askST: What happens when parliamentary privilege is breached and what can the Committee of Privileges do?

Under the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act, MPs are given immunity from prosecution and civil lawsuits for statements made in Parliament. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Leader of the House Indranee Rajah has raised a formal complaint against Workers' Party (WP) MP Raeesah Khan for breaching her parliamentary privilege.

Ms Raeesah (Sengkang GRC) admitted on Monday (Nov 1) that she had lied in Parliament about details of a sexual assault case that she alleged was mishandled by the police.

She apologised in Parliament to the Singapore Police Force and retracted the anecdote.

Noting that Ms Raeesah had lied to Parliament on three occasions, Ms Indranee said she had no choice but to raise the complaint to the Committee of Privileges, as any breaches of parliamentary privilege have to be dealt with.

Q: What is parliamentary privilege?

A: Under the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act, MPs are given immunity from prosecution and civil lawsuits for statements made in Parliament.

This privilege allows MPs to speak freely and raise issues from their constituents and the public.

However, MPs must not abuse this privilege to misrepresent facts, make unsubstantiated allegations or mislead Parliament.

"As Members of Parliament, we are granted privileges. One of those privileges is to be able to speak in Parliament with immunity," Ms Indranee said on Monday.

"Unlike other people, we can do so without fear of prosecution because of the underlying public policy interests, which is to be able to raise things, and it's very important when we do so that we must be able to speak truth in this House, and when we assert or make allegations to be able to back them up."

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Q: What happens when a breach of privilege occurs?

A: Under the rules of Parliament, the Leader of the House has the duty to propose appropriate actions to be taken on matters arising in Parliament, such as when MPs break certain rules.

Ms Indranee on Monday raised a point of order under Section 100 (7) (b) of the Standing Orders of Parliament.

This section allows any MP to make a complaint alleging a breach of privilege has suddenly arisen.

She asked for the matter involving Ms Raeesah to be referred to the Committee of Privileges, which looks into any complaint alleging breaches of parliamentary privilege. Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin agreed to do so.

The eight-member Committee of Privileges is chaired by Mr Tan. Its other members are Ms Indranee, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu, Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli, National Development Minister Desmond Lee, Mr Don Wee (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and WP MP Dennis Tan (Hougang).

Ms Indranee said she and Mr Shanmugam would recuse themselves as she had made the complaint, while his ministry was involved.

Once a matter is referred to the committee, no further proceedings shall be taken on the matter until the committee has investigated the complaint and reported its findings. The committee can then recommend one or more actions be taken against MPs found to have breached their parliamentary privilege.

Q: What punishments can be meted out?

A: While Parliament is not a court of law, it has the power to take action against MPs who engage in "dishonourable conduct, abuse of privilege or contempt".

The punishments include a jail term not extending beyond the current session of Parliament; a fine of up to $50,000; suspension; a reprimand from the Speaker; or any combination of the above.

MPs can also have their privileges and immunities suspended, which means they can be liable to civil proceedings for anything they said in Parliament.

The last MP to be taken to task by the committee for breach of privilege was former WP leader J.B. Jeyaretnam.

Four complaints involving Mr Jeyaretnam were referred to the committee during his term of office as MP for Anson - one in 1982 and three in 1986.

He was reprimanded in 1982 for failing to declare a direct personal pecuniary or financial interest in a matter he had raised involving a person for whom he was acting as a lawyer.

In 1986, he accused the Government of tampering with the judiciary on multiple occasions, and the police of abusing their powers of detention. He was fined $1,000 for each of these breaches of parliamentary privilege, the maximum sum at the time.

The same year, he was fined another $1,000 for not declaring a pecuniary interest in a question he had raised.

He was also fined $25,000 for contempt of Parliament after publishing distorted reports of the committee's proceedings in a series of newsletters to Anson residents.

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Q: What else can the committee do?

A: The committee can also recommend that Parliament take actions against non-MPs.

In 1987, after Mr Jeyaretnam stepped down as MP, he was fined $10,000 for contempt of Parliament in his capacity as editor of the WP's newsletter, The Hammer, which was said to have contained distorted reports of the committee's proceedings.

The WP's executive committee was fined $5,000 as the publisher of The Hammer, and the printer of the newsletter was reprimanded and warned by the then Parliament Speaker Yeoh Ghim Seng.

The most recent matter referred to the Committee of Privileges was in 1996 and involved four members of the Singapore Democratic Party, none of whom were MPs.

Then Minister for Health George Yeo filed a complaint against Dr Chee Soon Juan, Mr S. Kunalen, Mr Wong Hong Toy and Mr Kwan Yue Keng, accusing them of fabricating data and presenting false or untrue documents with the intent to deceive a Select Committee on government healthcare expenditure.

The four men were found guilty of contempt of Parliament. Dr Chee was fined $25,000, Mr Wong was fined $13,000, Mr Kunalen was fined $8,000 and Mr Kwan was fined $5,000.

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