Fill Me In
On 29 September, Tan Chuan-Jin exercised his privilege as Speaker of Parliament to pick – seemingly at random – an adjournment motion out of a total of five. One of the motions had been filed by MP Sylvia Lim (Justice for all: Enhancing equity in the criminal justice system) and another by Louis Ng (Protection against secondhand smoke in our homes).
On the same day, after the ballot result had been announced by Tan Chuan-Jin himself, PSP’s NCMP, Leong Mun Wai, took to Facebook to question the ruling party on why Louis Ng’s motion had been chosen over Sylvia Lim’s. He stated that the majority of Singaporeans would probably have favoured Sylvia Lim’s motion, which had been raised in response to the Parti Liyani fiasco, over Louis Ng’s one.
Ambiguity in the Standing Orders of Singapore’s Parliament
Rightfully, the Speaker of Parliament is supposed to conduct a ballot as a fair and unbiased means of selecting an adjournment motion. But then again, this is only the case if and when all the adjournment motions are of equal importance, and it is therefore difficult for the Speaker to make a choice among all of the adjournment motions that have been filed.
Given that the Speaker has the discretionary power to bypass a ballot, why did Tan Chuan-Jin leave the selection of adjournment motion to chance then? Did he feel that all of the five adjournment motions were of equal importance?
In Tan Chuan-Jin’s Facebook post, he cited a webpage from the official Singapore government website that explains how Parliament works. On this webpage, it is stated that if more than one adjournment motion is filed (each MP is entitled to only one entry/motion per ballot), then a ballot must be held to decide which MP would be allotted the right to raise their matter in the next sitting.
The STANDING ORDERS OF THE PARLIAMENT OF SINGAPORE (amended as of 8 May 2017) gives some leeway for interpretation while the Singapore government’s website does not. Where do we draw the line?
In the UK, emergency debates are available for MPs as a means of raising national issues of paramount importance. Any MP that would like to start an emergency debate in parliament must first request for the Speaker’s permission to outline reasons to the Chamber why the debate should be held. After the speech is carried out on the same day, the Speaker would then decide whether or not to ask the House if it agrees to the emergency debate. If it does, then the emergency debate would take place during the next sitting.
There are three conditions that must be met for any raised matter to be considered under an emergency debate:
- It is urgent. The matter that has been raised requires a quick response from the government which is only achievable through an emergency debate.
- It is important. The matter is clearly of national, regional or local importance.
- It is specific. The matter allows for a focused debate on a narrow subject matter rather than one that covers issues that are irrelevant to each other.
Another factor of consideration is that the matter must significantly involve ministerial responsibility.
In Singapore, there are no such recourses as emergency debates for MPs who would like to bring up extremely crucial matters in Parliament on short notice without going through the ballot. Furthermore, in the event that an MP disputes the result of a ballot on the basis that their adjournment motion is of much greater significance that all of the others, they can only do so much as re-file their motion for subsequent sittings, which Sylvia Lim has decided not to do.
Alternatives to filing adjournment motions – how effective are they?
There are four alternative channels through which MPs can raise concerns in Parliament as well as directly to relevant ministers: private member’s motion, Parliamentary Questions, private bill and substantive motion.
Private member’s motion
The theme of a private member’s motion has resurfaced ever since MP Sylvia Lim won the ballot for her adjournment motion (Counting from President Wee Kim Wee or President Ong Teng Cheong – policy decision or legal question?) on 2 October 2017 after filing it on 28 August 2017 and re-filing it on 19 September 2017.
In response to Sylvia Lim’s decision to persist in re-filing her adjournment motion despite its not getting picked during the previous two rounds, Singapore Matters, a local news blog, wrote a Facebook post questioning her ulterior motive since she could have filed a private member’s motion instead.
One commenter argued that it was Sylvia Lim’s way of preventing the relevant ministers from falsely accusing her and deflecting her questions, while another commenter backed this up by stating that it would make more sense for her to choose the adjournment motion over a private member’s one so as to limit the response time of the relevant ministers to only 10 minutes, which would in turn prevent them from downplaying her raised issue.
Furthermore, an MP must give at least seven clear days’ notice in order to file a private member’s motion – four more days compared to that of an adjournment motion. This would handicap any MP who would like to raise an issue on their motion on short notice due to the urgency of the subject matter which may require immediate response from relevant ministers.
While Parliamentary Questions are good for eliciting direct oral/written responses from any relevant minister or MPs, once again, at least seven clear days’ notice is required for all questions.
A private bill requires at least four clear days’ notice (shorter than that of Parliamentary Questions and private member’s motion but longer than that of adjournment motion) and has one distinctive caveat: the bill that the MP wishes to introduce into Parliament must have been printed in at least three successive publications of the Government Gazette.
Moreover, private bills are rarely passed by Parliament. In fact, the last bill (Maintenance of Parents Act) to be successfully passed was introduced in 1994.
Given that Parti Liyani’s case is the first of its kind, Sylvia Lim may have a hard time fighting for her case if she were to draft a bill ensuring greater equity in the criminal justice system.
This option is by far the best out of the four alternatives. The upside of this motion is that it grants the mover (the one who has filed the substantive motion) a right of reply.
In other words, they can speak again after all questions have been posed. This gives them a chance to further clarify their stance and defend themselves against any criticisms from other MPs and ministers.
The only downside is that the notice required for it is not explicitly stated and, therefore, it can be assumed that the Speaker is the one who determines the minimum number of clear days required.
Minister for Law takes the initiative to address issue raised by MP Sylvia Lim’s motion
Tan Chuan-Jin emphatically claimed that a “full and substantive debate” on the Parti Liyani case would be held, with Minister for Law, K. Shanmugam, fully addressing the issue “via a ministerial statement”.
However, the Speaker’s claim is not so much compensation as it is an excuse for the lack of a system that prioritises motions based on urgency and importance. The fact that the Minister for Law has decided to personally address the Parti Liyani case gives it added weight, thus rendering the Speaker’s decision to put the selection of the adjournment motions to a ballot absurd.