Chen Shao Mao highlights difficulty in filing questions to PM Lee about the use of Parliament to defend his reputation

In a Facebook post made on 1 August 2017, Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, Mr Chen Shao Mao highlighted his difficulty in getting his question to the Prime Minister filed.

Below is Mr Chen’s posting in full:

(Parliamentary) Q&A — Getting to Yes.

Q. I’d like to ask the Prime Minister at the next Parliamentary sitting: “When should a Minister or political appointee go to court to defend his or her reputation and when should he or she refrain from private litigation and seek instead to address such allegations publicly, such as in Parliament?”

A. Your question asks about matters concerning decisions made by Ministers or political appointees in their personal capacity. As stipulated in the Standing Orders, parliamentary questions must relate to affairs within the official functions of a Minister. In view of this, do you wish to withdraw your question.

Q. I respectfully disagree.
The question relates (and I have revised its wording to make it clearer) to defending one’s reputation as a Minister or political appointee in his or her official capacity as Minister or political appointee, as the case may be. Has there been, for example, as alleged an abuse of one’s official position as a government Minister?

A. Your question has also been ruled inadmissible as it seeks an expression of an opinion. It is also not the function of Government to decide whether a Minister should seek court action to defend his reputation or refrain from doing so. Such decisions are made by the Minister himself.

Q. I respectfully disagree.
What I seek from the PM is not an expression of his opinion, but an answer on the norms upheld in his government among his Ministers and political appointees, as they relate to the issue of defending their reputation for honest dealing in their official or public capacity. The integrity of our leaders in government, and the consequent trust that our people place in the government, could not have been more emphatically touted by past governments. PM Lee Kuan Yew spoke often of it. Almost twenty years ago, PM Goh Chok Tong said that “if they’ve defamed us, we have to sue them — because if we don’t, our own integrity will be suspect. We have an understanding that if a minister is defamed and he does not sue, he must leave cabinet. By defamation, I mean if somebody says the minister is … less than honest. If he does not rebut it, if he does not dare go before the court to be interrogated by the counsel for the other side, there must be some truth in it.”
That was a clear enough statement of a norm (“standard, pattern, understanding, practice, how we behave”) .
Norms change over time, even if only slowly. The norms upheld in his government among his Ministers and political appointees in their official capacity is a fair question for PM Lee Hsien Loong.

Mr Chen Show Mao asked the Prime Minister what are the rules, directives, practices, understandings, standards and norms governing the circumstances under which a Minister or political appointee should defend his reputation in his official capacity in the courts or refrain from such court action and address allegations publicly, such as in Parliament.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong: I have addressed this in my Ministerial Statement on 3 July 2017. Any Minister who is accused of improper conduct must clear his name publicly. He should not allow the allegations to fester and affect the reputation of the Government. If it is a serious allegation, I would expect the Minister to take court action for defamation, unless there are other special considerations. He may also need to render account in Parliament, particularly if the matter concerns his discharge of public duties and is of public interest. These are not mutually exclusive options. In all cases, there must be public accounting.

Mr Chen was not prevented by Speaker to ask the question

The posting is pretty straightforward and clear, that Mr Chen was told that his question was not proper as it does not fall within the Standing Orders but he insisted on filing the question nevertheless.

Local news site, The Independent Singapore (TISG) has reported that Mr Chen had to ask a parliamentary question thrice before Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob allowed him to pose the question to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, indicating that the answers given in Mr Chen’s post were said by Mdm Halimah.

While Mdm Halimah had on many occasion blocked MPs from the Workers’ Party to file follow up questions but the report of this incident is far away from truth. Mr Chen did not pose the question in Parliament itself, it was instead in the form of a written question.

Since the question was not filed as an oral question, it would not have been presented in Parliament during the Question and Answer session and Mdm Halimah could not have said the above words to Mr Chen and PM Lee did not reply to Mr Chen in person. I was there at the Parliament sitting the whole day and also did not see anything of such nature, so TISG’s article is grossly misleading and non factual.

Why Parliament staff have to be gatekeepers of questions from MPs?

So who prevented Mr Chen from asking his question then?

It is likely to be the Parliament clerks who handle the collection of questions from the MPs instead of the Speaker who has no role in consolidation of the questions.

Now as we can see from PM’s reply, it does not really shed much light to the matter from what has been already been public knowledge. In fact, I would presume that this question was originally filed as an oral question so that PM Lee could answer in the Parliament and Mr Chen and other MPs could follow up with supplementary questions. It would seem to have been the result of Mr Chen’s effort to have the question filed as a written question instead of being sent to the bin.

However, this is not the first time The Online Citizen is hearing about such instances.

Back when Ms Lina Chiam was serving as a Non-constituency Member of Parliament, TOC was informed that she has more than once had her questions rejected or edited due to the insistence of the Parliament clerks, not the Speaker when she tried to file questions for the parliamentary sittings.

Reasons that were given include questions have been asked before and questions should not be asked in this manner (as in Mr Chen’s case).

Mr Chen’s post should raise questions about the impartiality of the Parliament staff and also the opaque manner in which Parliament staff could choose to allow the MPs to file their questions. While this is surely extended to both MPs from the Workers’ Party and the People’s Action Party but who are the Parliament staff to determine if the questions are proper?

If the questions do violate the parliament’s standing order, the MPs would surely be taken to task for the matter.

Unless the Parliament staff could be penalised for allowing the questions to pass through, why should elected MPs be deterred from filing questions that they feel ought to be answered?