Tuesday, 26 September 2023

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Are Ministers K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan abusing the delivery of Ministerial Statements for their personal defence in Parliament?

In a landmark parliamentary session scheduled for the following week, four top ministers are set to present ministerial statements regarding the rental of two bungalows on Ridout Road by the Minister for Home Affairs and Law and the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

This development follows the release of reports by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) and Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security, Mr Teo Chee Hean, on Wednesday, which cleared Mr K Shanmugam and Dr Vivian Balakrishnan of any corruption or criminal wrongdoing in the rental process of these state properties—just days before the parliamentary sitting next week.

While it is understandable that SM Teo and the Second Minister for Law, Mr Edwin Tong, will address the matter of the review and rental of state properties, it is perplexing to see Mr Shanmugam and Dr Balakrishnan, who are the focus of the review, speaking via ministerial statements.

The Standing Orders of the Parliament state that “a statement may be made by a Minister in Parliament on a matter of public importance. Members may seek clarification on the statement, but no debate shall be allowed thereon.”

The Parliament further clarifies the nature of public importance in a Facebook post, stating,

“Ministerial Statements may be made by Ministers in Parliament on new Government initiatives and policies, important issues of public interest or matters. Ministerial Statements are scheduled to be made after Question Time. Occasionally, a Minister may defer the answering of some Questions for Oral Answer during Question Time and provide his answer in the form of a Ministerial Statement.”

However, the situation here is different. The allegations against the ministers are of a personal nature and do not reflect government policies or ministerial matters. Therefore, the use of ministerial statements by the two Ministers to address these matters seems inappropriate and raises questions about the procedural sanctity of Parliament.

Consider the case of Mr Shanmugam, for instance. While more than half of the 23 questions filed on the Ridout matter are directed to the Minister for Law, who oversees the Singapore Land Authority from which the property was rented, Mr Shanmugam has stated that he recused himself from his ministerial duties concerning his rental at 26 Ridout Road due to the allegations against him. This is likely why Mr Tong is answering on his behalf.

Extract from report by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean

But then, why is Mr Shanmugam speaking as a Minister regarding his rental of the Ridout property? Surely the questions were not about him renting from the SLA in his capacity as Minister, or is he affirming that he was, in fact, renting as the Minister for Law?

Dr Balakrishnan’s involvement is even more perplexing. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs, his jurisdiction does not seem to include matters related to state property rentals. Thus, the relevance of his making a ministerial statement in this context is questionable.

The Speaker of Parliament, Mr Tan Chuan Jin, ought to intervene in this matter. However, as a former PAP Minister and a member of the same political party as the involved ministers, it appears unlikely that he would take a firm stand against his colleagues.

You may ask what the difference is.

According to the standing order, no Member shall be entitled to speak on any question in Parliament for more than twenty minutes or address a Committee of the whole Parliament for more than ten minutes at any one time.

However, speaking via the Ministerial statement as Minister and not as an ordinary MP, Mr Shanmugam and Dr Balakrishnan are entitled to speak for up to forty minutes in Parliament.

By delivering their Ministerial statements, Mr Shanmugam and Dr Balakrishnan could pre-empt the supplementary questions from the Members of Parliament by setting their defence. Furthermore, if the questions are not directed at them, the two ministers will not be granted the right to respond – particularly in the case of Dr Balakrishnan.

In a sense, the irony of the two ministers making statements to defend against allegations of abuse of power in their rental of the black and white bungalows at Ridout Road is lost. It could be argued that these ministers are abusing their positions by delivering ministerial statements for their personal defence against the allegations.

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