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Singapore transport minister S Iswaran resigns; faces charges of corruption

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S. Iswaran, Singapore’s transport minister, leaves the Singapore State Courts in Singapore, on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. Iswaran was charged with corruption, the latest development in the biggest political scandal to hit the city state in close to four decades. Photographer: Ore Huiying/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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SINGAPORE — Singapore’s transport minister S Iswaran has resigned after he was formally informed of charges, including that of corruption, by the country’s anti-graft agency after months of investigations.

On Thursday, Iswaran appeared in court and was handed 27 charges. There were 24 charges of obtaining gratification as a public servant, two charges of corruption and one charge of obstructing the course of justice. He pleaded not guilty.

The minister resigned two days ago, according to a statement from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The prime minister’s office said that acting transport minister Chee Hong Tat will be promoted to full minister, taking over Iswaran’s portfolio as transport minister.

In letters to Lee, Iswaran said he would return the salary he received as minister and allowances as a member of Parliament since the start of the probe in July.

“I am doing this even though I reject the charges and am innocent,” he wrote. “So that there is no doubt, I will not be seeking the return of these monies if, as I strongly believe, I am acquitted.”

Iswaran has been accused of obtaining tickets from billionaire Ong Beng Seng to the Singapore Grand Prix, soccer matches and shows in the UK.

According to CNBC’s calculations, Iswaran obtained 116 tickets to the Singapore Grand Prix between 2016 and 2022, worth 347,152.10 Singapore dollars ($258,388.78). Race events were not held in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.

Ong was credited with bringing Formula 1 to Singapore in 2008. In 2022, his privately owned firm Singapore GP and the Singapore Tourism Board secured the rights to host the Singapore Grand Prix until 2028.

Last July, Ong was arrested by Singapore’s anti-graft agency as part of its investigation involving Iswaran.

Ong, who is managing director of Singapore-listed hotel owner and operator Hotel Properties Limited, was asked to provide information on his interactions with Iswaran.

A spokesperson from Singapore’s Attorney General’s Chambers said the anti-graft agency also investigated the role of other people, including Ong. 

The AGC said it will “take a decision in respect of the investigations against Mr Ong and others, after the case against Mr S Iswaran has been completed, including the presentation of evidence in court.”

Iswaran was the first cabinet minister in Singapore to be charged for corruption in the country and the first to be investigated since 1986, when then Minister for National Development Teh Cheang Wan was probed for corruption. Teh committed suicide before he could be formally charged in court.

The former minister was arrested by CPIB on July 11, following the corruption bureau’s investigation into a separate matter. He was later interdicted from duty, and his salary reduced.

Lee also instructed Iswaran to take a leave of absence until investigations were completed. Lee pledged to uphold “zero tolerance” toward any wrongdoing by government officials.

Political scandals are not common in Singapore, a country touted for its clean government and incorruptible image.

Singapore pays its ministers the highest salaries in the world and prides itself for its clean reputation. The Southeast Asian nation is currently fifth on Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index.

— CNBC’s Christine Wang contributed to this report.

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