The second reading of the bills related to the repeal of Section 377A and amending the Constitution, led to verbal sparring between Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam and Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh over the opposition party's official stance.
Both politicians also delved into whether an LGBTQ+ candidate would be able to stand for election in Singapore.
On lifting the whip
In his round-up speech, Shanmugam remarked that as the various WP Members of Parliament (MPs) had differing views on the repeal and the constitutional amendment, the party did not take an official position on the matter.
The minister also pointed out that Singh's explanation of lifting the whip to allow for the democratic and honest airing of MPs' views was factually untrue.
In fact, all MPs can honestly state what they think, even if the whip is not lifted, Shanmugam said.
"The WP MPs could have made all the speeches they made, even with the whip in place. MPs are always entitled to state their honest views. They can agree. They can disagree. Say what they think. You can express your views, whatever they are, without having to lift the whip."
He added that he believed that WP "as a party, does not want to take a stand on this matter", and does not want to be seen as supporting or opposing the repeal.
He then noted that this was akin to the party avoiding accountability.
"To say the party has no position allows WP MPs to make speeches supporting all sides, without having to make a decision and be held responsible for the decision. This is not true democracy, it is better described as wanting to speak without taking responsibility."
Pritam Singh response
Singh responded that Shanmugam had "mischaracterised [his] speech somewhat".
He reiterated that on Nov. 28 in Parliament, he was referring to the party position in 2019, that their views on 377A are varied and diverse, with no consensus, similar to Singapore as a whole.
Singh clarified that he had lifted the whip, so as not to "fetter the voting rights of the MPs", and was not referring to their speaking rights.
"This has been consistent with the party position," Singh shared, which has been established by way of a majority — six out of nine WP MPs were for the repeal of Section 377A, while seven were for the constitutional amendment, with two abstaining.
"All the Workers' Party MPs, apart 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."
Two clarifications from Singh
Singh then posed two clarifications. He first asked Shanmugam how and why the PAP chooses to lift the whip for some bills and not others.
He pointed out that Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong had announced that the PAP did not lift the whip this time as the debate is a matter of public policy.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also shared in his National Day Rally speech that there were reservations regarding this issue among certain religious groups.
Singh subsequently noted that the whip was lifted for the Human Organ Transplant Bill in 2009 and the Abortion Bill of 1969, despite the late Lee Kuan Yew being absent during the voting of the latter.
"The first generation of PAP leaders under Lee Kuan Yew did the same with the Abortion Bill of 1969 where Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself rose to deliver a speech, but was absent when it came to voting. 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. Can the minister please clarify the consistency or lack of consistency with regard to lifting the whip?"
Reference to 2011 general election and Vincent Wijeysingha
In light of the constitutional amendment on the definition of marriage in a political context, Singh made a second clarification on what the PAP's position is on LGBTQ+ candidates standing for general elections.
He cited Vincent Wijeysingha, a member of the Singapore Democratic Party who stood for the 2011 General Elections, and who is gay.
"At the 2011 General Election some 11 years ago, the sexual orientation of an opposition candidate came into the spotlight, with the PAP asking the Singapore Democratic Party to I quote, come out of the closet, unquote. And the PAP statement on this issue pursued an innuendo that made an allusion to pedophilia.
In view of the speeches made by PAP MPs over the last two days and the call for any change on the definition of marriage to be a political question, can I confirm the PAP 's position with regard to LGBTQ plus candidates standing in general elections?"
Lifting the whip "not acceptable" for the PAP
In response, Shanmugam reiterated that MPs can speak their minds even with the whip imposed. He then highlighted again that the WP did not have a party position regarding the repeal.
"It's not a question of totalling up the numbers at the end of the day. It's a question of coming up front and saying this is our position as a party. Even though individuals have their different views and they will speak about them."
On Singh's first clarification, Shanmugam answered that the whip was imposed this time as the repeal is a "policy question with serious consequences for Singaporeans".
"If we do not repeal Section 377A, then we are saying we will not do what we have to do. And we will pass it on, pass on the buck to the courts", Shanmugam said, adding that such a move was an abdication of responsibility as parliamentarians.
Society could be wracked with culture wars if courts had to intervene
He continued that lifting the whip is "not acceptable" for the PAP, as societal interests "are at stake" — should the definition of marriage be struck down in court, other policies involving housing and education would be at risk, and society could "get rent asunder" by culture wars.
On lifting the whip for the Abortion Bill of 1969, Shanmugam noted that it was a matter of individual conscience at that point in time, and had raised "very serious personal concerns", whereas today it is well-settled in Singapore.
He also warned Singh about the remarks he made about Lee.
"So I wasn't in the House at that point in time. And I don't think we should draw conclusions from the fact that one or another member was present or was not present. But I would be careful if I were Mr Singh, to bring Mr Lee Kuan Yew into this and suggest that he is somehow acted dishonourably."
On Singh's second clarification on LGBTQ+ candidates in general elections, Shanmugam stated that he did not recall the facts, but remarked that hypothetically, he would be surprised if the opposition leader would advocate for a pedophile standing for elections.
A wrangle over Vincent Wijeysingha and GE2011
Singh countered by stating that he had never referred to Lee as "dishonourable".
He then provided some background context on the PAP's 2011 statement on Wijeysingha, which questioned the candidate's agenda after a video of him participating in a forum promoting gay rights was circulated. He read out a portion of the statement:
"What is his agenda? The video has been posted on the Internet showing Vincent Wijeysingha participating at a forum which discussed the promotion of a gay cause in Singapore," Singh began, saying he did not have a problem with that statement.
"And thereafter [the PAP statement] says the discussion at the forum also touched on sex with boys and whether the age of consent for boys should be 14 years of age. The innuendo, I think it's clear.
In the video, Mr Wijeysingha was introduced as being from the SDP. In addition to other comments Wijeysingha stated, 'I think the gay community has to rally ourselves. Perhaps one outcome of today's forum would be for those of use who are interested to come together to further consider how we can address the 377 issue, as well as further rights issues in relation to gays and lesbians."
Singh said he had no issues with the PAP questioning the agenda of a political candidate, but he questioned the purpose of the statement,
"What is the relevance of that point on 'sex with boys', if not to cast aspersions on the candidate himself? And to suggest that, did he make that point? Was this a forum where this was the only issue that was discussed? So that was intentionally included, that's my view of the statement."
Shanmugam emphasised that should there ever be the suggestion that a candidate was a pedophile, "I will certainly speak about it", and maintained that all "right-thinking Singaporeans will speak about it and will say it is not acceptable".
He said that he did not quite know the precise context with regards to the 2011 situation, but maintained that sexual offences against minors are taken seriously, and hoped that Singh was not suggesting that such a candidate would be swept under the rug.
The minister then steered the discussion back to the WP's position on the repeal.
"As the Workers Party trooped into parliament yesterday, there was one point, and that point is, Mr Singh, sir, as leader of the opposition, was not prepared for his party to take a position. That is what we are talking about. Not about an election held in 2011. We are talking about 2022. What is our position on 377A, and whether we come here prepared to take a position or we are abdicating? I think I've made my points. We leave it to Singaporeans to judge."
Singh then assured that the issue he raised was not about pedophilia — he agreed with Shanmugam that no one in Singapore would support such a person to stand for elections — but that the question was about LGBTQ+ candidates standing in elections.
Shanmugam then said Singh was "mov[ing] the goalposts", and wishing to "start an entirely new debate about who can and who will stand for elections".
He answered that his personal view was that anyone who is not a criminal, of good character and of sound mind and who can work for the residents, ought to be able to stand for elections.
However, he acknowledged that as Singapore is a democracy, "it also depends on how people are perceived and accepted in society". He concluded:
"One has got a look at individual candidates. But Mr Singh started out by talking about pedophilia. I'm sure the records Hansard will show that and that is why I answered, because I was shocked that he would even ask that question."
MPs always entitled to ventilating their views
After the voting was carried out to repeal 377A and amend the constitution, Shanmugam took to the podium once again to make some final clarifications on his comments against Singh.
"To put it on record", Shanmugam read out Singh's previous statement on lifting the whip for WP.
This was what Singh had said, as read by Shanmugam:
"The People's Action Party has announced that it is not lifting the whip for this debate. Given the very public opinion on the impending repeal of Section 377A, there is a risk that the democratic value of Parliament could be diluted, if the views of Singaporeans on this subject are not adequately ventilated in the House."
Shanmugam noted that the latter part of the statement was what he was referring to as untrue. He highlighted that MPs are entitled to ventilating their views, even when the whip is imposed.
"We have always been ventilating our views and it should not be thought of in public that if the whip is imposed, you cannot ventilate your views."
In response, Singh said that immediately after that statement he also said that not lifting the whip would deny WP MPs not in favour of repealing 377A an opportunity to vote freely, and in doing so to also represent Singaporeans who see this issue as a matter of deep religious belief and conscience.
However, he agreed with Shanmugam that even though the whip is not lifted, it is entirely true that members can speak freely.
Top photo from MCI Singapore / YouTube