the eye.
Is the PAP and/or Palmer saving face? Is the illusion of transparency a smokescreen for something else? I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody knows.
3. When is the by-election? And why are by-elections at the discretion of the Prime Minister?
Punggol East doesn’t have a Member of Parliament now. There is simply no excuse not to have one. It’s only a question of time. In my opinion, the sooner the by-election, the better. But a by-election isn’t automatic. The Prime Minister has to call for one before a by-election can be organised.
As this article implicitly points out, this discretion can be used to further the ruling party’s goals. If it suits the party, the PM can call for an early by-election. If he thinks the opposition will win the seat, he’ll drag on the by-election until after he needs Parliamentary votes on something. There might even be no by-election at all, and Punggol East will magically become part of Pasir Ris-Punggol again.
By-elections simply cannot be held at the Prime Minister’s discretion. Singapore needs a law specifically for by-elections, triggering a by-election a set time after a seat is vacated in between elections. The current system compromises democracy; this law upholds and expands it.
In the end, all I have are many unanswered questions. Why should Michael Palmer resign? Why did he resign? Is there more to the affair than meets the eye, or is it simply the party and/or Palmer saving face? When is the by-election going to be held? So many questions, and I don’t think I’ll see any answers to all but the last.