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Parliament votes in favour of amended PSP motion on Speaker to discharge duties 'impartially'

PAP MPs said the Speaker could be impartial and independent even if from the ruling party, in response to PSP NCMP Leong Mun Wai's proposal that the Speaker should not come from PAP’s core leadership.

Parliament votes in favour of amended PSP motion on Speaker to discharge duties 'impartially'

Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai on the motion calling for impartial Speaker and Parliament as a fair arena.

SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament on Wednesday (Aug 2) voted in favour of an amended motion that reaffirmed the House’s commitment for the Speaker of Parliament to discharge his duties impartially and independently.

The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) had filed the motion after former Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin was caught on a hot mic muttering “f****** populist", following a speech by opposition MP Jamus Lim (WP-Sengkang). Mr Tan later apologised to Assoc Prof Lim for the remarks.

But before the motion could be debated at this parliament sitting, Mr Tan stepped down, along with former MP Cheng Li Hui, due to their affair. The new Speaker, Mr Seah Kian Peng (PAP-Marine Parade), presided over the debate.

The motion originally mooted by PSP stated: “That this House reaffirms its commitment to the need for the Speaker of Parliament to be independent and impartial and for parliament to be a fair arena for all.”

In presenting the motion, Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai (PSP) said that the conduct of the former Speaker “has brought parliament into disrepute and is a matter that deserves a full debate in this House”.

He proposed that the Speaker should not come from the People’s Action Party’s core leadership, such as a member of the Central Executive Committee (CEC). Ideally, the Speaker should not be from any political party, he said, citing precedents from the 1960s.

However, PAP MPs did not agree, saying that the Speaker can be impartial and independent even if he or she is from the ruling party.

The motion was amended by MP Vikram Nair (PAP-Sembawang) to replace the words “to be independent and impartial” with “to discharge his duties independently and impartially”.

There was also an amendment to add: “To uphold the Standing Orders of Parliament and the obligations under the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act 1962."

This was the version of the motion that was passed by parliament, with dissensions from PSP NCMPs Mr Leong and Ms Hazel Poa recorded.

“Historically, even without recent events, the actions of the PAP government over the years could arguably be perceived by the public to have eroded the independence and impartiality of the Speaker’s office over the years,” said Mr Leong.

He pointed out that prior to 1970, the Singapore parliament had elected speakers who were judges and non-partisan, with the exception of former PAP minister EW Barker. However, from 1970, every Speaker has been from PAP.

He also noted that in recent years, the Speakers have been members of the PAP CEC and that makes it difficult for the public to be fully convinced that a core member of the ruling party can be an “impartial presiding officer” in parliament.

“PSP believes that it is problematic for the Speaker to uphold his impartiality and independence while simultaneously being at the power centre of the ruling party and being privy to the ruling party's political strategy alongside members of the government,” said Mr Leong.

Mr Nair, presenting the amended motion, argued that a Speaker does not automatically lack independence in the performance of his duties because he “happens to be from a political party”.

He added that the fairness of parliament is not just dependent on the individual who is the Speaker but also on parliament’s standing orders and the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act, which the Speaker is also bound by.

There are also other checks on the Speaker’s conduct, he said.

“The first is the Speaker’s own party, if it feels the Speaker has not acted properly in any way. The second is parliament itself, where members are free to raise any objections they may wish, or even file the necessary motion. Third, the ultimate check on a member of the legislature is the ballot box.”


Leader of the House Indranee Rajah stressed that having someone who is non-partisan and not a member of a political party would not guarantee the results wanted. Like MP Lim Biow Chuan (PAP-Mountbatten), she used the UK as an example, with individuals resigning from their political parties upon being appointed as Speakers. 

This did not prevent one of their former Speakers from being put into a position where he was accused of bias and faced complaints of bullying, Ms Indranee said. 

She raised the point that the Speaker is someone who can receive the support of the majority of the House – which would often be someone from the majority party. 

“This arrangement reflects the reality that the person has to receive a majority of the votes in parliament to be appointed Speaker. And it's quite natural for a candidate from the majority party to be in a position to receive the majority of votes,” she said. 

Ms Indranee pointed out that the majority party would have derived its majority from voters, who had put PAP in parliament as a majority. 

"So you have to bear in mind that the mandate of the majority party is drawn directly from the people and the person put up for election as the Speaker if he or she has the confidence of the majority, then he or she gets appointed as the Speaker," she said.

At the end of the day, it boiled down to how the individual holding the office of Speaker conducts himself or herself and that the Speaker is mindful of the duties and obligations that came with the office, Ms Indranee said. 


Associate Professor Lim, who supported both the original motion put forward by PSP and the amended motion, spoke about the need for active debate for policymaking. 

He also addressed the former Speaker's characterisation of his proposal as "populist"

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, and I do not fault him for having his own views on the matter,” said Assoc Prof Lim. 

"That said, I will only add that populist policies are those designed to appeal to the broad populace — hence the name — who feel aggrieved by the establishment."

Assoc Prof Lim said that he had been speaking up for the minority in an effort to flag concerns for a group that is "often voiceless".

On the need for greater competition in politics and policies, Assoc Prof Lim said that he hoped the government would not "casually dismiss alternative, evidence-based policy proposals put up in good faith" but "offer equally evidence-based counterarguments when rejecting any given policy proposal". 

The process of refining and revising ideas makes them more robust and valuable, he said. 

In supporting Mr Nair’s amended motion, other MPs noted the importance of having a fair and impartial Speaker, but concurred that the Speaker did not have to be independent of a political party. 

Nominated MP Raj Joshua Thomas said in his speech that most of the Speakers have been from the PAP and that their fairness has largely not been questioned by members on both sides of the House. 

While some have suggested that NMPs be considered as Speakers, NMPs only sit for half of a parliament’s full term, and are not senior backbenchers with sufficient experience to chair or carry out the other roles of the Speaker, said Mr Thomas. 

"In any event, given that Speakers do not take part in debates, it would be contrary to the objectives of having NMPs, which is to provide for alternative voices in parliament."

He added that the Constitution did not require the Speaker to be independent. 

"Procedurally, I do not think that this House can affirm a motion that is inconsistent with the Constitution or that would purport to constrain the provisions of the Constitution," said Mr Thomas. 

That said, Mr Thomas maintained that he would support the motion as amended by Mr Nair. 

“It addresses my concerns that we do not inadvertently affirm that the Speaker be a political independent - meaning not being part of a political party -  but instead that he should discharge his duties independently and impartially, which is indeed what we should expect of the Speaker.”

Source: CNA/wt(sn)


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