Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, Chen Show Mao revealed on his Facebook page this week that he had to ask a parliamentary question thrice before Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob allowed him to pose the question to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Chen wanted to clarify when a political appointee should seek litigation to clear his or her name and when that individual should use a public setting such a Parliament to address allegations against them.
“I’d like to ask the Prime Minister at the next Parliamentary sitting: “When should a Minister or political appointee go to court to defend his or her reputation and when should he or she refrain from private litigation and seek instead to address such allegations publicly, such as in Parliament?”
The Workers’ Party politician was perhaps referring to the Prime Minister’s decision to rebut allegations of abuse of power leveled against him by his own siblings in Parliament, instead of suing them as is his norm when his name and reputation have been questioned in the past.
The Prime Minister’s seeming penchant for suing individuals under defamation laws is one that is perhaps bequeathed to him by past Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. Almost 20 years ago, Goh asserted:
“If they’ve defamed us, we have to sue them — because if we don’t, our own integrity will be suspect. We have an understanding that if a minister is defamed and he does not sue, he must leave cabinet. By defamation, I mean if somebody says the minister is … less than honest. If he does not rebut it, if he does not dare go before the court to be interrogated by the counsel for the other side, there must be some truth in it.”
Amid accusations that the Prime Minister chose Parliament to clear his name as it is a setting where his siblings cannot speak up as opposed to a court of law, the head of government had said that he is refraining from suing his siblings as he does not wish to further besmirch their parents’ name.
Chen, however, was almost prevented from asking his question to the Prime Minister at all.
In response to his question, Halimah asserted that his question is not permitted as he is asking “about matters concerning decisions made by Ministers or political appointees in their personal capacity.”
She then cited the Standing Orders, according to which “a question shall not contain arguments, inferences, opinions, imputations, epithets or tendentious, ironical or offensive expressions;” and “a question shall not be asked as to the character or conduct of any person except in his official or public capacity.”
“In view of this, do you wish to withdraw your question,” Halimah asked.
Chen then respectfully declined before rephrasing his question:
“The question relates (and I have revised its wording to make it clearer) to defending one’s reputation as a Minister or political appointee in his or her official capacity as Minister or political appointee, as the case may be. Has there been, for example, as alleged an abuse of one’s official position as a government Minister?”
The Speaker of Parliament shut his question down once again, saying that his “question has also been ruled inadmissible as it seeks an expression of an opinion.” She added:
“It is also not the function of Government to decide whether a Minister should seek court action to defend his reputation or refrain from doing so. Such decisions are made by the Minister himself.”
Chen declines again and rephrases his question a third time, clarifying that he is not seeking a personal opinion from the PM but an answer “on the norms upheld in his government among his Ministers and political appointees, as they relate to the issue of defending their reputation for honest dealing in their official or public capacity.”
He was then finally permitted to ask the PM this tweaked version of his original question:
“What are the rules, directives, practices, understandings, standards and norms governing the circumstances under which a Minister or political appointee should defend his reputation in his official capacity in the courts or refrain from such court action and address allegations publicly, such as in Parliament.”
PM Lee Hsien Loong later replied: “I have addressed this in my Ministerial Statement on 3 July 2017. Any Minister who is accused of improper conduct must clear his name publicly. He should not allow the allegations to fester and affect the reputation of the Government. If it is a serious allegation, I would expect the Minister to take court action for defamation, unless there are other special considerations. He may also need to render account in Parliament, particularly if the matter concerns his discharge of public duties and is of public interest. These are not mutually exclusive options. In all cases, there must be public accounting.”
Netizens responding to Chen’s Facebook post accused the Speaker of Parliament of showing partiality. Their comments are especially notable as it is expected that Halimah will resign from her seat as an elected parliamentarian to contest the upcoming reserved presidential election. It remains to be seen whether she will prove to be a neutral candidate and potential head of state should she choose to contest the election.
Here is Chen Show Mao’s original Facebook post.