Leong Mun Wai

Opening Speech on the Motion on Speaker’s Independence and Impartiality

Mr Speaker Sir,

I beg to move, “that this House reaffirms its commitment for the need for the Speaker of Parliament to be independent and impartial, and for Parliament to be a fair arena for all.”

Before I begin my speech, Mr Speaker, on behalf of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), I would like to congratulate you on your election as Speaker of Parliament. We are sure that your years of experience as Deputy Speaker will put you in good stead for the role that has now been entrusted to you, and we trust that you will do your best to restore public confidence in the office of Speaker of Parliament.

Introduction

The events that have led us to debate this motion today have been truly regrettable. Even though Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin has resigned and apologised for his comments on Associate Professor Jamus Lim’s speech on the President’s Address during the parliamentary sitting on 17 April 2023, the PSP believes that the conduct of the former Speaker has brought Parliament into disrepute and is a matter that deserves a full debate in this House.

Sir, the Speaker of Parliament is responsible for presiding over Parliamentary sittings and enforcing the rules of debate that have been laid down in the Standing Orders of Parliament to ensure that parliamentary business is conducted in an orderly manner.

In carrying out these important duties, the Speaker must remain impartial to all MPs, regardless of their political affiliations. He must be seen as a fair referee, just like a judge.

Mr E.W. Barker, the first Law Minister of independent Singapore, pointed out the similarities between the Speaker of Parliament and a judge during a speech in this House in January 1970.

Mr Barker said, and I quote, “there is a great deal of similarity between the Judge and the Speaker. The impartiality both are expected to maintain between contending and contentious factions has to be, it is generally believed, judicial.” Indeed, all the Speakers of Parliament prior to 1970 had been members of the legal profession – a fact that was also pointed out by Mr Barker in his speech.

It is paramount that the Speaker must be impartial, and be seen by the public as impartial, in discharging his duties in this House.

Tan Chuan-Jin’s comments

Speaker Tan’s comments during the 17 April sitting already damaged the public’s perception of his impartiality, even before the revelation of his ‘inappropriate relationship’ with a fellow PAP MP.

Let us consider the context of Speaker Tan’s comments. Associate Professor Jamus Lim had just concluded a speech on poverty, titled “Hard Living in Singapore”. Among other things, he called for the implementation of a poverty line and to make the approval process for ComCare less onerous and intrusive. After Associate Professor Jamus Lim had taken his seat, Speaker Tan muttered a comment under his breath, which I will not repeat out of respect for the Standing Orders.

Speaker Tan’s comments were highly contentious for two reasons. Firstly, unparliamentary profanities were used in the comment. Secondly, which is the more serious reason, the comment itself revealed Speaker Tan’s views of Associate Professor Jamus Lim as a person, or the contents of his speech, or both.  

The Speaker of Parliament is of course entitled to form his own private opinions on any member of this House or any speeches made here. However, as an impartial referee that enforces parliamentary rules and procedures, the Speaker must not publicly express those opinions. This is no different from judges and heads of state in Westminster systems.

We do not expect, or indeed allow, judges to express their opinions publicly, or heads of state to express a different view from their government on public policy. The issue here is that not being neutral and impartial leads to consequences of negative public perception that lower the public trust in the public institutions.

While Speaker Tan may not have expected that his comment would be picked up publicly, he was on duty and discharging his responsibilities as Speaker of this House. It was therefore a serious error to have even made that comment.

Furthermore, the tone and contents of the comment made it clear that Speaker Tan objected to the contents of Associate Professor Lim’s speech. This is especially problematic because the Speaker is expected to ensure that Parliament is a fair arena for all Members of Parliament regardless of their political affiliation, and he was objecting to the speech made by a member of a different political party.

Speaker Tan’s comment thus did great damage to public perception of his impartiality, as well as the impartiality of the office of the Speaker. Speaker Tan himself acknowledged this in his resignation letter to PM Lee, when he said that his mistake “raised broader questions over my neutrality and impartiality as Speaker”.

Speaker Tan’s comments are a direct strike at the values that underpin this Parliament.

Hence we are disappointed with the Prime Minister’s confirmation during Ministerial Statement just now that he would not have asked Speaker Tan to resign for his inappropriate comments.  We think the Speaker should be held to a higher standard than an MP. 

For any democracy to function properly, it must function on the basis of a Parliament that it can trust. How can the public trust Parliament when its presiding officer had compromised his ability to be independent and impartial

History

Mr Speaker, even without recent events, the actions of the PAP Government over the years could arguably be perceived by the public to have eroded the independence and impartiality of the Speaker’s office over the years.

As I mentioned earlier, prior to 1970, all the Speakers of Parliament had been members of the legal profession, either judges or lawyers. Except for a brief period between 1963 and 1964 when Mr E.W. Barker was Speaker of Parliament, all the Speakers of Parliament were also nonpartisan.

When Mr Barker was elected as Speaker, Deputy Prime Minister Dr Toh Chin Chye explained that this was a temporary stopgap measure until the consent of the Malaysian Government, which was responsible for Singapore’s judiciary at the time when we were part of the Federation of Malaysia, could be sought for a judge to be elected as Speaker. And indeed, this was followed through when A.P. Rajah was elected as Speaker in November 1964.

However, this convention changed after 1970, following the election of PAP backbencher and non-lawyer, Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng as Speaker.  I’d like to add that this happened incidentally after the PAP captured 100% of the parliamentary seats in the 1968 General Election.

Since 1970, the office of Speaker has been occupied by a PAP MP. Furthermore, in recent years, Speaker Tan and his predecessor Madam Halimah Yacob have also been members of the Central Executive Committee of the PAP, in other words, at the power centre of the ruling party.

This evolution, from having a nonpartisan Speaker to a backbencher Speaker to Speakers who are ex-officeholders or members of the PAP’s Central Executive Committee, could be perceived as having eroded the independence and impartiality of the Speaker’s office over the years.

PSP believes that it is problematic for the Speaker to uphold his impartiality and independence, while simultaneously being at the power centre of the ruling party and being privy to the ruling party’s political strategy alongside members of the Government.

It is also difficult for the public, especially those who do not support the ruling party, to be fully convinced that a core member of the ruling party can be an impartial presiding officer of Parliament.

We are of the view that the Speaker should at least not be a CEC member of the PAP. Hence we supported the elevation of Mr Speaker from the backbenches to the Speaker’s office this time around.

We hope that a Speaker of Parliament who is not as closely linked to the core of the PAP will be able to restore public confidence in the impartiality and independence of the office of the Speaker of Parliament. The PSP trusts that you, Mr Speaker, will make every effort to do this for the rest of this term of Parliament.

As our democracy develops and the number of  alternative or opposition MPs increases, we hope the Speaker will be a non-partisan person again in the future just like A.P. Rajah in 1964.

Conclusion

Sir, I would like to conclude by recounting an event in English history which has a bearing on how Speakers in Commonwealth jurisdictions conduct themselves.

In 1642, King Charles I of England entered the English House of Commons and attempted to arrest five Members of Parliament. He demanded that the Speaker of the House of Commons, William Lenthall, identify these five members for arrest. Lenthall famously replied to the King, “May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, except as the House, whose servant I am, directs of me”.

This incident underlined the principle that the Speaker should not be subordinate to the Government, but an independent servant of the House. The Speaker has a duty to this House, and this House alone. He is also not at liberty to express his opinions beyond defending the interests of the House.

There is much work to be done by this House, and our new Speaker, to restore public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the Office of Speaker, which has taken a body blow by recent events.

I call on all Members to support the Motion tabled by Ms Hazel Poa and me, and unanimously reaffirm our commitment for the need for the Speaker of Parliament to be independent and impartial, and for Parliament to be a fair arena for all.

Thank you.

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