Parliament rejects PSP proposal to suspend Iswaran as MP; will 'consider the matter' after outcome of graft probe
MPs said accused persons should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that the Progress Singapore Party's motion to suspend the Transport Minister - who is under investigation - would pre-judge the matter.
- Hazel Poa from the opposition PSP filed a motion to suspend Mr Iswaran from service of parliament, so that he would no longer receive an MP's allowance while not performing duties
- Parliament instead passed a counter-motion by Leader of the House Indranee Rajah, to “consider the matter” when the outcome of investigations is known
- The ruling People's Action Party will consider a clawback of Mr Iswaran’s MP allowance and salary if charges are brought against him and as a matter of party discipline
SINGAPORE: Singapore's lawmakers on Tuesday (Sep 19) rejected a motion by the opposition Progress Singapore Party (PSP) to suspend Transport Minister S Iswaran from parliament, voting instead to consider the matter when corruption investigations against him conclude.
During a two-hour debate, Leader of the House Indranee Rajah said the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) would consider a clawback of Mr Iswaran’s MP allowance if justified, such as if he is given criminal charges.
The PSP motion had called for Mr Iswaran to be suspended as an MP for the remainder of the current session of parliament. He was arrested in July and is under investigation by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).
But Ms Indranee filed a counter-motion for parliament to consider the matter when the outcome of ongoing investigations against Mr Iswaran is known.
PAP MPs voted for Ms Indranee’s motion, while the Progress Singapore Party's (PSP) two Non-Constituency MPs – Ms Hazel Poa and Mr Leong Mun Wai – voted for their own motion.
All eight opposition MPs from the Workers’ Party (WP) voted for the PAP’s motion, and against the PSP.
Ms Poa said she was filing the PSP motion so that Mr Iswaran would no longer receive the MP allowance while he was not performing his duties whether in parliament or in his West Coast constituency.
“This motion is therefore about the prudent use of taxpayers’ money, not a presumption of guilt,” she said.
She also filed a second motion for permission to introduce a Private Member’s Bill proposing amendments to the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act, so that Mr Iswaran could be reimbursed for his MP's allowance if cleared of any wrongdoing.
Ms Indranee's counter-motion, meanwhile, also affirmed the need for MPs to uphold integrity and conduct themselves lawfully, and the need to deal firmly and fairly with any MP being investigated for possible wrongdoing.
On Tuesday, parliament debated Ms Poa’s and Ms Indranee’s motions simultaneously, but MPs voted on each motion separately.
"DO THE RIGHT THING AT THE RIGHT TIME"
After his arrest, Mr Iswaran was instructed to take a leave of absence. He has been interdicted from duty with a reduced pay of S$8,500 (US$6,200) a month. He continues to draw the full annual MP allowance of S$192,500.
Mr Iswaran’s ministerial duties are being covered by Acting Transport Minister Chee Hong Tat. His responsibilities as an MP are being covered by the other MPs in West Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC). Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong has said it would be “difficult” for Mr Iswaran to carry out his MP duties during the corruption probe.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong previously said that an MP’s allowance was not at the Prime Minister’s discretion, and that to remove it, parliament must move a motion to interdict the individual as an MP.
Parliament has not done this in previous cases, according to Mr Lee.
While tabling her counter-motion, Ms Indranee questioned the underlying principle of PSP’s motion, asking if it would be applicable in other situations.
“What is the principle that Ms Poa is advocating in calling for his suspension? Is it that he is under investigation? If so, then her proposal should cover all MPs being investigated,” she said.
Leader of the Opposition and WP chief Pritam Singh, along with fellow WP MP Faisal Manap, are also under police investigation for their conduct during hearings by the Committee of Privileges into former MP Raeesah Khan's lies in parliament.
Ms Indranee pointed out that Mr Singh and Mr Faisal have not been suspended as MPs, and questioned whether Ms Poa was calling for their suspension as well.
She added that it would be “premature” to take any action on Mr Iswaran as an MP at this stage, saying: “We simply do not have sufficient material to make an informed decision at the present time.”
“At the end of the day, it is important that we deal with situations like these objectively and dispassionately. We should not attempt to exploit such situations for political ends, but rather to do the right thing at the right time.”
PSP ON TAXPAYERS' MONEY
While introducing her motion, Ms Poa explained why Mr Iswaran’s case warranted a suspension in the PSP’s view.
First, she said that Mr Iswaran was no longer performing his duties as an MP, whether in parliament or West Coast GRC. “So, in effect, Minister Iswaran has been fully suspended from his MP duties, but not from his MP allowance.”
Second, she said that Mr Iswaran’s potential offences involved corruption, for which Singapore has “zero tolerance”, and which thus merited a strong response.
“In addition, for many years, the government has justified the high salaries for political office-holders on the basis of ensuring that our government remains honest and free of corruption. This is why many Singaporeans, including myself, find it difficult to accept that taxpayers’ money is being used in this way.”
Ms Poa questioned whether it was a “good use” of taxpayers’ money to continue paying an MP their allowance through the entire duration of a criminal investigation and court proceedings, up until the pronouncement of guilt or innocence and the exhaustion of all avenues of appeal.
She also argued that suspending the allowance and reimbursing it if the MP is found innocent was preferable to continuing to pay the allowance and clawing it back if the MP is found guilty.
This is because there could be difficulties in recovering the money later.
After her speech, Ms Indranee asked Ms Poa to confirm that she was “not bringing this motion as a matter of broad principle or general application, but a very specific targeted motion directed at Mr Iswaran”.
“Yes, I believe that all disciplinary cases are of that nature,” replied Ms Poa.
INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY, SAY MPS
Mr Singh then rose to say that the WP could not support PSP's motion due to the presumption of innocence, but sought clarifications from Ms Indranee regarding her counter-motion.
"In the Workers' Party's view, the wheels of justice must be allowed to fully turn before parliament decides what to do. The Workers' Party cannot agree to the motion filed by the PSP.
"It would not just be unfair and premature, but significantly, this House would be seeking to overturn the electoral mandate given to Mr Iswaran by the people through the ballot box, by prematurely passing judgment on him," Mr Singh added.
Mr Singh also invited the PSP to consider the precedent their motion would set, should future governments decide to fix opposition MPs by way of politically motivated investigations.
Still, Mr Singh noted that there was public disquiet over Mr Iswaran continuing to collect his MP allowance even though he was not performing his duties.
Mr Singh sought three clarifications from Ms Indranee:
- The full extent of restrictions on Mr Iswaran as an MP – if he was banned from entering parliament as he was from other government buildings
- If PAP would contemplate clawing back Mr Iswaran’s MP allowance
- If PAP would consider consequences against Mr Iswaran upon the completion of investigations or after the full court process has been exhausted
In reply, Ms Indranee said: “We will look at it again, when we know if the Attorney-General's Chambers intends to bring any charges, and if so, what the charges are.”
She said the PAP would consider a clawback if justified. The Prime Minister will consider the allegations if Mr Iswaran is charged, and decide whether to make him resign or pay back his salary and allowance without waiting for the legal process, she added.
Ms Indranee stressed that the issue would also be a party discipline matter.
“The Prime Minister would do this on the basis that he has not lived up to the party standards and party discipline and standards of conduct, whether or not he has committed offences. And if it's really necessary, then we will consider what to do with respect to legislation.”
On the question of Mr Iswaran’s access, Ms Indranee distinguished his role as a Minister appointed by the Prime Minister from that of an MP elected by constituents.
The Prime Minister has the ability to interdict Mr Iswaran and stop him carrying out his ministerial responsibilities, which can include a direction that he should not be allowed access to all government buildings, she said.
However if Mr Iswaran wanted to enter parliament, he could still do so - though he has not, having complied with being asked to not carry out his MP duties and to go on leave of absence.
“As a matter of party discipline he has been requested by the Prime Minister to also cease his MP duties because you can imagine how difficult it is to carry out the MP duties when you are under investigation or even to come to Parliament,” Ms Indranee said.
Other MPs – except PSP's Mr Leong – who spoke on the matter supported Ms Indranee’s motion over the PSP’s, stating that an accused person should be presumed innocent until convicted.
Mr Lim Biow Chuan (PAP-Mountbatten) said he was “taken aback” by the PSP motion, noting that Mr Iswaran has neither been charged nor convicted in court, while Nominated MP Raj Joshua Thomas said Ms Poa’s argument had no “legal legs” to stand on.
“Surely Mr Iswaran should be given due process and every opportunity to present his case before the court of law if ever CPIB decides to charge him and this is the basic principle behind the rule of law,” Mr Lim said.
In response, Ms Poa described the MPs’ argument on the presumption of innocence as a “red herring”.
“If suspension means presumption of guilt then I’m afraid we have been doing that on many, many occasions. Police officers have been suspended from duties and placed on half pay while they are under investigations,” she said.
“The Ministry of Home Affairs has also said that that is a standard practice for police officers, so the fact of the matter is, suspension is not a determination of guilt, it is merely a measure that is commonly used to deal with situations where a person is under investigation.”
In her concluding speech, Ms Indranee stressed that the PSP’s motion did not “appear to come from a place of principle” and was “specifically targeted” at Mr Iswaran.
She described Ms Poa’s argument as “because I want to cut your pay, I want to suspend you”. But she argued that the decision to suspend was in itself a punishment, and must have a legal basis.
For example, Section 20 of the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act states that an MP can be suspended “for any dishonourable conduct, abuse of privilege or contempt”. Section 59 of the Standing Orders also contains provisions for suspension.
Ms Indranee said these provisions did not apply in Mr Iswaran’s case as no such conduct has been made out. She then proceeded to rebut Ms Poa’s arguments point by point.
If the principle for suspension was Mr Iswaran being suspected of corruption, Ms Indranee noted that when she asked Ms Poa if an MP accused of rape or murder should also be suspended, Ms Poa said she had not considered that question.
“She said she had not thought about that, which means that she had not thought about the principle,” said Ms Indranee.
If the principle was Mr Iswaran being on a leave of absence, Ms Indranee noted that MPs could also go on leave of absence if they were ill, and that parliament would not suspend them for that.
If the principle was Mr Iswaran being under arrest, Ms Indranee said: “Well yes, when you’re under investigation, it’s part of police procedures that you’re under arrest.
“But I come back to the same point – this is still at the investigative stage and you have not actually established whether there was any wrongdoing.”
If the principle was Mr Iswaran not performing his responsibilities as an MP, Ms Indranee said that his constituents were being looked after by other MPs in West Coast GRC.
She stressed that if parliament did not act on principle, “it becomes very dangerous because what it then means is that we can pass any resolution that we like, without having regard to values, principles or standards, and targeted specifically, at any member of this House”.
Wrapping up her speech, Ms Poa said Ms Indranee had rebutted each of her points in isolation, but that the principles were meant to be taken together.
She argued that MPs were being “held to ransom” due to the lack of a legal provision allowing parliament to reimburse the allowance for a suspended MP who is cleared of wrongdoing.
“Without this flexibility, parliament is hampered in taking timely disciplinary actions,” she said.
“If we’re unable to back-pay and we have to uphold the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, it means that we cannot suspend any MP until the entire legal process has been completed. This may be a long period of time.”
She also argued that a harsher stance against corruption compared to other types of wrongdoing is fair, “given the extremely high salaries we are paying ministers to stay corruption-free”.
“Isn’t it fair for the consequence of corruption and the handling process of this investigation to be correspondingly tougher?”