Summary of the Code of Conduct for Ministers & Civil Servants Regarding Acceptance of “Gifts”

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly come across the ordeal involving Transport Minister S Iswaran and Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB). This case resurfaced on 18 January after a court proceeding.

Minister S Iswaran has been charged in court with a total of 27 offenses – two for corruption, one for obstruction of justice and 24 for obtaining valuables as a public servant.

You can watch this video for a better understanding of his case:

Yes, he is facing 24 charges for receiving “gifts” which, in case you were unaware, Ministers and Civil Servants are prohibited from doing.

To help you fully grasp the implications behind his offences, here’s a simplified version of the code of conduct that Ministers and Civil Servants have to follow when receiving “gifts.”

Can Ministers/Civil Servants Receive Gifts?

So, can Ministers and Civil Servants receive gifts? The answer is both no and yes… well, sometimes.

In reference to the Code of Conduct for Ministers (2005) under the section on acceptance of gifts and services, Ministers are generally prohibited from accepting gifts from members of the public to prevent putting the Minister in a position that conflicts with his public duty.

Similarly, even spouses, children or any person living with the Minister should reject gifts from members of the public.

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong has emphasised this point during his interview on the CPIB investigation. He stated that “Ministers should not receive gifts that place them under obligation in a conflict-of-interest position.”

The reason being, if the Minister were to accept gifts such as tickets or free services from someone, the minister would likely feel indebted to the person, giving the person an opportunity to take advantage of the Minister’s position to gain privileges.

To provide further context to help you understand this better, it is essentially what happened between Minister S Iswaran and businessman, Ong Beng Seng. The minister allegedly accepted gratifications in exchange for advancing Ong’s business interests.

What Should a Minister/Civil Servant do if They Were to Receive a Gift?

Ideally, the gift should be refused and returned to the person immediately. Of course, this might come across as offensive, so they are required to provide an explanation that “while the recipient appreciates the gift, its acceptance would be a breach of this Code.”

If returning the gift happens to be challenging or if it might cause offence, the Minister or civil servant should pass the gift to their Permanent Secretary for disposal. However, there are two exceptions.

Civil servants are allowed to retain gifts that are valued below $50. If the gift is valued above $50, the recipient would have to buy it from the Government in order to retain it.

This means no matter what, the gifts have to be declared and valued.

Additionally, if the Permanent Secretary deems that the gift is of interest, it could be displayed or used in the Ministry’s office.

To give you context on how seriously this code of conduct is taken, even if civil servants were to merely receive customary gifts such as fruits or sweets, it is usually distributed within the agency or to a community organisation. This was revealed by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Education and Minister-in-charge of the Public Service to Parliamentary during a Parliamentary sitting.

However, it seems that Minster S Iswaran might have overlooked this portion of the code of conduct.

He allegedly obtained S$218,000 worth of “gifts” from November 2015 to December 2021. These included tickets for football matches in the UK and tickets for plays and musicals.

Do the Same Rules Apply for Gifts from Foreign Governments?

Ministers and civil servants are able to accept gifts during official visits or from foreign governments. This is to reduce the possibility of appearing discourteous in front of other government bodies.

The aforementioned rules apply when receiving the gift. All gifts received during official visits or from foreign governments must be handed over to their Permanent Secretary.

Similarly, if the gift is valued below $50, the recipient can retain it. However, if the gift is valued above $50, the recipient would have to buy it from the Government to retain it.

Additionally, if the Permanent Secretary deems that the gift is of interest, it could be displayed or used in the Ministry’s office.

Furthermore, if the recipient wishes to reciprocate the gesture by providing another gift, this gift will be purchased by the Government.

The Ministers or civil servants can also accept meal invitations by local or foreign stakeholders if it is work-related or declining the invitation would seem impolite.

However, this must be clearly declared to their Permanent Secretaries either before or immediately after the meal.

Now, you should have spotted a trend: always declare, declare and declare.

Are there Any Exceptions for Accepting Gifts?

For Ministers and civil servants, they can retain the gifts if they won’t affect the integrity of their position.

For example, they can accept gifts from family and personal friends. This exception is, of course, reasonable. Imagine if your job prevented you from receiving birthday gifts… aging is depressing enough in itself.

Gifts are also deemed acceptable if they are clearly unconnected with the ministerial office or if the gifts are inexpensive such as calendars or office supplies that are unlikely to be regarded as an attempt to influence the Minister or civil servant’s decisions.

But like what Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean spoke about the Code of Conduct regarding the Ridout Road saga, “It is more important to observe the spirit rather than (just) the letter of the codes.”

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