18 Jan 2024

Singapore minister Iswaran charged in rare corruption case

7:03 pm on 18 January 2024

By Kelly Ng and Tessa Wong for BBC News

Singapore's Minister for Transport and Minister-in-charge for Trade Relations S. Iswaran (L) leaves the State Court in Singapore on January 18, 2024. Singapore's prime minister announced on January 18 the resignation of his transport chief Iswaran after he was charged with 27 offences in a corruption probe that has also ensnared a billionaire hotel tycoon. Iswaran said he would plead not guilty to the charges filed by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau when he appeared in court. (Photo by Catherine LAI / AFP)

Former top politician S Iswaran, left, leaves the State Court in Singapore on January 18, 2024. Photo: AFP

A Singapore cabinet minister has been charged with corruption, in a rare case that has shocked a nation which prides itself on squeaky-clean governance.

S Iswaran has pleaded not guilty to 27 charges including "obtaining gratification as a public servant".

He is known for overseeing Singapore's tourism industry around the time when the Formula One Grand Prix made its glitzy debut in the city-state.

Iswaran, who quit his post on Tuesday, has pleaded not guilty.

He also said he would return his salaries and allowances since investigations into his case started in July 2023.

Iswaran was put on a leave of absence when he was arrested in July 2023. But he was still being paid S$8500 (NZ$10,350) a month. As an MP, he was also receiving an allowance of more than S$15,000 a month.

Singapore's lawmakers are among the highest-paid in the world, with ministers earning a starting salary of more than S$45,000 a month. Leaders have justified this by saying it would combat corruption.

Charge sheets released by the Attorney-General's Chambers on Thursday showed that Iswaran faced a total of 27 charges.

These included allegations that he was gifted more than S$160,000 worth of flights, hotel stays and Grand Prix tickets in exchange for advancing property tycoon Ong Beng Seng's business interests. He is also accused of receiving tickets to West End musicals and football matches.

Iswaran was arrested last year along with Ong, who was instrumental in bringing the F1 race to Singapore in 2008. Ong was named in all 27 of Iswaran's charges, often as the party offering the alleged bribes.

Iswaran, a veteran of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), has been a director in several major companies throughout his career.

While in government, he held multiple portfolios in the prime minister's office, home affairs, communications and, most recently, the transport ministry. But it was during his long stint in the trade and industry ministry that he gained prominence.

Iswaran had a hand in developing Singapore's tourism landscape in the late 2000s and the 2010s. This was a time when the government poured in vast resources and courted billions in foreign investment to build casinos, hotels, tourist attractions and events like the F1 race.

He was a familiar face on the podium, often handing out trophies to drivers amid celebratory sprays of champagne.

The case against him is one of a series of embarrassing political scandals that have rocked the PAP, which has long touted its strong stance against corruption and amoral behaviour.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday that he accepted Iswaran's resignation and that his government has dealt with this case "rigorously".

"I am determined to uphold the integrity of the party and the government, and our reputation for honesty and incorruptibility. Singaporeans expect no less," he said.

The last time a minister faced a corruption probe was in 1986, when national development minister Teh Cheang Wan was investigated for accepting bribes. He took his own life before he was charged.

- This story was first published by the BBC.