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MPs fined at least S$10,000 to be disqualified after Parliament passes changes to raise quantum from S$2,000

MPs fined at least S$10,000 to be disqualified after Parliament passes changes to raise quantum from S$2,000

A general view shows Parliament House in front of commercial buildings in the financial district in Singapore on Mar 1, 2022. (Photo: AFP/Roslan RAHMAN)

SINGAPORE: A person will be disqualified from being a Member of Parliament (MP) if they have been convicted of an offence and fined at least S$10,000, after changes to Singapore’s Constitution were passed by Parliament on Monday (May 9).

Eighty-eight members voted in favour, with no objections or abstentions.

Under current law, a person is disqualified from standing for election to become an MP, while a sitting MP will lose their seat, if they are jailed for at least one year or fined at least S$2,000. The disqualification lasts for five years.

The fine quantum will be raised to account for inflation over the years and correspond to sentences handed down by the courts in Singapore for relevant offences today, the Elections Department (ELD) had said on Apr 4.

“Revising the fine quantum from not less than S$2,000 to not less than S$10,000 would ensure that the fine quantum is commensurate with fines meted out for offences which are relevant to the integrity of the person, such as tax evasion, corruption,” said the ELD.

There is no change to the minimum jail term.

The amendments also expanded the criteria to disqualify those who have been convicted in courts overseas, in addition to a Singapore or Malaysian court. However, it will only apply to offences that are punishable by a court in Singapore had they been committed here.

The issue of disqualification was put in the spotlight after Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh and vice-chair Faisal Manap, both Aljunied GRC MPs, were referred to the Public Prosecutor for further investigations.

The recommendation came after the Committee of Privileges’ (COP) report on former WP MP Raeesah Khan’s lying incident in Parliament.

In a Facebook post after the COP's report, Mr Singh noted that several “unknowns” remained – including the prospect of him and Mr Faisal losing their parliamentary seats if either of them were to be fined S$2,000 or more.

SHOULD THE TYPE OF OFFENCE MATTER?

On Monday, two MPs asked if the Bill should consider the type of offence as well, pointing out that some “minor” traffic and technical offences might not warrant a disqualification, while some seemingly more egregious offences could come with light sentences.

While MP Lim Biow Chuan (PAP-Mountbatten) agreed that it was appropriate to adjust the fine quantum, he proposed that the disqualification only applies to offences relating to dishonesty, fraud, corruption or bribery, but not, for instance, careless driving.

“For other offences that are technical in nature or statutory offences, we ought to review whether such offences ought to result in disqualification to be an MP,” he said.

Mr Lim noted that this is currently included in the Charities Act and the Companies Act, where a person is disqualified from serving as a director if convicted of such offences.

“I would urge the Government to do likewise – signal the type of dishonest conduct that we wish to guard against; not just by adjusting the quantum of the fine,” he added.

Meanwhile, MP Murali Pillai (PAP-Bukit Batok) pointed out that a man convicted of molesting a woman in Singapore was sentenced to two weeks’ and five days’ jail.

“If an MP were to have committed any one of these offences, he would not be automatically disqualified,” he said.

“The question that arises for consideration is what should be the corresponding standard of conduct dealing with criminal convictions imposed on Singaporean politicians?”

IS DISQUALIFICATION BASED ON FINES STILL RELEVANT? 

​​MP Sylvia Lim (WP-Aljunied) suggested considering the relevance of fines in the criteria for disqualifying MPs.

She pointed to overseas jurisdictions such as Australia and the UK, where candidates at the national election are disqualified based on the duration of their jail terms rather than a fine quantum.

“Given the multitude of regulatory laws in today's modern society, there is always a risk that persons engaged in business or certain industries or professions may be fined for some non-compliance,” she said.

“Should we embark on such a further review in the future, careful consideration should be paid to how to balance upholding respect for Parliament as a national institution with having a set of eligibility criteria that is relevant to modern Singapore.”

While having a cutoff based on the punishment quantum is easy to apply and clear, Ms Lim said the current method makes no distinction about the type of offence involved as fines and imprisonment terms are meted out for a variety of offences with varied moral culpability.

Fines may also be imposed for infractions under some laws which might not be considered criminal in nature, she said.

While she did not specifically mention his name, Ms Lim cited the example of a recent court case involving opposition politician John Tan who was fined S$5,000 for contempt of court, shortly before the general election in 2020.

This placed him over the S$2,000 disqualification threshold for standing for election when he applied to the High Court for clarification on his status.

“The judge ruled that, so long as the court fine was of the required amount, it did not matter what the underlying charge was. The court held that matters considered quasi-criminal, such as contempt of court would suffice for disqualification,” she noted.

CHALLENGING TO LIST SPECIFIC OFFENCES

Responding to the MPs’ suggestions, Minister-in-Charge of the Public Service Chan Chun Sing said that many jurisdictions disqualified elected members based on the length or quantum of the sentence and not the type of offences.

“This is because there are inherent challenges in listing the specific offences and then having to frequently amend a basic document like the Constitution so that the offence list is updated,” he explained.

In response to Mr Murali, Mr Chan said an automatic disqualification based solely on conviction without taking into account the actual sentence is not compatible with the principle of ensuring fitness for office.

“As the basic document, the Constitution has to establish the suitable balance for Singapore between ensuring wide representation of all sectors of our community in Parliament, while ensuring the representatives' fitness for office,” he said.

“The Constitutional ineligibility, which is covered by the Bill, simply sets the minimum threshold for individuals to seek office in Parliament, so as to ensure basic fitness for office.”

Beyond the disqualification criteria, Mr Chan said political parties in Singapore must continue to ensure their candidates and MPs are persons with integrity who adhere to high standards of conduct.

“Ultimately, our voters will decide at the ballot box the fitness of the person seeking to represent them in Parliament,” he added.

Source: CNA/hz(ac)
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