Parliamentary Privilege, A Loophole To Being Above the Law?

Singapore’s PM, Lee Hsien Loong’s battle with his younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, has grabbed Singapore and the world by storm, and now, the whole country awaits for his Ministerial Statement when Parliament sits on July 3rd. It is the day when PM Lee has announced to Singaporeans that he has lifted the party whip and has allowed Members of Parliament to question him and the Committee which has been looking into the deceased, Lee Kuan Yew’s final will.

The final will, of which probate has been granted is suddenly deemed to not hold any legality, which is the point of contention made by Lee Hsien Yang and the cause of this whole national and international fiasco.

38-oxley-road---3

The specific portion of the will being debated being:

Mr Lee Kuan Yew wrote in paragraph 7 of his will: “I further declare that it is my wish, and the wish of my late wife, KWA GEOK CHOO, that our house at 38 Oxley Road, Singapore 238629 (‘the House’) be demolished immediately after my death or, if my daughter, Wei Ling, would prefer to continue living in the original house, immediately after she moves out of the House. I would ask each of my children to ensure our wishes with respect to the demolition of the House be carried out. If our children are unable to demolish the House as a result of any changes in the law, rules or regulations binding them, it is my wish that the House never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants. My view on this has been made public before and remains unchanged. My statement of wishes in this paragraph 7 may be publicly disclosed notwithstanding that the rest of my Will is private.”

So we understand a few things from Lee Kuan Yew’s will:

  1. He wants the house to be demolished immediately after his death or, if Wei Ling wants to stay, to be demolished after she moves out.
  2. If there are changes to the law, and rules & regulations bind the 3 children, then Lee Kuan Yew doesn’t want the house to be opened to anyone else except his children, their families and descendants.

Based on the above, the main point of debate by Lee Hsien Yang is:

  1. Why is there a need for a special committee to discuss on this matter before Wei Ling is even dead or moves out?
  2. Is there plans by the special committee to change the law or to enact new rules & regulations to ensure the house cannot be demolished? (This brings into question PM Lee’s abuse of power allegations)

Now, we have many other MPs who have joined in the fray against Lee Hsien Yang mentioning a few things:

  1. Who drafted the final will?
  2. Did Lee Kuan Yew had the mental capacity to understand his final will?
  3. Did Lee Kuan Yew have enough time (5 mins) to fully comprehend his final will?

Above and beyond what the issue is about, I would like to bring your attention to the upcoming Parliamentary sitting on July 3rd whereby PM Lee will address questions regarding this issue, thereby possibly invoking his Parliamentary Privilege.

For most of us who are unaware of what Parliamentary Privilege is, the statutes clearly state the following (I’ve selected several important paragraphs to ponder):

Freedom of speech and debate and proceedings
5.  There shall be freedom of speech and debate and proceedings in Parliament, and such freedom of speech and debate and proceedings shall not be liable to be impeached or questioned in any court, commission of inquiry, committee of inquiry, tribunal or any other place whatsoever out of Parliament.
Exemption from liability in certain cases

6.

—(1)  No Member shall be liable to any civil or criminal proceedings, arrest, imprisonment or damages by reason of any matter or thing which he may have brought before Parliament or a committee by petition, bill, resolution, motion, or otherwise or may have said in Parliament or in committee.
(2)  No person shall be liable to any civil or criminal proceedings, arrest, imprisonment or damages by reason of any act done under the authority of Parliament or the Speaker and within its or his legal powers or under any warrant issued by virtue of those powers.
Exemption from certain duties

9.

—(1)  It shall not be lawful —

(a)
to require any Member or officer of Parliament to serve as an assessor on any tribunal; or
(b)

while in attendance on Parliament or any committee, to compel such person to attend as a witness in any court or tribunal or at any commission of inquiry or committee of inquiry or before any like authority empowered to summon witnesses.

[43/2007 wef 01/11/2007]
(2)  The production of a certificate signed by the Speaker or the chairman of the committee shall be deemed sufficient proof of attendance on Parliament or the committee.
Privilege of witnesses

16.

—(1)  No public officer shall be required —

(a)
to produce before Parliament any paper, book, record or other document; or
(b)
to give before Parliament evidence on any matter,
if the President certifies that the paper, book, record or other document or the evidence relates to affairs of State and that the public interest would suffer by the production thereof.
(2)  Every person summoned to attend to give evidence or to produce any paper, book, record or other document before Parliament shall be entitled in respect of such evidence or the disclosure of any communication or the production of any such paper, book or record or other document to the same privilege as before a court of law.
(3)  Sections 125 and 126 of the Evidence Act (Cap. 97) shall not be applicable in any case where a public officer is so summoned to attend before Parliament.
Immunity of witness in respect of evidence

17.

—(1)  Without prejudice to section 16 and subject to subsection (3), no person who gives evidence before Parliament or any committee shall be liable to any civil or criminal proceedings, arrest, imprisonment or damages by reason of anything which he may have said in such evidence.
(2)  Except in proceedings referred to in subsection (3), no statement made by any person in evidence before Parliament or any committee shall be admissible in evidence against that person in any civil or criminal proceedings or in any court.
(3)  Nothing in subsections (1) and (2) shall prevent or be deemed to prevent the institution or maintenance of any proceedings against any person for an offence under section 191 of the Penal Code (Cap. 224) or for any offence under this Act in respect of any evidence given by him before Parliament or any committee.
Punitive powers of Parliament

20.

—(1)  For any dishonourable conduct, abuse of privilege or contempt, on the part of a Member, Parliament may —

(a)
commit him to prison for a term not extending beyond the current session of Parliament;
(b)
impose upon him a fine not exceeding the sum of $50,000;
(c)
suspend him from the service of Parliament for the remainder of the current session of Parliament or for any part thereof; and
(d)

direct that he be reprimanded or admonished in his place by the Speaker.

[23/86]

(2)  Where a Member has been found guilty of abuse of privilege in respect of anything said in Parliament by him, Parliament may, by resolution and without prejudice to its powers under subsection (1), suspend him for such period as may be specified in the resolution from the privileges and immunities conferred by sections 3, 5 and 6 in so far as they relate to liability to civil proceedings.

[23/86]

(3)  During the period specified under subsection (2) such privileges and immunities shall cease to apply to the Member who shall be liable to civil proceedings in respect of anything said by him in, or any written statement made by him to, Parliament.

[23/86]

(4)  For any contempt on the part of a stranger, Parliament may —

(a)
commit him to prison for a term not extending beyond the current session of Parliament;
(b)
impose upon him a fine not exceeding the sum of $50,000;
(c)
exclude him from Parliament and the precincts thereof for the remainder of the current session of Parliament or for any part thereof; and
(d)
direct that he be reprimanded or admonished at the Bar of the House by the Speaker.
Okay, so that’s about it from the statutes about the Parliamentary Privilege.
So, what it looks at the moment is that PM Lee may be exercising his Parliamentary Privilege rather than to take this issue to court because:
  1. Whatever is being discussed in Parliament, cannot be tendered in court. This thereby puts Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling at a disadvantage.
  2. If PM Lee puts forth any evidence in Parliament, it cannot be used in court.
  3. It is going to be very difficult to find PM Lee guilty of abuse of power because if he was found guilty of abusing his power as alleged by Lee Hsien Yang, then Cabinet Minister who are sitting in the committee reviewing the Oxley Rd house may also be liable to the same offence and well, you think anyone in there gonna let that happen meh?

But the overarching question here is, and this is where I believe most Singaporeans are concerned with:

  1. The legality of the will – not in question.
  2. So, why not debate it in open court where the court can issue rulings on it when evidence is presented.
  3. If, this issue is debated in Parliament and nothing debated in there can be used in court, does this mean that Parliamentarians can be above the law? That exercising Parliamentary Privilege is a loophole to be above the law or to avoid actions by the court because if it can, then I don’t see how Singaporeans or the rest of the world can hold our Parliament and its Parliamentarians in high regard.
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