SINGAPORE — Parliament rejected a motion to suspend Transport Minister S Iswaran in his role as Member of Parliament (MP), but voted in favour of “considering the matter” after investigations by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) are completed.
Leader of the House Indranee Rajah said that one consideration might be to claw back his salary and allowance “without waiting for legal process” to be completed if he does face charges.
There was a motion put forth by Ms Indranee and another by Ms Hazel Poa, vice-chair of Progress Singapore Party (PSP).
After a nearly two-hour-long debate over these motions simultaneously, MPs from Workers’ Party (WP) and People’s Action Party (PAP) voted in favour of Ms Indranee’s motion over Ms Poa’s.
Nine MPs from both sides of the House spoke during the debate, including Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh and Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.
Mr Iswaran was arrested by CPIB on July 11. He is out on bail and has been placed on a leave of absence. CPIB’s probe also involves billionaire Ong Beng Seng, the man widely credited with bringing Formula One motor-racing to Singapore.
Ms Indranee’s motion called on MPs to uphold their integrity, deal “firmly and fairly” with MPs who are being investigated for possible wrongdoing, and “consider” Mr Iswaran’s case when the outcomes of his investigations are known.
“All we know at this point in time is that Mr Iswaran is under investigation by the CPIB under the Prevention of Corruption Act. However, we do not know the facts or what specifically he is being investigated for,” Ms Indranee said in her opening speech.
“As such, Mr Speaker, it is premature to take any action with regard to Mr Iswaran at this stage and doing so would be to prejudge the outcome of the investigations.”
Emphasising that Mr Iswaran’s case should be handled “objectively and dispassionately”, she said that it should not be exploited for political ends.
In her closing speech, she said that should Mr Iswaran be charged, the prime minister will consider the allegations and decide whether to make Mr Iswaran resign and pay back both his salary and allowance during this leave of absence period without waiting for the legal process to be completed.
Ms Indranee added that the issue would also be a party discipline matter.
“The prime minister would do this on the basis that (Mr Iswaran) has not lived up to the party standards and party discipline and standards of conduct, whether or not he has committed offences,” she said.
“If it’s really necessary, then we will consider what to do with respect to legislation.”
On the other hand, Ms Poa, who is a Non-Constituency MP, called on the House to suspend Mr Iswaran from his duties as an MP now, effectively suspending the salary he gets as MP.
She also proposed a Bill to allow the Government to back-pay Mr Iswaran should he be found innocent after investigations.
The Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act currently does not have provisions pertaining to such clawback or back-pay of a suspended MP’s allowance.
Ms Poa argued that Mr Iswaran’s case warranted a suspension, given that he is under investigation for corruption, placed under arrest and put on a leave of absence by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
“In effect, Minister Iswaran has been fully suspended from his MP duties, but not from his MP allowance,” she added.
She also said that it is unclear how long investigations might take, and referred to the corruption case of former minister of state for the environment Wee Toon Boon, noting that he remained an MP and continued receiving his salary throughout his trial. This stopped only after he stepped down from his role two months into his 18-month jail term.
“PSP believes that it would be a most unsatisfactory situation if this were to happen in the case of Minister Iswaran,” Ms Poa said.
After both their opening speeches, Ms Indranee questioned Ms Poa if she had considered other criminal cases in which an MP might be suspended, such as for murder or rape.
Ms Poa replied that she had not considered these cases and was “merely looking at a case in point where I feel there is a strong case for suspension”.
Ms Indranee then said that Ms Poa’s motion was targeted at Mr Iswaran, and called on the House to consider the principles involved in suspending an MP.
INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY
Some MPs from PAP who spoke shot down Ms Poa’s motion, arguing that it fails to consider the presumption of innocence until found guilty.
They pointed out that in the Parliament’s Standing Order, Section 59 Subsections 1 to 4 state the terms in which an MP can be suspended — such as misconduct and being found criminally guilty. At this stage, Mr Iswaran has not been found guilty of these.
Others questioned if every government officer under investigation for any offence should be suspended and their salaries docked based on Ms Poa’s motion.
On this point, Ms Indranee asked if, based on Ms Poa’s motion, Mr Singh and Mr Faisal Manap should not be allowed to carry out their parliamentary duties or receive their salaries since they are also being investigated by the police.
The two Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) MPs are under police investigation due to their conduct during the Committee of Privileges hearings into former WP MP Raeesah Khan, who had lied to Parliament and later resigned.
Mr Shanmugam said that Ms Poa and Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai from PSP had gotten it “completely wrong” by using Parliament’s Standing Order Section 59 Subsection 5 in arguing to suspend Mr Iswaran.
This subsection states: “Nothing in this Standing Order shall be taken to deprive Parliament of the power of proceeding against any Member according to any resolution of Parliament.”
Mr Shanmugam added: “Subsection 5 is a saving provision. It doesn’t give you a substantive power.”
A saving provision means that in the event that some part of the law is declared invalid by a court, the remaining valid portion will still be enforceable.
Mr Shanmugam continued: “If you are right, then all the carefully drafted provisions in the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act setting out when exactly Parliament can suspend an MP are irrelevant.”
Although Mr Singh thought it was “inappropriate” to suspend Mr Iswaran from Parliament, the WP chief was in favour of suspending Mr Iswaran’s MP allowance.
“In the Workers’ Party’s view, the wheels of justice must be allowed to fully turn before Parliament decides what to do,” he said, adding that PSP’s motion is “unfair and premature”.
Should Ms Poa’s motion pass, Mr Singh said that it would “overturn the electoral mandate given to Mr Iswaran by the people through the ballot box by prematurely passing judgement on him”.
In light of Mr Iswaran not performing duties in his constituency or in Parliament, and that “his likeness is not found on town council or People’s Association banners in West Coast GRC”, Mr Singh noted that there is “disquiet among members of the public because he continues to collect his allowance”.
Addressing Ms Indranee’s motion, Mr Singh asked if a clawback of Mr Iswaran’s MP allowance “is within the PAP’s contemplation”.
“I would advance that such a clawback for the period during which he has not performed MP’s duties would be a reasonable expectation of the public,” he added.
Ms Indranee replied: “I think that assurance I can give, which is that if certain thresholds have been crossed, and if warranted, and merited, we will do something.
“As to what exactly we will have to do, we’ll have to see what happens. But I’ve said quite plainly that we will certainly consider a clawback.”
She added that even though Mr Iswaran may not be suspended now, it does not mean that he cannot be suspended in the future.
“If you do suspend him today, you’re effectively saying that he has done something wrong when there is no basis at the present time,” she added.
Mr Iswaran is on a leave of absence from his ministerial duties and his pay has been reduced to S$8,500 a month.
While he can enter Parliament and carry out his duties as MP, Ms Indranee said that the prime minister has requested Mr Iswaran to cease his MP duties as a matter of “party discipline”.
As for Ms Poa, she said that by upholding the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”, an MP cannot be suspended until the entire legal process is completed.
“PSP feels a harsher stance against corruption versus other wrongdoing is fair… Since we’re paying such extraordinarily high salaries (for ministers), isn’t it fair for the consequence of corruption and the handling process of his investigation to be correspondingly tougher?” she asked.
On the Bill she proposed, Ms Poa said that Parliament is “being held ransom” as it did not have the power to reimburse the allowance for a suspended MP cleared of wrongdoing.
“Without this flexibility. Parliament is hampered in taking timely disciplinary actions.”
Ms Poa and Mr Leong stated their dissent towards Ms Indranee’s motion, while the rest of the House voted in favour of it.
Ms Poa’s Bill to allow Parliament to back-pay Mr Iswaran was also rejected.