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Shanmugam accuses Workers' Party of not taking stand on 377A; Pritam says minister mischaracterised his speech

The Workers’ Party does not want to be seen as supporting or opposing the repeal of Section 377A, says Law Minister K Shanmugam. 

Shanmugam accuses Workers' Party of not taking stand on 377A; Pritam says minister mischaracterised his speech

Law Minister K Shanmugam and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh in Parliament on Nov 29, 2022.

SINGAPORE: The Workers’ Party (WP) did not want to take a stand on the repeal of Section 377A and amending the Constitution to protect the definition of marriage, said Minister for Law K Shanmugam on Tuesday (Nov 29). 

Likewise, the Progress Singapore Party’s (PSP) call for a national referendum to decide on the definition of marriage was described by Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli as an attempt to avoid taking a position.

Speaking during his closing speech for the two-day debate, Mr Shanmugam noted that WP chief Pritam Singh had lifted the party whip for both Bills, and said that the party did not take a position on the matter. 

The People’s Action Party (PAP) did not lift the whip on this issue, which means its MPs voted according to the party's position.

“The WP, as a party, does not want to take a stand on this matter. It does not want to be seen as supporting the repeal. At the same time, it also does not want to be seen as opposing the repeal,” said Mr Shanmugam, who is also Minister for Home Affairs. 

“That way, it hopes to be all things to all men, and not too much of anything to anyone.” 

WP has “no official position” on the repeal of Section 377A, he added. 

Mr Singh and fellow Aljunied representatives Ms Sylvia Lim, Mr Leon Perera, as well as Ms He Ting Ru (WP-Sengkang) supported the repeal, but Ms Lim and Ms He were against the constitutional amendments, while Mr Singh supported them, Mr Shanmugam noted. 

On the contrary, Mr Dennis Tan (WP-Hougang) and Mr Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied) were against the repeal of Section 377A but supported the constitutional amendments. 

“The Workers’ Party had a debate among themselves. They debated and discussed, but didn’t decide on a party position,” said the minister.

“If this is how one decides, how will such a team function if they are in charge?” 

Mr Singh responded that WP's position had been established by way of a majority in Parliament. 

"The Workers' Party MPs entered this debate recognising the complexity of the issue, and with the full knowledge and respect for the individual MPs’ positions on the repeal of 377A and the Constitution Amendment; and consequently, the position of the Party as established through a democratic process," the party wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday evening. 

Apart from the WP MPs mentioned by Mr Shanmugam, Associate Professor Jamus Lim (WP-Sengkang) and Mr Louis Chua (WP-Sengkang) voted in favour of both the repeal of 377A and the amendments to the Constitution. 

Parliament passed the Bill to amend the definition of marriage in Singapore’s Constitution with 85 MPs voting for it, two MPs voting against it and two abstentions. 

The Bill to repeal Section 377A from the Penal Code passed with 93 votes for it, three votes against it and no abstentions. 

LIFTING OF PARTY WHIP

In his closing speech, Mr Shanmugam also addressed Mr Singh’s lifting of the party whip. 

In his speech during the debate on Monday, Mr Singh had said that he had lifted the whip for the WP MPs, to allow those not in favour of the repeal of Section 377A to “vote freely”.

“Mr Singh said his lifting the whip on WP MPs was democratic, so as to allow for a full and honest representation of all views,” said Mr Shanmugam. 

“That explanation is factually untrue. Every MP must know that. It does no credit to this House to say these things.” 

Mr Shanmugam stressed that the WP MPs could have made their speeches even with the party whip in place. 

“MPs are always entitled to state their honest views. They can agree, they can disagree, they can say what they think. You can express your views, whatever they are, without having to lift the whip,” he continued. 

“The whip does not and has not prevented MPs from speaking their minds. MPs have always been free to express what they, their constituents think.” 

Instead, the party whip is relevant for voting in Parliament, not speaking, and it sets out the party’s position, said the minister.

PAP MPs who spoke on the issue have reflected the views of the individuals they represent, he added. 

“These include views of Singaporeans from different religious groups, LGBT groups and others. So do not be mistaken, views on all sides can, have been and must be fully ventilated by PAP MPs.” 

Political parties must have a view on questions that come before Parliament, said Mr Shanmugam. 

“They need to be honest in this House, say what they think is good for Singapore and be accountable to the electorate for their decisions,” he added. 

WP does not question that Section 377A is at risk of being struck out for being unconstitutional, and that there are further risks down the line if the section is struck out by the courts, said the minister. 

“No one has questioned these risks in this House. The WP understands this,” said Mr Shanmugam, noting that there are four lawyers among the WP representatives. 

“Given that, then what does the WP as a party propose? If you don’t want to repeal 377A and also do not want to support strengthening marriage, which we have proposed.

“The position with 377A is like a train approaching. The question is whether we have the courage to act, or rather dive for cover to protect yourself and leave society to face the train wreck.” 

"MISCHARACTERISED" SPEECH

In response to Mr Shanmugam’s comments on the lifting of WP’s party whip, Mr Singh told the House that the minister had “mischaracterised” his speech. 

Mr Singh noted that what he said was specific to the party’s position in 2019. The party position was then “varied and divided” with no consensus whether Section 377A should be repealed. He lifted the whip, and did not fetter the voting rights of WP MPs. 

“All the Workers’ Party MPs, aside from Mr Faisal Manap who is down with COVID-19, put their personal positions on the record. And in my view, they behaved like a loyal opposition. Not loyal to the PAP, but loyal to Singaporeans, knowing the position of Singaporeans outside of this House,” said Mr Singh.

The leader of the opposition also had two clarifications for Mr Shanmugam. 

First, Mr Singh wanted to know why the PAP chooses to lift the whip for some bills and not others, highlighting the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s decision to be absent when Parliament voted on the Abortion Bill of 1969.

“The first generation of PAP leaders under Lee Kuan Yew (lifted the party whip) with the Abortion Bill of 1969 when Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself rose to deliver a speech, but was absent when it came to voting,” he said.

“If I follow Minister’s reasoning, would it be correct to say Mr Lee Kuan Yew was abdicating his responsibilities? 

“Now there would be compelling reasons to suggest that for both these Bills, public policy could have been deployed as a reason not to lift the whip. But the PAP lifted it anyway.” 

Responding to Mr Singh’s reference to the late Mr Lee, Mr Shanmugam later responded that he “would be careful” if he were Mr Singh to bring the late Mr Lee into the debate and “suggest that he has somehow acted dishonourably”. 

Mr Singh replied that he never suggested the late Mr Lee was dishonourable. 

Mr Singh’s second clarification involved PAP’s position on LGBTQ candidates, referring to Dr Vincent Wijeysingha who ran for the 2011 General Elections under the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). Dr Wijeysingha was known to be openly gay. 

At the time, the PAP had asked SDP to “come out of the closet”, said Mr Singh about the PAP’s statement on the issue, which “pursued an innuendo that made an illusion to paedophilia”.

He wanted to ensure the LGBTQ community would not be “victim to some personal attacks” should there be a future LGBTQ political candidate.  

Mr Shanmugam took Mr Singh’s point to be advocating for paedophilia, as he had brought it up together with Dr Wijeysingha’s sexual orientation. But Mr Singh clarified he had only sought “the PAP’s position with regard to LGBTQ+ candidates standing in General Elections”. 

“My personal view is that anyone who is not a criminal and who is of good character and of sound mind, and who can work for the residents, ought to be able to stand for elections,” said Mr Shanmugam. 

“In all of this, in a democracy, it also depends on how people are perceived and accepted in society. All of these are relevant considerations. One has got to look at individual candidates.” 

CALL FOR REFERENDUM 

Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli, who spoke after Mr Shanmugam on Tuesday, responded to the Progress Singapore Party’s (PSP) call for a national referendum to decide on the definition of marriage.

On Monday, PSP’s Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa said her party was able to come to a compromise and support the repeal of 377A, despite members having differing views. 

But PSP's position on the definition of marriage is that it "should be decided via a national referendum rather than by Parliament", she had said. 

"This will allow the many Singaporeans who have expressed concerns to have a say in this matter," she said on Monday. 

In his closing speech on Tuesday, Mr Masagos said PSP’s proposal was an attempt to avoid taking a position. 

“It is the duty of elected MPs to consult, to discuss and to come to a decision. Even, and perhaps especially, for difficult and polarising social issues,” he said. 

“The PSP says that we should not allow Parliament to decide, but instead let the definition of marriage be decided by national referendum. 

“This might seem seductive, but let’s call it what it is. It is an attempt to avoid taking a position as Parliamentarians, as elected representatives of the people.” 

Singapore’s Constitution sets a “very high bar” for the holding of a referendum, said Mr Masagos in his closing speech on Tuesday. 

“A referendum is required when sovereignty or the command of our armed forces and police is at stake,” he added. 

“We have had only one referendum in our history - on merger with Malaysia. We should be very careful about elevating any matter to this level, saying it is equivalent to an issue on sovereignty.” 

If a referendum is held, Mr Masagos questioned which side PSP would be on. 

“Would the PSP try to bring people together, or stay silent on where it stands on heterosexual marriage as it is doing in this debate? Also, would a referendum settle this issue once and for all?

“Let us not look for politically easy options and cite ‘referendum’ as an easy solution. Just so that a decision does not have to be made in Parliament. In any case, even if the PSP wants a referendum, does it or does it not support the constitutional amendment?” 

PSP seems to be against the amendment, and would leave the courts to decide on heterosexual marriage, said Mr Masagos. 

“Governing requires us to bring people with different perspectives together, to ensure that various segments do not push for a maximalist position, which would impinge on others, and pave the way forward,” he added. 

“Especially, we should not adopt positions just because it coincides with our own religious beliefs. Indeed, everyone in Singapore cannot expect their maximalist position to be realised because Singapore is a greatly diverse society.”

Responding to Mr Masagos’ comments on Tuesday, Ms Poa stood to reiterate her party’s position. 

“I wish to clarify that our position on wanting the definition of marriage to be determined via a national referendum instead of Parliament is not a convenient way to avoid difficult decisions,” she said. 

“A case in point would be the fact that we do have a position on 377A, which is also a difficult one.” 

The party is aware of the Government’s position on what the criteria for holding a referendum are, said Ms Poa. 

“It’s just that we have a slightly different view on what are the issues that go for a referendum. In this particular case, on the issue of the definition of marriage, we feel that this is an issue that is important to many Singaporeans and there is a high level of interest from the public to have a say in this matter.” 

The matter of marriage is about social norms and does not require any specialised knowledge, she added. 

“We feel that this is an area that is suitable for the public to participate,” said the NCMP. 

When pressed again by Mr Masagos for PSP’s position on the constitutional amendments, Ms Poa confirmed that the party will be voting against them. 

In response, Mr Masagos said: “Finally that’s come out in the open. So we know they’re going to support the repeal of Section 377A, but they will not support the amendments to the Constitution be made. 

“There will now be new challenges that will be put up in court on constitutional grounds that other institutions like marriage and families, important to many Singaporeans, will now stand before the court, and then we’re back to square one again.” 

In response, Ms Poa reiterated: “We will support a constitutional amendment if it says that the definition of marriage is to be determined by a national referendum.” 

The Social and Family Development Minister replied: “Then we’ll wait for the train to crash on us.”

Source: CNA/hw(gr)

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