PM Lee to deliver ministerial statement on Oxley: Past hot-button debates in Parliament

Opposition MP Chiam See Tong querying then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew during a Parliament sitting in 1987. Over the decades, Parliament has been the venue, on at least four occasions, where fraught and weighty issues involving officials or the Gover
Over the decades, Parliament has been the venue, on at least four occasions, where fraught and weighty issues involving officials or the Government have been tackled and settled.ST FILE PHOTO
Opposition MP Chiam See Tong querying then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew during a Parliament sitting in 1987. Over the decades, Parliament has been the venue, on at least four occasions, where fraught and weighty issues involving officials or the Gover
Opposition MP Chiam See Tong querying then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew during a Parliament sitting in 1987. ST FILE PHOTO
In 1996, there was a debate over the sale of units at Scotts 28 (above) and Nassim Jade by HPL to then SM Lee and DPM Lee.
In 1996, there was a debate over the sale of units at Scotts 28 (above) and Nassim Jade by HPL to then SM Lee and DPM Lee.BUSINESS TIMES FILE PHOTO

Like Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong have moved to air and debate contentious issues in Parliament. The four examples below, which span decades, illustrate how thorny matters have been settled through such debates.

Like Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong have moved to air and debate contentious issues in Parliament.

The four examples below, which span decades, illustrate how thorny matters have been settled through such debates.

Motion of confidence vote, July 20 to 21, 1961

The People's Action Party saw an internal party split in July 1961.

There were two factions at the time - the leftist, led by union activist Lim Chin Siong, who was a founding PAP member; and the non-leftist, led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

The two factions clashed over many issues, including that of Singapore merging to form Malaysia.

Tensions came to a head in the run-up to the by-election for Anson constituency on July 15, 1961, triggered by the death of PAP legislative assemblyman Baharuddin Mohammed Ariff.

The leftist faction withdrew support for the PAP candidate. The Workers' Party's Mr David Marshall went on to win the five-cornered fight, with a narrow majority of 546 votes over PAP candidate Mahmud Awang.

Five days after the by-election, the PAP called for an emergency session at the 51-seat Legislative Assembly.


Over the decades, Parliament has been the venue, on at least four occasions, where fraught and weighty issues involving officials or the Government have been tackled and settled.  ST FILE PHOTO

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew tabled a motion of confidence in the Government for debate. The marathon debate started at 2.34pm on July 20 and ended at 3.55am the following day.

It was a political gamble for Mr Lee. He said: "This motion is one of confidence and the motion will have to be carried as it stands without amendment, or the Government must resign and general elections follow.

"On a motion of confidence, any amendment is tantamount to a vote of no confidence."


Opposition MP Chiam See Tong querying then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew during a Parliament sitting in 1987.  ST FILE PHOTO 

 

Popular accounts said that the PAP won the motion narrowly with 26 out of the 51 votes, with the crucial 26th vote coming from ailing PAP assemblywoman Sahorah Ahmat, who had to be carried into the House in a stretcher from her hospital bed.

A check by The Sunday Times found House records showing 27 Assemblymen had voted to put their confidence in the government.

The PAP could have won the vote without Madam Sahorah. It won an unexpected vote from lawyer Koh Choon Hong of the Singapore People's Alliance led by Mr Lim Yew Hock. Mr Koh, who represented the Joo Chiat constituency, broke ranks with his party to support the PAP.


In 1996, there was a debate over the sale of units at Scotts 28 (above) and Nassim Jade by HPL to then SM Lee and DPM Lee. BUSINESS TIMES FILE PHOTO

The 13 PAP assemblymen who abstained from the vote were expelled on July 26. The breakaway faction of PAP went on to form Barisan Socialis on July 29.

The showdown on July 20 and 21 July remained the only time a motion of confidence was tabled and voted on in Parliament after the PAP came into power in 1959.

Teh Cheang Wan Affair, 1987 and 1988

Former minister for national development Teh Cheang Wan committed suicide on Dec 14, 1986, while in office. He was being investigated for corruption.

On Jan 26, 1987, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew made a statement in Parliament, revealing he had approved a Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau investigation of Mr Teh following a complaint.

On March 4, opposition member Chiam See Tong filed a parliamentary question on whether Mr Lee would call a public inquiry into Mr Teh's suicide.

Mr Lee replied that "the Government is ready to have a public inquiry into any matter of public interest so that there can be no question of any cover-up".

Three weeks later, on March 26, 1987, then Second Minister for Law S. Jayakumar said in Parliament that the President had appointed a Commission of Inquiry led by then Judicial Commissioner Chan Sek Keong to probe the "Teh Cheang Wan Affair".

The commission's report was debated in Parliament on Jan 13, 1988.

Seven House members spoke during the two-hour debate, including Mr Lee, Professor Jayakumar and Mr Chiam.

Prof Jayakumar noted that the commission found "no involvement by any other minister, parliamentary secretary or government officer in these acts of corruption or other criminal wrongdoing", and that there had been "no attempt to overlook, to conceal or to cover-up any information".

He also ticked off Mr Chiam for using Mr Teh's suicide to attack the integrity of the Government, saying that the commission had noted: "Mr Chiam could not have been ignorant of the fact that Singapore has an enviable reputation for the honesty and integrity of its public institutions."

Mr Chiam urged the House not to accept the report, arguing that the commission members were biased and denied him access to files.

The House voted to accept the report.

Sale of condo units to then SM and DPM - May 21 to 23, 1996

Parliament spent three days debating the sale of a condo unit at Nassim Jade and at Scotts 28 by developer Hotel Properties Limited (HPL) at a 7 per cent and 5 per cent discount respectively to then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and similar discounted sales to then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. (See commentary overleaf)

Their purchases came to light after the then Stock Exchange of Singapore criticised HPL for "tardiness" in disclosing the sale of two Nassim Jade units at a discount to HPL non-executive director Lee Suan Yew and another director's wife. Following that, SM Lee and DPM Lee said they had informed the Prime Minister that they, too, had bought the HPL properties.

HPL told the press the two leaders had not asked for any discounts.

Several MPs involved in the property sector said during the debate that it was common practice for developers to quote high list prices and offer discounts.

Then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said that while he did not doubt the two ministers' integrity, he had to protect the integrity of the Government, so ordered an investigation and had questioned SM Lee and DPM Lee. He was satisfied that there was no impropriety.

DPM Lee told the House that he and his father decided to donate to charity the amount of the discount they had received.

Opposition MPs argued that ministers should declare their assets, be limited to one property, and ask for parliamentary approval to buy or sell properties.

PM Goh said such rules were not needed and would make public office even less desirable.

But he set new rules requiring ministers to clear with him when they buy properties, and state their ties with the developer, among other requirements.

Ministerial pay, 1970 to 2012

The hot-button issue of how much ministers should be paid surfaced many times in Parliament from 1970 to 2012.

On May 7, 1970, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew made a ministerial statement in Parliament to explain why he was raising the salaries of ministers and the allowances of MPs.

He said: "If we are to attract men of ability to serve as ministers, in other words, to run for election and then serve as ministers, Singapore cannot, for the indefinite future, rely on people who are willing to make inordinate sacrifices, particularly when it is at the expense of their families."

Ministers' salaries were raised for the first time in independent Singapore in 1970, from $2,500 a month to $4,500. But Mr Lee said that he would freeze his salary at $3,500 a month.

By March 1989, ministers' gross monthly salaries had risen to $28,644 and for the prime minister, $49,608.

On Dec 3, 1993, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced an impending round of pay rises.

He told Parliament: "If we do not pay ministers adequately, we will get inadequate ministers. If you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys for your ministers. The people will suffer, not the monkeys."

On Nov 3, 1994, he tabled a motion to debate a White Paper, Competitive Salaries For Competent And Honest Government.

It proposed a benchmark setting a junior minister's pay at two-thirds the average principal income of the top four earners in six professions: bankers, accountants, engineers, lawyers, local manufacturing companies and multinational companies.

The House voted to endorse the White Paper after three days of intense debate. Six MPs voted against it: Opposition MPs Cheo Chai Chen, Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang, and Nominated MPs Kanwaljit Soin, Imram Mohamed and Walter Woon.

There were to be several tweaks to the formula but the principle of benchmarking remained in place.

On April 4, 2007, four days before Parliament was to debate yet another round of pay revisions for ministers and public officials, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Minister Mentor, defended the policy of paying for top talent: "Your apartment will be worth a fraction of what it is, your jobs will be in peril, your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people's countries."

In January 2012, a salary review committee released a report, Salaries For A Capable And Committed Government, proposing changing the benchmark formula for a junior minister to 60 per cent of the median income of the top 1,000 earners who are Singapore citizens.

Ministers' variable pay and performance bonuses were also slashed and a National Bonus of up to six months was introduced based on four indicators - economic growth, real income growth rates for average and poor Singaporeans, and unemployment.

The formula slashed the prime minster's annual salary by 36 per cent to $2.2 million, and cut a junior minister's pay by 37 per cent to $1.1 million.

The report was tabled as a White Paper, which was debated in Parliament from Jan 16 to 18, 2012.

The paper was endorsed by the House.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 02, 2017, with the headline 'Past hot-button debates'. Print Edition | Subscribe