Member of Parliament Tin Pei Ling has defended taking a new job at Grab. Corporate governance expert Mak Yuen Teen weighs in on the online frenzy and the actual and perceived conflicts.
SINGAPORE: The news that Member of Parliament (MP) Tin Pei Ling has joined tech giant Grab in a full-time role as director of public affairs and policy at Grab Singapore has been widely reported in the local and international media, and lit up the Internet.
In Singapore, many MPs have other full-time or part-time roles.
Prior to joining Grab, Ms Tin was CEO of Business China, a non-profit organisation that had the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew as its founding patron, with five current ministers as advisers, and a board of directors that includes several senior ministers of state and civil servants.
Before joining Business China in May 2018, the People’s Action Party MP – who was first elected to Parliament in 2011 – was group director of corporate strategy at Singapore firm Jing King Tech Group.
There was no online or media frenzy on those occasions.
However, this time the reaction has been vastly different. In her LinkedIn and Facebook posts responding to concerns of conflict of interest, she said:
“The company has established clear rules of engagement to ensure that any possible conflict of interest will be properly declared and avoided. Likewise, the People’s Action Party has a published set of Rules of Prudence, as well as mechanisms in place for declarations of interest and the avoidance of conflicting interests.”
She added: “I am absolutely clear that when I am discharging my duties as an MP, my constituents and Singapore come first. When I am working on behalf of Grab, I will have to ensure that Grab’s interests are safeguarded.”
It is not so straightforward.
GRAB’S CODE OF CONDUCT AND ETHICS
As a company listed in the United States, Grab Holdings is required to have a code of conduct for its directors, senior officers and employees, which must be made publicly available.
Grab’s 13-page code of business conduct and ethics covers general principles relating to honest and ethical conduct and specific topics. There is a short one-paragraph section on Conflicts of Interest that serves to prevent actual and perceived conflicts, and reference to a separate Conflict of Interest Policy.
However, the code does not appear to specifically cover the situation of an employee who concurrently holds a position as a government official, such as an MP. It acknowledges that the code is not a complete list of legal or ethical questions and/or situations that may be faced, and said that it “must be used together with your common sense and good judgment”.
However, a code of conduct is mainly aimed at protecting a company’s interests. The concern here is not the company’s interest but the public interest.
I am surprised that Grab, being a company listed in the US, would employ an MP, who is considered a politically exposed person. Perhaps Grab’s head of ethics and compliance and general counsel deemed this a non-issue because she is not a board director or senior officer and her appointment is Singapore-based.
PAP’S RULES OF PRUDENCE
On the Government’s side, the PAP’s Rules of Prudence are communicated through a letter from the Prime Minister to PAP MPs after each election. It was last done for all PAP MPs in 2020. The rules are comprehensive, but they still require the MP to use their own judgment.
As for mechanisms for declaring interests, every MP is required to disclose to the Prime Minister, in confidence, their directorships, business and professional interests, latest employment and monthly pay, all retainers and fees that they are receiving, and whether their job requires them to get in touch with officers of government ministries or statutory boards on behalf of employers or clients.
It is unclear whether declarations must be made before accepting a job or appointment but regardless, it would be difficult to ensure compliance with the letter and spirit of the rules purely through self-declarations. Again, much would depend on the individual doing the right thing.
ADDRESSING CONFLICT OF INTEREST SITUATIONS
The Integrity Coordinating Group in Western Australia (WA) published a guide some years ago titled Promoting and Strengthening Integrity in WA Public Bodies which is useful for public officials to personally evaluate and address conflict of interest situations.
It recommends that an individual asks the following questions, which I have slightly adapted, to identify potential conflicts of interest:
- Do I have personal or private interests that may conflict, or be perceived to conflict with my public duty?
- Could there be benefits for me, now or in the future, that could cast doubt on my objectivity?
- How will my involvement in the decision/action be viewed by others?
- Does my involvement in the decision appear fair and reasonable in all the circumstances?
- What are the consequences if I ignore the conflict of interest? What if my involvement was questioned publicly?
- Have I made promises or commitments in relation to the matter? Do I stand to gain or lose from the proposed action/decision
It also suggests the following possible actions to resolve conflict of interest:
- Disclose the interest or conflict
- Restrict involvement in the matter, which may include not receiving information on the matter, not participating in discussions, and not being involved in making the decision
- Involve an independent third party to participate in, oversee, or review the integrity of the decision-making process
- Remove oneself altogether from the matter
- Dispose of the private or personal interests
- Resign from the organisation
Very importantly, it recognises that even perceived conflicts can be problematic. Further, declaring an interest or conflict is the minimum – it merely makes others aware of the interest or conflict but often does not resolve it.
TREADING A CAREFUL LINE
The Rules of Prudence tell MPs the following: “Separate your public political position from your private, professional or business interests. MPs who are in business, who occupy senior management positions in companies, or who sit on company boards should be especially vigilant. You must not exploit your public position as Government MPs, your close contacts with the Ministers, or your access to government departments and civil servants, for your personal interest or the benefit of your employers. Your conduct must always be above board.”
Even if Ms Tin’s role is not Singapore-based and does not involve interactions with the government bodies and officials here, perceptions of conflicts will likely remain because Grab is ubiquitous in Singapore and facing potentially increasing regulation impacting its business, particularly regarding the rights of gig workers.
Also, how would Ms Tin address perceptions that information she receives as an MP may be used to benefit Grab, even if unconsciously?
As director of public affairs and policy, the potential conflicts are intensified because her job responsibilities are likely to require her to oversee government relations and ensure that Grab’s views are communicated to the Government.
All MPs face challenges when treading the line in balancing roles, but in this type of position the challenges are even more acute.
Mak Yuen Teen is Professor (Practice) of Accounting at the NUS Business School where he specialises in corporate governance.