All images by Nathan Koh for RICE Media
When it rains, it pours. If you’ve kept up with current (ahem) affairs, you know it applies literally and figuratively.
We pull up to the Workers’ Party (WP) headquarters on Geylang Road for a stormy press conference on an equally stormy afternoon.
We’re only halfway through a crazy week for Singapore politics. Monday morning kicked off with a bang when a video surfaced online of star WP members Leon Perera and Nicole Seah holding hands over a wine-fuelled dinner. As so many other media reports noted: Both are married, but not to each other.
Before we got any concrete answers, though, came the shocker mere hours later that Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan Jin (also married) and Tampines GRC Member of Parliament Cheng Li Hui (not married) were resigning. They, too, had a dalliance of their own that did not end even after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong counselled them. One can only wonder what PM Lee’s hourly rate for relationship counselling costs.
It was a scandal three years in the making. PM Lee mentioned at a press conference at the Istana on Monday, July 17th, that he had learnt of Tan’s and Cheng’s relationship sometime after the General Election in 2020. He’d told them to cut it out, but recent information surfaced that “strongly suggested” the relationship had continued, precipitating the double resignation.
Anyway, back to the other extra-marital affair. The one taking place within WP, which is why they called a press conference to address that leaked video.
My photographer Nathan and I reach WP’s headquarters early, but there are already journalists milling around the ground floor of the commercial building. More journalists station themselves in a hall on the fourth floor, where the party typically holds its press conferences.
It’s smaller than I expected. Videographers and photographers are squeezed into the centre of the room, a mass of tripods, wires, and lenses bigger than my head. The sound of rain pouring outside is still audible.
The lenses are all trained on a raised platform upfront. There’s a table with two seats set up. It’s clear that soon, Leader of the Opposition and WP leader, Pritam Singh, as well as WP chairwoman Sylvia Lim will take the stage.
Most of us already suspected as much, but it’s a sure signal that Perera and Seah will not be present.
Nathan roves around the room as I settle into my seat. Front row seats—a little unexpected, given that people like to call RICE an ‘alternative media outlet’. But I’m not complaining.
Some reporters have their eyes glued to their phones and laptops. Others mill around, making small talk about work. I catch snatches of conversations on other recent notable political happenings.
“I saw you got Iswaran,” a journo says to another. He’s probably referring to the media catching a glimpse of Transport Minister S. Iswaran at the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) the day before. A minister arrested as part of a probe by the anti-graft agency a week prior is big news (as it should be). But, of course, that’s now been overshadowed by the other scandals in its wake. Like intra-party extramarital affairs.
Even as the shoptalk flits from topic to topic, we all know what we’re here for. I catch glimpses of pre-written articles on laptops, bearing headlines announcing Perera and Seah’s resignations. As soon as confirmation leaves Mr Singh’s lips, it’ll be a game of fastest fingers first.
The writing is on the wall, and most of the people in the room appear to have come to two conclusions ahead of the press conference: (1) Yes, there was an inappropriate relationship between Perera and Seah and (2)that they will be leaving their political posts.
Seated beside me is an ex-colleague from AsiaOne who interviewed Perera’s 80-year-old former driver. According to the elderly man’s account, he’d dropped Perera off at hotels to meet Seah and had told Mr Singh (and other WP members) of the affair in 2020. A spicy scoop.
I look around the room. Based on the printed labels affixed to the rows of chairs, there’s a diverse mix of different platforms in attendance today—from the big guys like The Straits Times to alternative platforms like Wake Up Singapore and The Independent.
None of us alternatives would have ever made the cut to the PM’s press conference.
The Confirmation From WP
We all grow increasingly quiet as 1 PM approaches.
It’s still quiet when Mr Singh and Ms Lim walk in. There’s no announcement, so we only register their entrance as they take their seats and straighten out some notes in front of them.
They’re sombre, as expected. Maybe a little worn out. It’s a gloomy day, after all.
Mr Singh takes to the floor first to read out his statement, and the clacking of laptop keyboards intensifies. Beside him, Ms Lim sits with her hands clasped, face grim.
It’s not anything wildly different from what we expected.
– Mr Singh had been informed by Perera’s driver “sometime in late 2020 and early 2021” of the latter’s suspicions.
– Perera and Seah denied the affair when Mr Singh asked them about it.
– All WP members who heard of the allegations from the driver asked Leon about it. He told them that there was “no truth” to them.
– As there was no corroborating evidence, and the source was an employee whose services were about to be terminated, Mr Singh decided to “let the matter rest”. There was no indication of further investigations made into the allegation, as serious as it was.
– Mr Singh says that he saw the video of Perera and Seah for the first time on July 17th, when it appeared online.
– Both of them admitted that same day they’d had an affair which started after the General Elections in 2020, and stopped “some time ago”. One can’t help but assume that it would have stayed a secret if not for the video.
– Seah resigned from WP on July 18, and Perera’s resignation followed today.
Ms Lim takes over to explain the handover arrangements for Aljunied GRC, where Perera has been an MP since 2020. The GRC’s MPs are collectively responsible for all its residents, she says. Meet-The-People sessions will proceed as usual, and the party will ensure that residents are “well cared for”, she assures.
The statements addressed most of my and other journalists’ questions about the timeline of the relationship and the actions WP took. But others were left unanswered.
A big one: When and where was the video taken? Mr Singh is pressed for details during the ensuing question and answer session. According to him, he doesn’t know.
The Q&A session also turned up a surprising revelation: Seah came clean to her family about it last year.
“The process of healing started, with her, much earlier,” Mr Singh says. The recent media furore can’t have helped the healing process and must have cut even deeper for Perera’s family.
Ms Lim has been stoic thus far, but her forehead furrows with emotion as Mr Singh speaks about Perera’s and Seah’s family.
Other questions pour in from the journalists present. Curiously, some appear stuck on the assumption that Mr Singh had confirmation of Perera’s and Seah’s relationship prior to Monday.
“Were you prepared or planning to make this kind of relationship known to the public—and also why and why not? And if you were prepared to do so, when would that be?” asks a woman behind me from Channel 8 News.
Another reporter from TODAY asserts that the WP leadership “did not act or make public any actions on the matter despite having some knowledge of it some time ago”.
Mr Singh is a picture of patience as he reiterates his statement that the video was neither known to him nor any of his central executive committee members beforehand.
But I understand the line of questioning made by other reporters. We had to submit our questions before the official statement was made. Most of our pre-planned questions were already answered in some manner in Mr Singh’s statement, which is why he keeps making references out loud to it.
A decision had to be made when it came to my turn on the microphone. Prime time to broach a subject that’s been on the lips and minds of many—a resonating narrative that people have wondered but never got answers to.
“What are your thoughts about the coincidence of the video circulating on the internet hours before Speaker [of Parliament] Tan Chuan Jin and MP Cheng Li Hui announced their resignation?”
Before I even finish my question, Mr Singh’s lip twitches, and he looks away. I don’t want to assume, but the man looks like he has plenty of thoughts on the matter. A smile creeps up on Ms Lim’s face beside him.
“Hmm…” Mr Singh responds before taking a moment, ruminating on what he can say.
There are some chuckles from the journalists’ side of the room. I don’t think I’m the only one who wants to know his thoughts. Will he say something explosive and be fodder for content in the weeks to come?
His final answer is diplomatic. While he’s careful to discourage any speculation on the matter—especially from WP members—he adds: “I think the fact that you’re asking the question suggests that it’s on your mind. And I don’t think you’re wrong. I think it’s on a lot of people’s minds.”
“But I leave you to draw your own conclusions on the—how should I put this—uncanny coincidence vis-a-vis timing.”
It’s more than I thought I would get. But I’m happy with his reaction.
Mr Singh goes back to business for the rest of the press conference, and it’s more clasped hands and even tones.
Things do pick up slightly when the topic turns to WP regaining the trust and confidence of voters, and he espouses the importance of a good opposition to make Singapore a “better and stronger” country. His hands come out of their neutral pose as he makes bigger gestures for emphasis.
“We have to continue to work hard to encourage and persuade good Singaporeans to come forward and be part of the balancing force which is in Singapore’s interest.”
Along with Raeesah Khan, the party has now lost two MPs since the last General Election. If we’re keeping score, though, the People’s Action Party has lost three (including Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who wants to run for president). The jury’s still out on Minister Iswaran and MP Christopher de Souza.
Breaking the News
The press conference wraps up with Mr Singh and Ms Lim making their exit. It’s as silent as their entrance, and they disappear behind an inconspicuous door.
WP volunteers dressed in coordinating shades of blue hand out copies of Perera’s and Seah’s resignation letters, as well as Mr Singh’s replies.
The tension in the room breaks as the journalists turn their focus from Mr Singh and Ms Lim to more pressing matters: Deadlines.
Some smash their keyboards vigorously, intent on getting the piping hot tea from their screens to those of the general public before they even leave the building.
As Nathan and I step out into the sunlight, it’s still drizzling ever so slightly. No time for lunch.
I’m left with the sense this was all too avoidable. Not about missing lunch, but scandals among the highest echelons of Singapore politics.
We shouldn’t be packed in a room, hearing about two adults who stepped out on their marriages and sacrificed promising political careers. As political figures who promised to take care of their constituents, they should have been taking care of their loved ones first.
At the end of the day, maybe it doesn’t matter that two political extramarital affairs were revealed on the same day. What matters is the fact that they already happened—and both PAP and WP had different ways of dealing with the aftermath. Both parties will only know how well they handled these high-profile incidents when Singaporeans hit the polls in the next General Election.
When this news cycle is over, people will find something new to talk about. It’s their families that will be dealing with the public trauma for years to come.