COVID-19 SPECIAL

Coronavirus: Singapore Parliament last met from more than one location during Sars

Lawmakers expected to pass Bill allowing MPs to be spread out at different locations

A photo from March 25, 2020, shows safe distancing measures in place during a Parliament session.
A photo from March 25, 2020, shows safe distancing measures in place during a Parliament session.PHOTO: GOV.SG

When Parliament meets on Monday, lawmakers will debate and are expected to pass a constitutional amendment that will allow MPs to be spread out at different locations while it is in session.

This is the first Bill of its kind, and would lay the ground for Parliament to convene through virtual means if necessary, such as for safe distancing reasons amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Called the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill, it will be introduced under a Certificate of Urgency, which allows for it to be debated and passed in a single session.

But old political hands recall that Singapore's Parliament had blazed this trail back in 2003 during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak, when some members addressed the House remotely for the first time while under the same roof or at home.

THE FIGHT AGAINST SARS

On April 24, 2003, Parliament met to discuss the Government's response to Sars. All MPs, without exception, had their temperature taken on arrival at Parliament House. But four officeholders in the ministerial combat unit against Sars isolated themselves from their colleagues and addressed Parliament from a separate room as an added precaution.

The team was led by then Senior Minister of State Khaw Boon Wan, a former senior civil servant with experience in the Ministry of Health.

The three others were medical doctors: then ministers of state Ng Eng Hen, Balaji Sadasivan and Vivian Balakrishnan.

The four were on the front line of the Sars war, and each had visited various Sars-hit hospitals.

Then Deputy Leader of the House Mah Bow Tan, seeking parliamentary permission to allow the video link, said extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures.

Mr Khaw also noted then that the video set-up allowed the team to join the debate "without causing any anxiety to (our) colleagues".

 
 

Two television cameras were trained on them, letting those in the Chamber see the task force members when they spoke, even as the four watched the proceedings on a TV screen from a room near the public gallery in Parliament.

The fifth who spoke via video conferencing was then MP for Ayer Rajah Tan Cheng Bock. A medical doctor, he had put himself under voluntary quarantine at home as he had treated a patient who came down with Sars. Dr Tan, who was a general practitioner, had said then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong wanted him to share his experience, although he could not be physically present in Parliament.

A TV crew set up a makeshift studio in his Bukit Timah home.

"They turned up with antennas, mics, spotlights - it was very professional," he told The Straits Times on Wednesday. "They turned my room into a studio (but) it took a few hours to set up everything."

Dr Tan, who had teared up then as he recounted the fever-stricken delivery man who came to see him, became the first MP to address Parliament from home.

MPs LIKELY TO BE SPREAD ACROSS PARLIAMENT HOUSE

The Bill allows Parliament to "spread out between two or more places, if it becomes impossible, unsafe or inexpedient for Parliament to meet at one place".

MPs, however, told The Straits Times the potential change is likely to see the lawmakers seated in different rooms in Parliament House should the situation call for it.

Singapore is unlikely to go the way of Britain, where most MPs last week video called in from their homes, said Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer).

While Britain has to consider travel arrangements to Westminster, Singapore is a compact city-state, he noted.

"Parliamentarians here could still travel and meet in person at Parliament House but separated into different rooms connected through videoconferencing for better safe distancing," said Mr Foo, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information (including Smart Nation).

 
 

"That way, authentication and cyber-security risks can be minimised compared to a fully digital, work-from-home arrangement."

Agreeing, Senior Parliamentary Secretary Baey Yam Keng noted that Parliament House has rooms of various sizes that could be used for different arrangements, "from auditorium-style to classroom-style to conference room-style".

But political observer Felix Tan, associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said having MPs converge at a single location might defeat the goal of ensuring proper social distancing.

An alternative arrangement could see MPs directed to government offices near Parliament House, such as The Treasury building and Old Hill Street Police Station, which houses two ministries, said Mr Baey.

"You want proximity because you need the Parliament Secretariat to support the sitting as well, so it's probably easier if MPs were nearby," he added.

The Bill, released on Monday, did not specify the possible places, or the means of communication between them. These specifics, it added, will be prescribed by the Speaker, a parliamentary resolution or Standing Orders, which are written rules that regulate the proceedings of the House.

This was deliberate, said Mr Foo.

"The Bill should be crafted more broadly to cater to different exigencies, and hence different meeting formats appropriate to the specific prevailing circumstances," he said.

 
 

A CONTINGENCY PLAN

Observers said the Bill is a consequence of the Government taking heed of the early lessons of Covid-19. It does not mean it will be invoked at short notice.

While Sars has provided some lessons, Covid-19 has proven to be much more infectious "and caught everyone off-guard", noted former People's Action Party MP Inderjit Singh.

"We should be preparing for the potential situation of a future pandemic that may be as contagious as Covid-19 and as fatal as Sars (and) the changes are likely for that."

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) said the amendment is a contingency plan "to make sure important laws can be passed by Parliament in a timely manner".

"For instance, if you need more money to help enterprises and Singaporeans, you want to be able to proceed with that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2020, with the headline 'Parliament last met from more than one location during Sars'. Subscribe