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What is parliamentary privilege and what happens when it is breached?

Workers' Party's Raeesah Khan has been referred to the Committee of Privileges after she admitted to lying in Parliament.

What is parliamentary privilege and what happens when it is breached?

Leader of the House Indranee Rajah (right) responded to MP Raeesah Khan's admission on Nov 1 that statements that she previously made in Parliament were untrue.

SINGAPORE: A complaint has been raised against MP Raeesah Khan (WP-Sengkang) by the Leader of the House Indranee Rajah after Ms Khan admitted on Monday (Nov 1) to lying in Parliament.

Ms Khan admitted on Monday that she did not accompany a rape victim to the police station as she had claimed earlier in Parliament in August, and that her previous statement on the matter was “untrue”. 

She also apologised for alleging that the police mishandled the case of the sexual assault victim.

Speaking after Ms Khan, Ms Indranee said she had "no choice" but to raise a complaint under Section 100 (7b) of the Standing Orders of Parliament, alleging a breach in parliamentary privilege.

WHAT IS PARLIAMENTARY PRIVILEGE?

Parliamentary privilege means MPs cannot be prosecuted or sued for statements made in Parliament as part of their duties.

This allows MPs to speak freely on significant issues without fear of legal consequences. This immunity only applies to what is said and done in Parliament. 

“As Members of Parliament, we are granted privileges. One of those privileges is to be able to speak in Parliament with immunity. Unlike other people, we can do so without fear of prosecution because of the underlying public policy interests, which is to be able to raise things,” explained Ms Indranee in Parliament.

“And it’s very important when we do so, that we must be able to speak truth in this House, and when we assert or make allegations to be able to back them up.” 

MPs are "subject to duties and responsibilities", she said, adding that they should not breach that privilege or "abuse it".

“But as Leader of the House, I also have a responsibility, and that is to ensure that in this chamber, all Members of Parliament discharge their duties faithfully and accountably and responsibly, and also that if (there are) any breaches of privilege that has to be dealt with,” she added. 

Parliament is a platform that people "look at", and when there are untruths, it "undermines the trust", said Ms Indranee, who is also Second Minister for Finance and for National Development.

WHAT DO THE STANDING ORDERS SAY?

The section of the Standing Orders invoked by Ms Indranee allows any member to rise at any time to make a complaint alleging a breach of privilege suddenly arising, whenever Parliament is sitting. 

If the Speaker of Parliament is satisfied that the matter complained of prima facie - or based on first impression - affects the privileges of Parliament and that it has been raised at the earliest opportunity, the matter will be referred without any question to the Committee of Privileges. 

No further proceedings shall be taken on the matter until the committee has reported its findings.

The committee is made up of eight MPs. As members of the committee, Ms Indranee said she and Mr Shanmugam will recuse themselves from the case involving Ms Khan.

The other members of the committee are: Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli, as well as fellow MPs Don Wee (PAP-Chua Chu Kang) and Dennis Tan (WP-Hougang). 

The powers of Parliament to act against an MP who engages in "dishonourable conduct, abuse of privilege or contempt" are laid out in Section 20 of the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act. 

According to the Act, Parliament may commit the MP to prison for a term not extending beyond the current session of Parliament, impose a fine not exceeding S$50,000, or suspend the MP from Parliament for the remainder of the current session or for any part. 

Parliament can also direct that the MP be reprimanded or admonished by the Speaker.

PREVIOUS INCIDENTS

The last time an MP was referred to the Committee of Privileges was in 1986.

Then-MP J B Jeyaretnam (WP-Anson) was accused of abusing parliamentary privileges by making unsubstantiated allegations of executive interference in the judiciary.

He was also accused of having "maligned the judiciary by insinuating that they did not exercise their duties in accordance with their oath of office".

The complaint was filed by then-Leader of the House S Dhanabalan, who was Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time.

Mr Jeyaretnam was found guilty of abuse of parliamentary privilege by the committee, and he was fined S$1,000. That report was presented to Parliament in January 1987.

As an MP, he was referred to the committee another two times in 1986 for separate issues.

The most recent report by a Committee of Privileges was in November 1996. Then-Health Minister George Yeo filed a complaint against representatives from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), namely Dr Chee Soon Juan, Mr S Kunalen, Mr Wong Hong Toy and Mr Kwan Yue Keng. 

Mr Yeo alleged that the four SDP representatives had acted in contempt of Parliament by fabricating data and presenting false or untrue documents with the intent to deceive a committee. 

The four men were representing the SDP before a Select Committee on verification of healthcare subsidy of government polyclinics and public hospitals in July 1996 to give oral evidence supporting their written representation. 

They were then summoned to testify to the Committee of Privileges in August due to a “purported error” in a chart in their submissions. 

The committee eventually found that Dr Chee was "by far, the most culpable", and he prepared the written submission and the charts.

He fabricated data, committed perjury and wilfully gave false answers to cover up the fabrication, among other charges, the committee report said.

The four men were issued fines. Dr Chee was fined S$25,000, Mr Wong was fined S$13,000, Mr S Kunalen was fined S$8,000 and Mr Kwan was fined S$5,000.

The reports of the Committee of Privileges can be read in full here.

Source: CNA/hw(mi)

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