Opposition MPs passed up chance to debate amendments to WP motion on criminal justice system: Indranee

Leader of the House Indranee Rajah speaking in Parliament on Nov 4, 2020. PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - Amendments to the recent Workers' Party (WP) motion on the criminal justice system were made to more accurately reflect the debate in Parliament, establish common ground with the opposition, and obtain bipartisan support, said Leader of the House Indranee Rajah on Saturday (Nov 7).

Writing on Facebook, she said the amendments to the motion, moved on Wednesday (Nov 4) by WP chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), were up for debate and that Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin had invited all MPs to speak on the matter.

"None of the opposition MPs did so," said Ms Indranee. "I held back delivering my speech and requested Mr Speaker to first clarify with Ms Lim if she had wanted to speak on the amendment. Ms Lim stated that she only wanted to speak to close the debate."

The motion, which came in the wake of the acquittal of former domestic helper Parti Liyani and a lengthy ministerial statement on the case by Law Minister K. Shanmugam, originally stated: "That this House affirms that fairness, access and independence are cornerstones of Singapore's justice system, and calls on the Government to recognise and remedy its shortcomings in order to enhance justice for all, regardless of means or social status, including facilitating a review of the justice system."

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok), chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, then suggested amendments which were passed by Parliament but dissented by WP MPs.

The motion now reads: "That this House recognises that fairness, access and independence are cornerstones of Singapore's justice system, and affirms the Government's continuous efforts since independence to build a fair and just society and remedy any shortcoming in order to enhance justice for all, regardless of race, language, religion, economic means, or social status."

The next day, WP MP Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) posted a picture on Facebook displaying the original motion with its amendments, along with a caption stating: "The Workers' Party's original motion called for an external review to consider changes to address gaps and shortcomings in the current justice system, particularly as relates to access to justice for all. Have a look at how the amendment changed the meaning and sense of that motion."

Fellow WP member Kenneth Foo, a candidate at this year's election, then commented on the post that "when you control the Parliament, you call the shots".

On Saturday, Ms Indranee sought to clarify the sequence of events in Parliament, and pointedly opened her Facebook post by asking: "Did the PAP (People's Action Party) really cancel out the WP motion?"

The Minister in the Prime Minister's Office wrote that the original call to the Government to recognise and remedy its shortcomings was unclear in what "its" referred to. "It could mean the system as a whole is defective. Or it could mean government shortcomings which have somehow made the system defective," she said.

And the original call for a review of the justice system suggested the entire system was defective, Ms Indranee noted.

"However as the debate progressed, it became clear that there was bipartisan consensus that our system is not broken, has served Singapore well, and is improving. But as with any system, it can be further improved," she said, pointing out that Ms Lim had said the same in her speech.

"Indeed there was a lot of common ground between the PAP and WP MPs in the debate," Ms Indranee added. "Both agreed on the fundamental values that underpinned our system - fairness, access and independence. Both sides noted the steps taken by the Government and the progress over the years."

She noted that many of the WPs suggestions put forth during the debate around the motion were already being considered by the Government - such as the notion of a public defenders' office.

"Other suggestions could not be so easily implemented due to high costs and potential downsides. For suggestions that the Government disagreed with, the PAP Ministers took pains to explain why this was so," said Ms Indranee, a former practising lawyer and senior counsel.

"After all the speeches were delivered... it was evident that a wide ranging root and branch review of the justice system was not necessary."

Making amendments, she added, was a more constructive course of action compared to rejecting the WP's motion altogether.

Ms Indranee noted that the WP MPs had agreed to some amendments but not others. She said their opposition to the third amendment - from "its" to "any" shortcomings - in particular, was "puzzling and sad".

"Mr Murali was certainly not saying that there were no shortcomings, as he stood up to clarify," said Ms Indranee. "On the contrary, by including the words 'any shortcomings' the amendment expressly recognises that there are indeed shortcomings and these must be remedied, as we have remedied other shortcomings over the years.

"But the amended motion also seeks to be fair, and acknowledges that the Government has over the years continuously tried to improve the system. But the opposition MPs would not acknowledge this.

"The Government will nevertheless continue in our efforts to improve our system and enhance justice for all," she concluded.

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