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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Why such high standards for MPs' conduct? ST 6 Jun 2009

FOUR-LETTER words, unsubstantiated allegations, sexist remarks and even racist slurs - some might find it hard to imagine but the august halls of Singapore's Parliament have heard it all.
At different times throughout the country's history, parliamentarians have been known to indulge in some downright unparliamentary language and behaviour.

MPs in hot water
SEVERAL MPs have been taken to task by Parliament for their conduct in the House, either for what they did or said. Insight looks at four notable cases of MPs behaving badly and one of a minister's hair-raising faux pas.

The first MP to be censured

... more
But few, if any, have got away with it.

Some have been censured, some have apologised, while others have been suspended or fined, all in the name of maintaining a high standard of decorum in the House.

Last week, this strict code of conduct was demonstrated once again after MP Sin Boon Ann (Tampines GRC) read out an e-mail that criticised The Straits Times' coverage of the Aware saga, a criticism that he said he agreed with.

However, he also said the e-mail was from someone he did not know and he had not verified its contents either.

His lack of due diligence prompted the Leader of the House, Mr Mah Bow Tan, to issue a stern reminder to MPs that the privilege of parliamentary immunity - they cannot be sued for what they say in Parliament - must be balanced by high standards of accuracy.

Mr Sin himself was also made to apologise to the House.

Last week's incident was the first time in four years that an MP has been taken to task for his conduct in the House. (See story: MPs in hot water)

It comes at a time when the British Parliament - which Singapore's was modelled after - is embroiled in a scandal over MPs' perks.

The two combined mean a glaring spotlight is now trained on the behaviour of parliamentarians.

To be sure, conduct in Singapore's Parliament is more civil than in many other parliaments. Discourse is typically polite, heckling is mild on the rare occasions when it occurs, and there has never been shouting matches, fist-fights or furniture-tossing.

This emphasis on orderly conduct has led some to question if Singapore's House has become too bland.

How did we arrive at this parliamentary culture? Has it always been like this? And is it really necessary to impose such high standards on MPs?

The dos and don'ts

AT THE most basic level, Parliament derives some of its standards from the law.

The Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act spells out a list of 17 different offences MPs can be taken to task for. These include assaulting or insulting the Speaker or another MP, presenting any false, fabricated or falsified document with intent to deceive, and refusing to answer a relevant question.

The penalties for these include imprisonment, suspension or a fine of up to $50,000.

There is also the option for Parliament to temporarily suspend the MP's immunity from civil and criminal suits.

But rules only go so far.

Singapore's legislation is no more severe than in most other Commonwealth countries, points out constitutional law expert Kevin Tan.

'The rules themselves do not set the standard of behaviour or decorum,' he says. 'By and large, Parliament is a master of its own rules and can suspend a member's privileges.'

So far, however, it has never come to that. Singapore MPs have, on the whole, stayed within the limits.

In fact, only one person - the late opposition member J.B. Jeyaretnam - has ever been fined for his conduct in Parliament.

In the 1980s, he was referred to the House's Privileges Committee four times - once in 1982 and thrice in 1986.

The 1986 cases involved alleging executive interference in the judiciary and abuse of police powers, and failing to declare a pecuniary interest in a question he raised.

The committee fined him $1,000 on each count.

The trio of offences proved to have deeper repercussions for Parliament. In August that year, Parliament moved to introduce harsher penalties on errant MPs. It was also in the wake of this case that the possibility of suspending immunity was introduced.

To this day, the 1986 examples stand as the most serious transgressions in the House.

Most other cases were resolved with the MP involved apologising.

The cases though run the gamut from crude to amusing.

One case that many MPs interviewed recall happened just four years ago, when an expletive was uttered in Parliament.

'Shit', as an exclamation in the English language, made its way into the House, thanks to then Nominated MP Ong Soh Khim. She said the word during the 2005 Budget debate when she ran out of time. She apologised.

The same earthy entity, but this time enunciated in Hokkien, returned to Parliament two years later when MP Lee Bee Wah (Ang Mo Kio GRC) referred to it to make a point in her speech. Though some outside the House criticised her choice of vocabulary, she was not censured by Parliament.

These two bouts of verbal excess were preceded by, among others, a racist remark from former MP Choo Wee Khiang, a comment about women's hairdos from then Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang, and the ABCs of expletives from MP Ling How Doong in 1997.

Recalled former MP Wang Kai Yuen: 'He used ABC. A for asshole, B for bastard and C for talk cock.'

But clear transgressions aside, former MPs recall there generally being more banter in the House.

Heckling, though milder than in other countries, was once commonplace.

One of those who took part was former MP Chandra Das. His target was often opposition MP Chiam See Tong.

'It was harmless, we were just trying to disrupt each other's train of thought,' he tells Insight.

Mr Chiam often gave as good as he got. Mr Ling's ABCs, for instance, came in retaliation to Mr Chiam's heckling.

The practice is now rarely seen. MPs wait their turn patiently.

To voice approval, they no longer shout 'Hear hear' but thump on the chairs.

Dr Wang thinks the disappearance of heckling is simply a generational matter: 'I presume in the 1980s, more of the MPs were exposed to the British tradition. Over time, maybe we have evolved our own tradition so much so that we don't even do this anymore.'

Although he laments: 'If so, the proceedings in Parliament will be rather boring.'

Mr Das puts it down to the stricter time limits imposed on MPs' speeches these days. During Budget debates, for instance, an MP has 18 minutes to make his points - no matter how many ministries he wants to comment on. Those who head a government parliamentary committee get two minutes more.

There used to be a time when there was no limit to how long an MP could talk. This leeway ended, thanks to former Barisan Sosialis MP Lee Siew Choh.

In 1961, he delivered a speech that broke all records - and some backsides - when he argued against the proposed merger with Malaysia. He spoke for nearly 71/2 hours, starting at 11.20pm and finishing the next morning.

A time limit was introduced shortly after.

Too strict?

BUT though some former MPs reminisce fondly of the time when heckling was more commonplace and debates were livelier, all agree that the orderly Parliament in place now is a system that works for Singapore.

'You can focus on what is said rather than how it is said. It is now based more on the substance than on oratory skills,' says Wan Hussin Zoohri, a PAP MP from 1980 to 1991.

Mr Das shares the sentiment, saying one key feature of the local Parliament is that it is a 'working Parliament'.

'They don't have time to waste,' he says.

He stresses that it must always strive to maintain the high standards it has already set.

'When you set standards, there is bound to be abuse. When lapses occur, you correct them. If you set your standards low, you will get a bazaar.'

As for former MP Chew Heng Ching, he boils the matter down to MPs needing to set a good example: 'MPs are role models for many in society. Unlike in other countries, the standards expected of MPs here are very high.'

Says Mr Charles Chong (Pasir Ris- Punggol GRC): 'The fact that we do have immunity actually means that we have a higher responsibility that we do not abuse that privilege.'

On the matter of Mr Sin's transgression, he feels that where Mr Sin erred was in where he got his information from. If he had simply stated his own opinion, that would have been well within his right - even if the opinion was the same as that in the e-mail. However, because he cited an unverified source, he opened himself to criticism.

The last word on the matter of parliamentary privilege comes from Mr Mah, who is also the National Development Minister.

He is responsible for arranging government business in Parliament, and will advise the House on the action to take if a difficulty arises.

In an e-mail response to Insight, he lays out the rationale behind Singapore's strict system and explains why he made his statement in Parliament.

'Members must maintain such high standards of accountability to safeguard the dignity and decorum of the House, and to maintain the public's trust in our Parliament,' he says.

'If these standards are not maintained, we will be unfair to those who have been criticised by MPs under privilege and who are unable to clear their names. We will end up lowering the standing and authority that Parliament enjoys.'

Mr Mah also points out that the way Singapore remunerates its MPs helps ensure this high standard.

A scandal like the one in Britain will not occur here as MPs cannot ask to be reimbursed for their expenses.

'We have instead provided our MPs with a clean allowance of an appropriate amount, with no additional perks attached. This has enabled our MPs to serve their residents well, in their constituencies and in the House, and be properly compensated for such service,' he says.

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