23 March 2018
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When politicians cross the line

Straits Times
13 Mar 2018
Ng Jun Sen

While rarely used, the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act introduced in 1962 has had one revision - in 1986 following several breaches of privilege by the late Workers' Party (WP) chief J.B. Jeyaretnam that same year.

The Anson MP was referred to the Committee of Privileges four times - once in 1982 and three times in 1986 - having accused the Government of tampering with the judiciary on multiple occasions, and the police of abusing their powers of detention.

Mr Jeyaretnam was fined $1,000 for two counts of breach of parliamentary privilege - the maximum fine. He remains the only MP to be fined for contempt of Parliament, and his 1986 examples are still considered the most serious transgressions in the House. Later, he was also fined $25,000 for publishing a distorted report of the committee's proceedings and $1,000 for not declaring a pecuniary interest in a question he raised.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan says the incidents demonstrate that MPs are "expected to exercise parliamentary privilege responsibly and scrupulously". The lesson learnt from 1986, he says, is that parliamentary privilege "is not a guise for scurrilous attacks on individuals and institutions".

"(It showed) Parliament does not tolerate what it regards as the abuse of parliamentary privilege as it lowers the House's standing and brings disrepute to the legislative branch of the government."

Also in 1986, House Leader S. Dhanabalan introduced amendments to the relevant Act. Once passed, these provided for transgressors to be jailed or expelled, and fines were raised to the current maximum - $50,000 per count.

The new law was used in 1996 when the Singapore Democratic Party's Dr Chee Soon Juan, Mr Wong Hong Toy, Mr S. Kunalen and Mr Kwan Yue Keng were found to have submitted false documents in a written submission to a select committee on healthcare subsidies for polyclinics and hospitals.

They were not MPs at the time, and were fined $25,000, $13,000, $8,000 and $5,000 respectively.

Cases where MPs apologised for their statements include:

2018 WP Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera said a truncated online video of his parliamentary speech was put up in full only after he e-mailed broadcaster Mediacorp. His account was refuted by Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Chee Hong Tat and later by House Leader Grace Fu, who asked Mr Perera to apologise and withdraw his statements. He apologised for the "incorrect recollections", saying he did not deliberately misrepresent the facts.

2009 People's Action Party MP Sin Boon Ann (Tampines GRC) cited an e-mail he got from a person unknown to him when criticising The Straits Times for its reporting of the Aware saga. He had not verified its contents, he said in Parliament, but "would not be surprised if it were true and would be very concerned if it is". Mr Sin apologised the next day for a "lack of due diligence", and House Leader Mah Bow Tan later issued a stern reminder to all MPs to not rely on unsubstantiated allegations.

2002 Former Speaker Tan Soo Khoon (East Coast GRC) suggested that Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Public Transport Council (PTC) deliberately misled Parliament and Singaporeans on public transport fare increases.

This was untrue as DPM Lee had earlier informed the House that the PTC was reviewing fare revisions, clarified Transport Minister Yeo Cheow Tong. Mr Tan apologised, saying: "There is no basis for that suggestion and I withdraw it."

Ng Jun Sen

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.