Minister of Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam posted a Facebook status on Sunday evening, disputing the claims that he made contradictory statements on the publishing of Attorney-General's Chambers advice to the government on the counting of first president for the Reserved Presidential Election (RPE).
Mr Shanmugam alleged that Dr Tan Cheng Bock who made a Facebook post on the matter, had spliced his remarks and put them together to suggest something that he did not say. He also wrote, "Dr Tan may be bitter. But that is no excuse for engaging in these elaborate charades."
Dr Tan, a former PAP member of parliament and candidate in the Presidential Election 2011 who nearly won the election, quoted statements by Mr Shanmugam made in a dialogue session on Elected Presidency and reply to Ms Sylvia Lim's adjournment motion and asked if the Law Minister made contradictory statement on whether would the government make public the advice that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said to have received to count Dr Wee Kim Wee as the first President for the purpose of the RPE.
Mr Shanmugam posted the full question and answer he gave and wrote, "Clearly, I was referring to making the Government’s position (and not the AGC’s advice) public. The question was when the circuit breaker will come into effect. My answer was that we would make our position clear after we had sorted out some points; and at the latest, we will make our position clear by the time the Bill gets to Parliament." He further states that PM made clear the Government’s position on the term count when Parliament debated the Constitutional amendments and is confirmed by the Court of Appeal.
However, the "misinterpretation" of the contradictory statements raised by Dr Tan is not limited to the doctor himself. Many readers, expressed that they share the same interpretation when they read the Minister's comments. For example, member of public, Benson Tan wrote on Channel News Asia's Facebook post in regards to the comments made by the law minister,
"To me it is clear Shan is recanting. He said "we asked the AGC for advice. Once we get the advice, we will send it out". Any English reader will take it to mean the G will send the AGC advice out when received. Yes, the G may have 10 mins to respond. But why did Shan and not (ANY) of the other 3 respond when Sylvia's question was clearly directed to those 3 - did they mislead parliament? Sylvia's question was NOT a question of Law that needed Shan's reply."
Another reader, Baldev Singh wrote on the same Facebook tread, "So says a Law Minister. He slices and regurgitates the same bull with commas and periods and wants to change the dialogue to what he now means. Which is what he meant but not what he actually means."
Dr Tan in his earlier Facebook post, also asked why was Law Minister asked to answer Ms Lim's motion when it was the government who said the count is a policy issue and not a legal issue. He wrote, "In fact PM Lee should be the one answering Ms Lim. This debate started with PM’s statement on taking AG’s legal advice. Why he remained silent during this parliamentary debate continues to baffle many Singaporeans." While Mr Shanmugam said he responded on behalf of the Government, Dr Tan's follow up comment said that he simply asked why the PM stayed silent. "PM could have spoken during those 10 minutes since his statement was being challenged." wrote Dr Tan.
In response to Mr Shanmugam's remark that he is bitter, Dr Tan wrote that he is still cheerful but noted that the Law Minister who said “I’m happy to be confronted with anything else I might have said” didn’t sound so happy when he saw his questions.
Below is Minister Shanmugam's post in full
Dr Tan Cheng Bock now claims that I had said that the Government would publish AGC’s advice, and that this is inconsistent with what I said in Parliament last week. This is untrue.
Dr Tan has spliced my remarks, rearranged them, and put them together in a way to suggest something which I did not say.
Here is what I said in full, as reported in CNA (link below).
“Q: When would the circuit-breaker (to hold a reserved election after a racial group has not been represented in Presidential office after five continuous terms) come into effect?
Mr Shanmugam: The most direct answer is actually, the Government can decide. When we put in the Bill, we can say we want it to start from this period. It’s… a policy decision but there are also some legal questions about the Elected Presidency and the definition and so on, so we have asked the Attorney-General for advice. Once we get the advice, we will send it out. Certainly by the time the Bill gets to Parliament, which is in October, I think we will have a position and we will make it public. At present, there are a number of legal questions… including whether such provisions are consistent with the Convention to eliminate racial discrimination, how you draft it, whether you count all presidencies, elected presidencies, which is the first elected president – there are a number of questions we have to sort out.”
As the context makes clear, I was asked when the circuit breaker for holding reserved election will come into effect. I answered by making the following points:
1. It is a policy decision, for the government to make;
2. The Bill can state when the term count begins, and that will determine when the circuit breaker comes into effect;
3. But there were a number of legal questions to sort out before the Bill could be finalised, and we were getting AGC’s advice on those questions;
4. The Government will decide on the term count after we received AGC’s advice, and will then set out its position [I said ‘ we will send it out’];
5. At the latest, the Government will have a position on the term count by the time the Bill gets to Parliament. And at that point, it will make its position public.
Clearly, I was referring to making the Government’s position (and not the AGC’s advice) public. The question was when the circuit breaker will come into effect. My answer was that we would make our position clear after we had sorted out some points; and at the latest, we will make our position clear by the time the Bill gets to Parliament.
As it so happened, the Prime Minister himself made clear the Government’s position on the term count when Parliament debated the Constitutional amendments. He said we would start counting from President Wee Kim Wee’s second term. As the Court of Appeal has said explicitly, the Prime Minister was clear.
Dr Tan may be bitter. But that is no excuse for engaging in these elaborate charades.
Dr Tan also asks why I – and not the PM, DPM Teo or Minister Chan Chun Sing – replied to Ms Sylvia Lim. I’m surprised Dr Tan should ask me this question. Surely as a former parliamentarian he knows that adjournment motions have strict time limits. The MP moving the adjournment motion has up to 20 minutes; and someone else has all of 10 minutes to respond. That’s it. As Law Minister, I responded on behalf of the Government.
Below is Dr Tan Cheng Bock's reply to the Law Minister's comment in full
I asked if the Minister had contradicted himself when he at first told CNA “… once we get the advice, we will send it out. Certainly by the time the bill gets to Parliament, which is in October … and will make it public” but later said in Parliament “this government, as a rule, generally, does not publish legal opinions that it gets.”
His answer on FB was that there was no contradiction. He says the “it” in “send it out” was referring to the government’s position on the term count, and not AG’s advice.
I also asked why the PM remained silent during the debate. His answer was “ I’m surprised Dr Tan should ask me this question. Surely as a former parliamentarian he knows that adjournment motions have strict time limits. The MP moving the adjournment motion has up to 20 minutes; and someone else has all of 10 minutes to respond. That’s it. As Law Minister, I responded on behalf of the Government.” But I never asked about parliamentary procedure. I simply asked why the PM stayed silent. PM could have spoken during those 10 minutes since his statement was being challenged.
He also said that I “spliced .. and rearranged” his remarks, that I “may be bitter” and am engaging in “elaborate charades” in posing my questions. I will let readers decide whether the Minister has answered adequately, and whether I had unfairly misquoted him.
On my part, I can assure the Minister that I am still cheerful. But I think the Minister, who said “I’m happy to be confronted with anything else I might have said” didn’t sound so happy when he saw my questions.