'I should've forced the issue earlier': PM Lee on his handling of Tan Chuan-Jin & Cheng Li Hui's affair

"It is wrong. Mr Tan and Ms Cheng had to stop their affair. I told them to stop," said PM Lee.

Hannah Martens | August 02, 2023, 01:40 PM

Telegram Whatsapp

In his ministerial statement in Parliament on Aug. 2, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted "in retrospect" that he should have "forced the issue" of Tan Chuan-Jin and Cheng Li Hui's affair "earlier".

Addressing the resignation of former Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin and former People's Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP) Cheng Li Hui, PM Lee explained why he took "so long" to act on it.

PM Lee learned about the affair in November 2020

PM Lee shared that he first learned about the affair in November 2020 after the 2020 General Elections.

Tan and Cheng were spoken to and counselled separately, and they said they would stop the affair.

However, the two did not stop.

In February 2023, PM Lee spoke to them once again separately.

Tan admitted that what he did was wrong and offered to resign, which PM Lee accepted but instructed Tan that before he "actually resigned", Tan had to ensure the residents in Tan's GRC in Kembangan-Chai Chee and Marine Parade were take care of. Tan was also told to stop his relationship with Cheng.

However, PM Lee came across information a few weeks ago that Tan's affair with Cheng continued, and thus, he decided that Tan had to resign.

Cheng also had to resign as "she had not broken off the affair even after being told to stop".

On Jul. 17, both Cheng and Tan submitted their resignations from the PAP and Parliament to PM Lee.

"I should have forced the issue earlier"

PM Lee admitted that, in hindsight, he should have "forced the issue earlier" instead of taking more than two years to act.

"Why did I take so long, more than two years, to act? It is a fair question. In retrospect (and certainly now knowing how things eventually turned out), I agree. I should have forced the issue earlier."

PM Lee shared that "these sorts of relationship happen from time to time" and "no doubt will happen again in the future".

He explained that there are many factors to consider, such as the circumstances, how "inappropriate or scandalous the behaviour was", and their family situations.

"We have to be conscious of the impact on innocent parties particularly the spouses and children," he said.

This position is also not new and has been around since the days of Lee Kuan Yew, PM Lee shared.

No single template applies to all extra-marital affairs

"There is no single template that applies to all extra-marital affairs. But there can be at least three situations:

First situation — where the individuals involved will be talked to, and if they stop the matter ends there. No further action need be taken.

Second situation — where immediate action has to be taken. For example, when one party has supervisory power over the other party. We have in the past taken immediate action, in a few cases.

Third situation — where the relationship raises some questions of propriety, beyond it being an extra marital affair per se. The parties will be talked to, but the matter cannot end there. Even if the affair stops, some action has to follow but what that action is and when it is taken, depends on the nature of the facts and the boundaries transgressed."

PM Lee shared that Tan and Cheng's situation fell into the third category.

"It is wrong. Mr Tan and Ms Cheng had to stop their affair. I told them to stop."

@mothershipsg PM Lee addresses why he took 2 years to act on Tan Chuan-Jin and Cheng Hui Li's extramarital affair #sgnews #sgparliament #tiktoksg ♬ original sound - Mothership

An "open, legitimate relationship" between Speaker and an MP is not objectionable

PM Lee said it would be "perfectly alright" if the Speaker of Parliament were married to an MP as there is no direct reporting line between them.

As such, "an open, legitimate relation" between the Speaker and MP is "not in itself objectionable" and would not require an immediate action to be taken.

"However, the Speaker has some official capacity vis-à-vis MPs. An extra-marital affair between him and an MP is therefore problematic. It puts other MPs and staff in an awkward position, and it is just not proper," PM Lee explained.

He also added that he spoke to Tan in November 2020, and Tan said he would end the relationship, so PM Lee felt there was "some leeway to take some time, to decide what further steps to take".

If Tan stopped the affair, PM Lee would ask him to step down as Speaker

In his speech, PM Lee noted that there were some possible actions that could have been taken.

If Tan had stopped the affair, PM Lee said he would have asked Tan to step down as Speaker of Parliament sometime before the end of the term but in a way that would reduce the public embarrassment to him and his family.

"As to whether one or both should also resign as MPs — I hadn't decided at that time but quite likely both would have had to leave at some point," he admitted.

PM Lee explained by giving the issue some time, he hoped to provide Tan and Cheng a "softer exit and save them and their families the pain and embarrassment they are suffering now."

"I placed much weight on protecting the families — perhaps too much."

Hope MPs and the public can have compassion for families

PM Lee does not deny that Tan and Cheng behaved improperly, but he hopes MPs and the public can empathise with and have compassion for the family members involved and give them the privacy and space they need to heal.

"[W]hile there is no doubt the two persons behaved improperly, there are also innocent family members involved. Likewise for the case involving a former member across the aisle, in the Workers’ Party. All their families are suffering."

PAP government works hard to identify right people to bring into politics

PM Lee concluded that the PAP government works hard to identify the right people to bring into politics and appoint to responsible positions.

"We vet them carefully, test and stretch them, before entrusting them with heavier responsibilities. Often they measure up, but sometimes they fall short. Occasionally they transgress norms of conduct, or commit wrongdoing."

He also shared that when people slip in their personal lives, the PAP will look at the facts of each case "carefully" and "deal with the matter as humanely and sensitively as possible, according to the principles the Party has established".

@mothershipsg "While there is no doubt the two persons behaved improperly, there are also innocent family members involved," PM Lee said. #sgnews #tiktoksg #sgparliament ♬ original sound - Mothership

Photos via MCI/YouTube & PAP website