SINGAPORE: In a crisis, Members of Parliament (MPs) will be able to “meet” across two or more places appointed by the President under a new article in the Constitution that was passed on Tuesday (May 5).
The new Article 64A will create a mechanism for Parliament to meet under continuity arrangements, said Leader of the House Grace Fu during the second reading of the proposed law. The Constitution formerly mandated that Parliament met in one place.
“This physical separation will enhance the survivability of Parliament as an institution,” said Ms Fu, who is also the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth.
“In the context of the COVID-19 situation, separating members into cohorts, and limiting the physical contact between these cohorts, allows us to cut down the chance of infection spreading to all the MPs,” she said.
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This means that if one cohort is infected, other cohorts can still carry on, she added.
The details of the continuity arrangements, such as which members will be allocated to which meeting place and how they will communicate, can be decided by the House or by Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin.
The mechanism is active for six months once the Bill is enacted and comes into force.
In the future, it can be activated by Parliament for six months at a time if members consider that it is impossible or unsafe for Parliament to meet in one place.
Parliament can also resolve to deactivate the mechanism and resume normal sittings at any time, said Ms Fu.
Responding to a question from Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Christopher de Souza about when this mechanism might be invoked, Ms Fu said that it was "difficult to state a hard and fast rule" and possible scenarios could include a health threat, another kind of virus, a security threat or even a natural disaster.
"But I can say, in principle, we should make every effort to sit in this chamber ... We should only move to continuity arrangements in truly exceptional circumstances," she said.
Both Mr de Souza and Nominated MP Walter Theseira also pointed out that Parliament meetings go beyond chamber debates, and provide a forum for all parliamentarians to confer and collaborate.
Associate Professor Theseira said: "The discussions that we have in person, in the grounds of Parliament, whether by design or by accident, form an important basis for trust, relationship building and even national decision-making."
Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera and NMP Anthea Ong also asked about the possibility of remote participation in Parliament, which the UK's House of Commons is testing.
Ms Fu said that it was among the options considered but it did not seem necessary to "go so far", unlike in large countries, where they might have no choice but to allow for remote parliament sittings.
“Singapore is a small country, and members should be able to travel to alternative sites for Parliament. We also wanted members to be physically and fully present to apply our minds together to the important business of the Parliament, even if we co-locate between several places,” she said.
When a division is claimed in Parliament, for example, and the votes of MPs need to be counted physically, the bells are rung and the doors are locked, said Ms Fu.
"There are no strangers present, no outside interference ... There is a certain seriousness of purpose, a certain sanctity of process," she said.
"The same solemnity cannot be reproduced in remote proceedings when there is no effective control over the physical environment from which MPs dial in."
Mr Perera had suggested that the amendment could allow for MPs to call in from home as each MP's home could be deemed "an appointed place" as defined in the Bill.
In response, Ms Fu said that while this was "technically possible", it was not the scenario envisaged. If that had been the case, a lot more precautions would have to be put in place on how parliamentary proceedings could take place in individual homes, she added.
"So that is still a technical issue. There are security considerations, logistical considerations that will not make that option the same as us sitting in this hall, with the existing standing orders, with the existing procedures, that guide us in the process," she said.
NO IMMEDIATE NEED TO ACTIVATE
On Monday and Tuesday, as the House met at the midpoint of a “circuit breaker” period in Singapore, MPs attended Parliament wearing face masks and with safe distancing measures in place. They took the masks off to speak, to ensure they could be heard clearly.
This was as far as they could go under the law today, said Ms Fu, but the COVID-19 outbreak and other future exigencies could make it unsafe or impossible for Parliament to meet in one place even as it has to carry out its constitutional functions.
“In the constitutional framework, we are an essential service,” she said.
Ms Fu said there is no immediate need to activate the continuity arrangements as the number of new coronavirus cases in the community and unlinked cases has decreased recently, suggesting that the circuit breaker measures have been effective.
However, the Bill was introduced and passed in two days under a certificate of urgency “out of an abundance of caution” so that it can be triggered if necessary.
“If the need arises, for instance, if there is widespread local transmission of COVID-19, we can immediately implement the necessary arrangements,” said Ms Fu.
The constitutional amendment was passed with 84 members voting in favour, and no objections or abstentions. Constitution amendments can only be passed with a two-thirds majority in the House.