On Monday, 7 June, Parliament passed the Bill on the amendments to the Radiation Protection Act (RPA).
Environment and Water Resources Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan told the House that the amendments will now criminalise nuclear-related offences, such as threatening to use nuclear material to harm the public.
Also, and more importantly, the “Act allows for the imposition of the death penalty if the action causes fatalities.” (See CNA.)
"Our view is that these punishments send an appropriately strong signal that the government regards these as very grave offences. The provisions are tightly-scoped and I want to assure the House that it does not extend the death penalty beyond Singapore's existing legislation," Dr Vivian said.
But when it came to the vote on the amendments, there was a lack of a quorum for the Bill to be passed.
In other words, most of the MPs were missing from the House.
According to the Constitution, a minimum of a quarter of the 87 MPs must be present in the House to vote on a Bill before it can be passed into legislation.
It was Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), Associate Professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University (SMU), who pointed this out to Deputy Speaker Charles Chong.
“I think, in order for this Bill not to be challenged on the basis that it’s not constitutionally passed, can I just clarify that we do have a quorum?” he asked the Speaker, when the Radiation Protection Act amendments were to be passed.
Mr Chong agreed and rang the division bell to summon the MPs back to the Chamber.
The vote was then called and the Bill was passed.
What is perplexing is why so many MPs – at least 65 – were absent for the vote on such an important Bill.
While Dr Vivian may have said that currently there “are no nuclear facilities in Singapore at the moment, so this aspect of the Act prepares for future scenarios”, one would think the amendments are nevertheless just as serious given that the imposition of the death penalty is being legislated into law.
It makes one really uneasy and to ask if MPs really do know what the legislation mean, or entail, given their apparent lackadaisical attitude.
It is even more worrying when you consider that this – the lack of a quorum – happened a second time later in the day at the same sitting of Parliament for other amendments.
Here we have a Bill seeking to impose the death penalty for an offence and MPs go missing when they are suppose to vote on it.
Appalling – and even more so considering that just 3 years ago, the front page of the Straits Times screamed this headline:
And more recently, the news reported:
Professor Low Teck Seng, the chief executive officer of the National Research Foundation was reported to have said, “Many of our neighbours are looking at nuclear technology and it is important, as the Prime Minister says, for us to be aware, be knowledgeable and, as such, be able to assess the technology and its impact on Singapore — be it in terms of the potential it has for us, in terms of the risk we face, as well as the ability to harness its potential in every aspect.”
With Singapore clearly and seriously considering the potential of using nuclear power and building nuclear power plants, one would have thought that MPs would take every discussion of the issue, especially in Parliament, very seriously indeed, even if we do not currently have these nuclear plants in our midst.
Parliament issues the Order Paper at least a day before Parliament sits so MPs know what is on the agenda. And in the Order Paper are the Bills which are to be debated and voted on.
So, our parliamentarians know that there would be votes taken during various proceedings.
There is thus no excuse to be absent – without valid reasons.
Yet, as the media reported, Monday’s shortage of MPs in the House is not a new thing – it has happened in 2012 as well. Twice, in fact – the same as Tuesday.
And both times – in 2012 and on Tuesday – it was an unelected MP, Eugene Tan, who pointed out the absence of a quorum.
I think the People’s Action Party’s Whip (and the Workers' Party one as well) should remind its members of the seriousness of legislation and the solemn responsibilities they have as representatives of the people.
And imposing the death penalty for an offence should never be taken lightly.
Sadly, on Tuesday, our MPs fell short of what was expected.
The manner in which the death penalty is passed into law in this case is very disconcerting indeed. It is done almost nonchalantly. Frivolously, even.