MS Explains: If the Committee of Privileges' videos are like a TV series, what's the season finale?

Mothership Explains: After 18 episodes with over 30 hours of runtime, here's some of what to expect next.

Nigel Chua | December 28, 2021, 04:15 PM

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18 episodes, with over 30 hours of runtime, released in six tranches with accompanying "special reports", over the course of December 2021.

No, not a Netflix series or new Cinematic Universe, but the Committee of Privileges (COP) hearings.

It looks like the COP's current proceedings — looking into the matter of former Member of Parliament (MP) Raeesah Khan's conduct in Parliament — are finally coming to a close.

We know from the fifth special report that proceedings have "largely concluded".

A subplot regarding producing documents to the COP, seems to also be concluded, with three of The Workers' Party (WP) senior leaders Pritam Singh, Sylvia Lim, and Faisal Manap producing those documents on Dec. 20, after their initial refusal.

With any luck, we could be gearing up for the "season finale" of a month's worth of political drama anytime now.

Here's some of what to expect next from the COP.

Raeesah's official sanction(s)

First up, Raeesah will likely be officially sanctioned by Parliament.

Section 21(2) of the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act says that the COP will first have to report to Parliament with its findings and recommendations.

Then, Parliament must be "satisfied" that Raeesah is guilty of contempt — this likely requires a majority vote by MPs.

As Raeesah has already admitted to lying, the COP's report will be more pertinent in terms of the punishment(s) it recommends.

Raeesah's "level of culpability"

As Desmond Lee said at the start of Faisal's hearing, the COP wants to determine Raeesah's "level of culpability".

"To do that, we have to inquire into the facts and circumstances, what she said, why she said it, who did she interact with, what was the advice, what was said," Lee explained.

Thus, one of the findings that the COP will likely have to make is whether the WP leaders had told her to "take the information to the grave" after being told on Aug. 8 that she had lied.

While the WP leaders deny it, Raeesah has insisted that Singh used the exact phrase, "take it to the grave" on that day.

Another finding the COP will likely make is whether Raeesah had been instructed to clarify the matter after she met Singh on Oct. 3.

Raeesah says her interpretation of the meeting was that there would be “no judgement” on her if she kept up the lie, while Singh maintains that he told her to take ownership and responsibility of the issue, a stance backed up by what Lim told the COP as well.

Can the COP's findings and recommendations be appealed?

The COP hearings involved more than a few lawyers (including half of the COP itself) asking questions and making arguments.

The proceedings even sounded like cross-examination at many points, with witnesses being asked yes/no questions and being presented with hypothetical scenarios.

In these aspects, they perhaps resembled a court trial.

But the COP's proceedings differ from court proceedings in one key aspect: The availability of appeal.

Unlike a court judgment, which can be appealed to a higher court, whatever the COP comes out with cannot be appealed.

Instead, it is up to Parliament to decide whether the COP's findings and recommendations are to be accepted.

MPs can rise to speak before Parliament votes

Based on previous cases, the Leader of the House puts forward a motion in Parliament on the matter of the COP's report and recommendations.

Before the matter is put to a vote, MPs can then rise to speak in support, or dissent.

Former opposition MP Chiam See Tong was one of the MPs to do so. For example, in May 1987, Chiam argued against the COP's report that J.B. Jeyaretnam had breached privilege by not declaring his interest in a matter he raised in Parliament, saying that there was no evidence of Jeyaretnam's interest at the relevant time.

Chiam engaged in a tense exchange with MP Augustine Tan, Wong Kan Seng (Leader of the House at the time), and Tan Soo Khoon (Deputy Speaker of Parliament at the time), and at one point refused to sit down.

An excerpt of the Hansard capturing Chiam See Tong's dissenting views, in Parliament on May 20, 1987, regarding the Committee of Privileges report on a complaint against JBJ.

On this, and several other occasions, Chiam's attempts to sway the votes were unsuccessful, and each of the COP reports were accepted.

What punishments are on the table?

Section 20 of the Act lays out what Parliament can do to an MP who has been found to have conducted themselves dishonourably, abused their privilege or committed contempt:

  • Imprison them for a term not exceeding this current parliament session
  • Impose a fine up to S$50,000
  • Suspend them from the service of Parliament
  • Direct that they be reprimanded or admonished by the Speaker of Parliament

Parliament can also mete out a combination of the above punishments.

Alternatively, Section 21(3) Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act allows for the Speaker of Parliament — currently Tan Chuan Jin — to "deal with the matter summarily", if he takes the view that there has been contempt.

He can then mete out punishment, provided that Parliament can subsequently vote to undo or vary his decision.

Past punishments after COP reports

Previous complaints that the COP looked into have mostly ended up in the offending persons getting fines.

The lightest penalty recommended was for an offender to be reprimanded and warned by the Speaker in writing, and the most serious was a S$25,000 fine.

Nonetheless, there is still a relatively small number of past incidents in Singapore's relatively short history.

S$25,000 fine for misleading Select Committee

The S$25,000 fine was meted out to Chee Soon Juan, who was found to have fabricated data and falsified documents to mislead a Select Committee, according to a Nov. 1996 COP report.

Chee, the report said, had "fabricated data and falsified documents with the sole purpose of misleading the Select Committee", continued with "false answers" when questioned, and even committed perjury to avoid detection.

S$1,000 fine for unsubstantiated allegation

Another incident involving false information happened in 1986.

J.B. Jeyaretnam had, on Mar. 18 1986 in Parliament, brought up a case of someone who he claimed had been arrested and detained unreasonably, and prevented from getting in touch with his family, repeating the allegation again on Mar. 27.

While he eventually provided the person's name, Lim Poh Huat, an investigation ordered by the Minister for Home Affairs revealed that no such person had been detained on the date and time as Jeyaretnam alleged.

The COP found that Jeyaretnam had heard the story from a third party, and failed to check the facts with Lim before bringing it up in Parliament. It rejected his defence that he had no duty to investigate, and Parliament fined him S$1,000 in accordance with the COP's recommendation — the maximum fine for breach of privilege under the law at the time.

Significance of Raeesah's resignation

Raeesah has already resigned from the WP, and thus, from her position as a MP for Sengkang Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

The COP can still recommend that she is punished, even though she is no longer a MP.

But her resignation does mean that the scope of penalties that Parliament can impose on Raeesah is limited slightly, as it would be absurd to decide that she be suspended now.

Could anyone else be implicated?

The COP can recommend punishments for other parties besides Raeesah.

For example, its witnesses could be sanctioned too, if they are found to have misled the COP, lied, or done anything else that is considered "in contempt" of the COP.

Faisal, one of the witnesses who appeared before the COP, was warned of this by the COP chairman, Tan Chuan Jin, and COP panel member Edwin Tong.

Besides the "take it to the grave" phrase and whether Singh had used it, there are a number of issues on which Raeesah's account differs from that of the WP leaders.

Given that there are some instances of direct contradiction in both sides' stories, it is open for the COP to decide that either one is lying, and thus, in contempt of the COP.

Ending on a cliffhanger

Just like many a TV series, the season finale of this whole incident looks set to end on a solid cliffhanger.

Quite apart from the issue of official sanctions, the lasting impact of Raeesah lying in Parliament could take on many different forms.

Here are some questions with answers yet to be known:

  • Will any of the three WP leaders (Singh, Lim, Faisal) also be sanctioned in some way?
  • Could the episode be highlighted again in Parliament, in response to another MP's anecdote or statement which seemingly lacks veracity?
  • Could it also be dredged up by the WP's opponents at the next elections as a cautionary tale?
  • Would voters be swayed to vote differently because of what they saw from the COP's proceedings?
  • Will Sengkang voters in particular be swayed? And if so, would the WP still hold onto Sengkang, which it won by the slim margin of 52.13 per cent in the 2020 elections?
  • And what about the political careers of the individual MPs involved?

Stay tuned to find out.

Top image adapted via on YouTube and from Nicolas J Leclercq on unsplash

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