Only Reason Why We Can Have A Decision In Parliament Shanmugam On PAP Imposing Whip For Section 377A
The People’s Action Party’s (PAP) decision to impose the whip on its Members of Parliament (MP) was the “only reason” why repealing the colonial-era Section 377A could be decided in Parliament, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Tuesday (Nov 29).
In his speech to Parliament to round up the 10-hour debate over two days, Shanmugam said that the whip sets out the party’s position, and is only relevant for voting.
Describing how MPs were free to honestly express what they and their constituents think of the law that criminalises gay sex, Shanmugam said: “The PAP MPs speaking on the issue have reflected the concerns, the fears, and pain of the many individuals they have spoken with.
“[The] views on all sides can, have been, and must be fully ventilated. And they have been ventilated by PAP MPs.”
All PAP MPs present in Parliament yesterday voted in favour of the repeal of Section 377A, with the Bill being passed with a majority of 93 to three votes.
Workers’ Party (WP) MPs Gerald Giam and Dennis Tan, as well as Nominated MP Hoon Hian Teck, were the only three to vote against repeal.
On the constitutional amendment to protect the current definition of marriage from legal challenge – the new Article 156 of the Constitution – 85 MPs voted in favour of the move.
Both Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MPs Hazel Poa and Leong Mun Wai voted against the constitutional amendment, while WP MPs Sylvia Lim and He Ting Ru abstained.
Shanmugam: WP did not want to make a stand on Section 377A
Speaking to Parliament on Monday (Nov 28), WP chief Pritam Singh said that his party would be lifting the whip for debating and voting on the Bills.
This was so that those who were not in favour of the Bill could have the “opportunity to vote freely”, Pritam said then.
He added: “Given the varied public opinion on the impending repeal of 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 this House.
“Not lifting the whip would deny WP MPs not in favour of a repeal of 377A the 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.”
While countering Pritam’s explanations as “factually untrue”, Shanmugam shared that the “real point” was that WP, as a party, did not want to make a stand on whether to support or oppose Section 377A.
Repealing Section 377A is the “right thing to do”, and there is a possibility of the law being struck down by the Courts, Shanmugam said, adding that it would lead to “significant negative and disruptive consequences” for Singaporeans.
Likening a political party’s position on Section 377A with an approaching train, Shanmugam questioned if parliamentarians have the “courage to act”, or would rather “dive for cover to protect themselves” and “leave society to face the train wreck?”
He said: “The Workers’ Party had a debate among themselves. They debated and discussed, but didn’t decide on a party position. If this is how one decides, how will such a team function if they are in charge?”
He later added: “The only reason we can have a decision in Parliament is because the PAP has its whip in place.”
‘WP MPs behaved like loyal opposition’
Responding to Shanmugam’s comments, Pritam told Parliament that the former had “mischaracterised” his speech.
Pritam pointed out that what he said was specific to the party’s position in 2019, adding that the party position was then “varied and divided” with no consensus whether Section 377A should be repealed.
Adding that he lifted the whip, and did not fetter the voting rights of WP MPs, Pritam said: “All the Workers’ Party MPs, aside 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.”
Pritam also asked Shanmugam why the PAP had chosen to lift the whip for some bills and not others.
He said: “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?”
Shanmugam: Repealing Section 377A is a ‘policy question’
Responding to Pritam’s clarification, Shanmugam said that the whip was imposed for the repeal of Section 377A since it’s a “policy question with serious consequences for Singaporeans”.
He said: “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.
“That’s an abdication of responsibility as parliamentarians.”
Lifting the whip for 377A was “also not acceptable for the PAP, as societal interests are at stake”, Shanmugam shared, while warning that other policies involving housing and education would be at risk, and society could “get rent asunder” by culture wars – should the definition of marriage be struck down in court.
Shanmugam also clarified why PAP had lifted the whip when MPs voted on the Abortion Bill in 1969.
It was a matter of individual conscience at that point in time and had raised “very serious personal concerns”, he said.
The minister also cautioned Pritam against bringing up Lee Kuan Yew when discussing about the issue of lifting the whip.
Adding that he was not in Parliament when the former prime minister gave the speech on abortion, Shanmugam said: “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 somehow acted dishonourably.”
To Shanmugam’s response, Pritam countered that he never suggested Lee Kuan Yew was dishonourable and never used those words.
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