23 March 2018
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Robust debates in the House: How far is too far?

Straits Times
13 Mar 2018
Ng Jun Sen

Parliamentary privilege allows MPs to speak without fear of being sued. But when does this cross into abuse of power?

The Budget debate may be over, but one aspect still sticks in people's minds: the exchanges between Workers' Party (WP) leaders and several People's Action Party (PAP) ministers.

During the Budget round-up debate on March 1, WP chairman Sylvia Lim voiced her suspicion that the Government had intended to raise the goods and services tax (GST) immediately but that it backtracked after negative public reaction. While later acknowledging that her suspicion "may have been wrong", Ms Lim refused to withdraw her comment and apologise for it.

Her rationale: Her "honest suspicion" was based on a sequence of events - including the Government's non-denial of public chatter that a GST hike was imminent. In articulating it, she was doing her "duty as an MP to convey ground concerns, reactions and confusion". No one knew the truth of the GST hike except for the Cabinet, she added.

In response, Leader of the House Grace Fu said that in refusing to retract the comment and apologise, Ms Lim's conduct fell short of the standard of integrity and honour expected of members.

The Aljunied GRC MP had suggested that the Government was dishonest, and had tarnished the reputations of leaders who had earlier made it clear that tax revenues needed to be raised in the long run, said Ms Fu.

"I must put the honourable member on notice, and the rest of the House too, that if she repeats such dishonourable conduct and abuse parliamentary privilege, I'll refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges," said the minister in charge of order and procedure in Parliament.

A spokesman for Ms Fu said yesterday that the Government had sought the advice of the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) on the matter.

She said Ms Fu had made her statement in Parliament last Tuesday - asking Ms Lim to withdraw her comments and apologise - "after taking AGC's advice". She did not say what advice the AGC gave.

The Committee of Privileges looks into alleged breaches of parliamentary privilege. Being referred to it is no small deal - punishment ranges from, at the very least, a reprimand or admonishment by the Speaker, to being fined up to $50,000, to being suspended and even jailed during the duration of a parliamentary session.

Insight looks at what parliamentary privilege is, and where the line is drawn between allowing MPs to raise suspicions in a relatively unfettered way and abuse of that privilege.


When MPs debate, parliamentary privilege guarantees their ability to speak freely on any issue - without fearing they will be sued.

After all, they must be able to talk about any topic, person or organisation for the sake of unimpeded debate, say law academics.

Beyond the freedom of speech, this privilege comes with the purpose of ensuring that Parliament can guard its own proceedings and internal affairs from court interference. This is derived from the Westminster parliamentary system, which Singapore inherited from British colonial rule.

Says constitutional law expert Kevin Tan Yew Lee of the National University of Singapore law faculty: "It is the privilege accorded to parliamentarians to enable them to best do their job. This includes the right to speak without fear or favour in Parliament, since nothing they say can be the subject of any libel action outside the court."

However, parliamentary privilege, as its name suggests, is a privilege and not an absolute right. It can be withdrawn and the Speaker of the House has some discretion over where the limits are, says comparative politics researcher Felix Tan from SIM Global Education. Parliament holds the final power to rule, acting upon the recommendations of the Committee of Privileges.

Where a comment crosses the line into abuse is a "grey area", he adds.

The late British constitutional theorist Erskine May has noted that there are no clear lines on breaches of privilege. To list every act of contempt for Parliament would be in vain as the power to punish for contempt is, by nature, discretionary, he wrote.

Last Thursday, Ms Fu made the Singapore Parliament's position more explicit, saying MPs are "not entitled to make unsubstantiated allegations without taking steps to check the facts or knowingly maintain the allegations that have been shown to have no factual basis".

This, she said, does not contradict what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said last year on the function of parliamentary privilege.

During the debate on the Oxley Road dispute, PM Lee noted that one reason why parliamentary privilege exists "(is) so that MPs who have heard troubling allegations or news, can make these allegations and raise the matters in the House even if they are not completely proven and may be defamatory, without fear of being sued for defamation".

He added: "If you think something is wrong, even if you are not fully sure, then come to this House, confront the Government, ask for explanations and answers."

This was what she did, argued Ms Lim, in citing PM Lee's quote last Thursday. She said on March 1: "(In) earlier debates, even PAP MPs were encouraged to come to the House to convey even rumours, so that the Government has the opportunity to refute them. This is the value of this Chamber."

But Ms Fu said last week: "Before we bring the opinions, the speculations, the views, the unhappiness to this Chamber, we need to check the facts. Ms Lim has admitted that she didn't do so in the first instance."


So what should one make of Ms Lim's case, when the timing of introducing a GST hike is known only by Cabinet ministers?

Those interviewed are in general agreement with Ms Lim's argument that MPs should be allowed to surface points they are uncertain about in the House, so that the Government has an opportunity to refute them.

Deputy Speaker and PAP MP Seah Kian Peng tells Insight that MPs should have the chance to raise and clarify points with "good intent".

Adjunct professor Kevin Tan agrees that deliberately "casting unjustified aspersions" on any MP can be taken as malice - a possible breach of parliamentary privilege.

But in Ms Lim's case, parliamentary privilege should allow her suspicions to be raised for the sake of robust debate, he says.

He adds: "It is no abuse to use one's parliamentary time to ask genuine questions or to clear reasonable doubts and suspicions.

"The Government is being overly sensitive. Opposition parliamentarians are supposed to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions - that's what the privilege is for."

One issue raised, though, is whether Ms Lim could have phrased her suspicions better as a question rather than a statement.

Says Dr Felix Tan: "It is a duty and right for an MP to ask questions, but it does not legitimise spreading perceptions about other MPs. It is all about phrasing it as a matter of inquiry, rather than making a statement that can insinuate fault."

Last Thursday, Ms Lim and WP chief Low Thia Khiang noted that Ms Lim had articulated her suspicion "in the heat of exchange". But Ms Lim also insisted that she did not accuse the Government of being untruthful as alleged, calling it a characterisation "borne out of overactive imaginations and oversensitivity".

A second issue is what Ms Lim should have done after the Government had proven her initial suspicion wrong.

In her statement last Thursday, she acknowledged it "may have been wrong". Mr Low also said that with the Government now having laid out all the facts, "it's clear that the Government has no intention to raise GST at that point in time and Ms Lim's suspicion wasn't really correct at that point in time".

This was important, said Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and Health Chee Hong Tat yesterday, in explaining why the Government pursued the matter. It was thinking ahead to potential future political attacks by the WP using the matter - including during the next general election.

"We got her to admit, and Mr Low to confirm, that her suspicions were wrong... The WP can now no longer rely on this falsehood to attack the Government's credibility and trustworthiness. This will make for a more honest debate, in Parliament and outside."

A third issue then is whether, having acknowledged that her suspicions may have been incorrect, Ms Lim needed to retract her comment or apologise. She said no, as she felt there was basis for her suspicion to be aired in the first place.

But Mr Seah, who is a member of the Committee of Privileges, which is chaired by the Speaker and made up of MPs, said: "Subsequently, if proven to be untrue, it is only right to withdraw the statement."

Asked about Ms Lim's case, law academic and former attorney-general Walter Woon concurred with Mr Seah. He said the rationale for parliamentary privilege is to allow MPs to speak freely.

"But if shown that they are mistaken, then they should do the honourable thing and apologise. Parliamentary privilege is not an excuse for character assassination or spreading fake news."

Apologising in Parliament for a misstep is not unfamiliar to Dr Woon, a Nominated MP (NMP) from 1992 to 1996. In 1993, he told The Straits Times that he did not speak in the debates into each ministry's budget as the time given was too short.

Then Speaker Tan Soo Khoon said his words were "inaccurate" and "served to undermine the dignity of the House". The following week, Dr Woon apologised to the House for trivialising the proceedings of Budget debates.

Dr Woon added last week: "Merely withdrawing the statement does not mean that the MP accepts that he was wrong. An apology, if sincere, is a token of remorse."

Speaking generally about retractions and apologies in Parliament, law academic Eugene Tan says MPs should withdraw their statements if proven to be inaccurate, so that the facts and the proper account are placed on public record through Hansard - the official transcripts of debates in the House. "The apology follows as a matter of course for the breach of parliamentary norms."

Going back to MPs' role in surfacing rumours and suspicions in the House, the former NMP noted that there is merit to this.

But "the key question is to what extent".

"MPs cannot be purveyors of all sorts of rumours and suspicions in Parliament, and Parliament cannot be the clearing house of rumours and suspicions."

The Committee of Privileges looks into alleged breaches of parliamentary privilege. Being referred to it is no small deal - punishment ranges from, at the very least, a reprimand or admonishment by the Speaker, to being fined up to $50,000, to being suspended and even jailed during the duration of a parliamentary session.

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