As political theatre goes, it was all a bit anticlimactic. Parliamentary proceedings in Singapore tend to be sedate affairs, and watchers will likely have hoped for fireworks following Leader of the House Grace Fu’s demand that Aljunied MP Sylvia Lim apologise for her “allegations” in Parliament regarding the planned GST hike.
But on Thursday (8 March), which also happened to be International Women’s Day, Singapore’s only female opposition MP called Fu’s bluff. In the parlance of “Game of Thrones”, Lim politely declined to bend the knee to the House, citing her constitutional duties as an MP. The Workers’ Party chair had said last week that the government floated “test balloons” to test public reaction to a GST hike and found itself “stuck” with the announcement.
“I do not see any reason for me to retract the statements which I made during the exchanges with the minister… I believe I was doing my duty as an MP to convey ground concerns, reactions and confusions,” said Lim on Thursday.
In response, Fu huffily said she would refer Lim to the Committee of Privileges – which looks into complaints about abuse of parliamentary privilege – if the Workers’ Party chair “abuse(s) parliamentary privilege” again. But the move had already backfired, given the surfeit of online comments opining that Lim had done nothing wrong in giving voice to what many thought.
Perhaps Fu, one of the 4G leaders, could have learnt something from the way Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam took on Lim last Thursday over her comments on the GST hike. Shanmugam takes no prisoners in debates; by comparison, Fu looked more like the class monitor threatening to report a student to the discipline master. She even appeared to be at a loss for words.
Still, it was one of the most exciting things to happen during a Committee of Supply (COS) debate that went on for seven days.
This is the second time in recent months that a WP MP has been accused of abusing parliamentary privilege, after Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera was compelled to apologise in January for his remarks on national broadcaster Mediacorp’s use of video footage taken of parliamentary proceedings.
Singapore’s Parliament is no House of Commons, where the banter and withering comments fly thick and fast; as seen in one instance when former UK Prime Minister David Cameron called Labour MP Ed Balls a “muttering idiot”.
But our House is still modelled on the latter, and it feels curious that an opposition MP should be censured for exercising parliamentary privilege in a debate on matters of national importance.
Parliamentary privilege grants MPs legal immunity – within limits – for statements made in Parliament during the course of their duties. What is more, Lim has made far stronger comments in the House with little incident.
Last October, the Aljunied MP accused the government of using the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ (AGC) advice as a “red herring” when deciding the timing of the reserved Presidential Election. Why make an issue out of Lim’s most recent comments, which were innocuous by comparison?
Perhaps it is just as well that Lim did not back down. It would set an alarming precedent if opposition MPs run the risk of being censured every time they offer an opinion in the House. Fu and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, also a 4G minister, might also have been better served if they had handled Lim’s comments on their own, rather than have Shanmugam step in.
In any case, Singapore’s leading opposition party has far bigger fish to fry. The WP election to choose a new party chief takes place in April, while there is still the small matter of the lawsuits filed against its MPs over the long-running Aljunied-Hougang Town Council saga. The party may have won the battle this time, but their struggles are far from over.