24 March 2018
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Govt sought AGC's advice on parliamentary privilege

Straits Times
13 Mar 2018
Joanna Seow

The Government had sought legal advice on whether Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim had breached parliamentary privilege, before Leader of the House Grace Fu officially asked her to withdraw her statement and apologise last Tuesday.

In response to queries from The Sunday Times, Ms Fu's spokesman said the Government had consulted the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC).

She did not say what advice the AGC gave, but added: "Ms Lim was in breach because she should have known that her allegations were untrue, and because of her refusal to withdraw the allegations even after the facts were clarified."

Ms Lim had said on March 1 that she suspected the Government had intended to introduce a goods and services tax hike immediately, but backed down after "test balloons" it floated got a negative response. Several ministers and office-holders then clarified the facts both in and out of the House, but Ms Lim refused to withdraw her statements.

The spokesman said: "The Government seeks the advice of AGC as and when it requires the advice. This is not the first time it has sought advice of AGC on such matters."

Still, Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said it is a rare move for the Government to consult the AGC on the matter of how Parliament regulates its affairs and on the conduct of MPs. It suggests that the Government wanted to have the force of the law on its side, so its actions will not be seen as "a political hack job but something grounded in the law", he said.

He added that though "having the AGC's advice gives the Government a stronger footing in the matter", it is ultimately something for Parliament to decide as parliamentary debates also involve a political dimension and breach of parliamentary privilege may not be purely a legal question.

MPs enjoy parliamentary privilege, which means they cannot be sued for what they say in the House. But Ms Fu said in Parliament that it was an abuse of privilege for MPs to knowingly maintain allegations that have been shown to have no factual basis.

The spokesman said the Government had decided that if Ms Lim refused to withdraw her allegations and apologise to the House, Ms Fu would put her - and the rest of the House - on notice.

Last Thursday, Ms Lim said she accepted her suspicion may not be correct, but did not withdraw her statement or apologise.

In response, Ms Fu warned that if Ms Lim repeats such "dishonourable conduct", she would refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges, which can mete out punishments from scoldings to jail time.

Joanna Seow

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.