Source: Channel NewsAsia video screengrab.

By International Human Rights Lawyer M Ravi

On Wednesday (12 February), Speaker of Parliament Tan-Chuan Jin said that he agrees with the judgment call by the Ministry of Health (MOH) not to inform patients and the public about the HIV data leak.

Mr Tan listened ‘closely’ to what the Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said, and in the end turned the question back to the public and asked what they would have done given the facts and situation. This article talks not about what the public ought to have done, but what Mr Tan- as Speaker of Parliament, should not have done.

As Speaker of Parliament, Mr Tan is the head officer of the Parliament of Singapore. He is duty bound to preside over Parliament and ensure the smooth conduct of parliamentary business without getting embroiled in parliamentary debates. The Office demands that the Speaker remain impartial.

In 2017, when first nominated and elected as the 10th Speaker of Parliament, he pledged to be ‘impartial, neutral and objective’ in conducting parliamentary business. On the Parliamentary website, it is further added that the Speaker must remain ‘impartial and fair to all MPs’.

By publishing such a statement on his Facebook page, has not the Speaker tarnished the high office of Speaker by expelling any sense of impartiality that he purports, and is required to have?

The Appropriate Consequences

Under s3(1) of the Parliament (Privileges Immunities and Powers) Act (Cap. 217), the privileges, immunities and powers of the Speaker are the same as those of the House of Commons in the UK Parliament at the time of establishment of the Republic of Singapore- i.e. 1965. In Erskine May’s “Parliamentary Practice”- the leading text on parliamentary law and practice, the chief characteristics attaching to the office of Speaker of the House of Commons are authority and impartiality.

Where a Member of Parliament – in this case, the Speaker, has flouted Parliamentary rules and procedure, there are a few ways for recourse.

A. Refer the Speaker to the Committee of Privileges by tabling a motion of breach of privileges

Under Standing Order no. 7(a)(i) of the Standing Orders of the Parliament of Singapore, a Member may be referred to the Committee for any complaint of breach of privilege or any matter which appears to affect the powers and privileges of Parliament.

It is clear in this case that the Speaker has abused the privilege of the Office of Speaker by his apparent bias. Such a motion can be tabled either by raising it in Parliament when it is sitting (Standing Order 7(b)) or by writing to the Speaker whenever Parliament is not sitting (Standing Order 7(c)).

Rather ironically though, Mr Tan is the Chairman of this Committee. It is not clear how a motion against the Chairman of the Committee will pan out, but it may be rightly assumed that such a situation can surely be worked out in the public interest.

B. That the Speaker should honourably resign from this Post

A similar motion to the one mentioned above has been tabled before in Canada- which also similarly follows a Westminster system of Government.

In June 1956, the Leader of the Opposition of Canada George Drew moved a motion of censure against the Speaker Beaudoin for reversing on his rulings pertaining to the procedure of a debate. This was defeated, but less than a month later, Mr Drew brought to attention a newspaper where there was a letter by Beaudoin criticising the beavhiour of opposition members during the earlier debate. The following day, Mr Beaudoin resigned.

By doing the honourable thing, Mr Beaudoin greatly limited the damage to the high office of the Speaker.

C. Punitive powers of Parliament under s20 Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act

S20 of the Act permits Parliament to

(a) Commit to prison for a term not extending beyond the current session of Parliament
(b) Impose upon him a fine not exceeding the sum of $50,000
(c) Suspend him from the service of Parliament for the remainder of the current session of Parliament or for any part thereof;
(d) Direct that he be reprimanded or admonished in his place by the Speaker

for any dishonourable conduct, abuse of privilege or contempt on the part of a Member.

It is urged that Members of the Opposition consider at least considers one of the above courses of action, in light of such a serious tainting of the Constitutionally high office of the Speaker.

Interestingly, this is not the first time that allegations of partiality have been alleged against Speakers in Singapore. In January 2013, then Speaker of Parliament (and current President of the Republic of Singapore) Madam Halimah Yacob publicly declared support for PAP candidate for Punggol East, Dr Koh Poh Koon.

That incident came and went without any political or legal repercussions for Mdm Halimah. In light of the persistent tarnishing of such an important role, it is ripe that such egregious actions be looked into seriously.

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[1] Singapore Parliament Website, “From the Chair- Debates in Parliament Chamber” (Speaker’s Blog, 04 May 2018).

[2] Singapore Parliament Website, Duty of the Speaker.

[3] Erskine May Parliamentary Practice (2004), p.220.

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