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SINGAPORE — Members of Parliament (MPs) will now lose their seats if they were fined at least $10,000 when convicted of an offence, after amendments to Singapore's Constitution were unanimously approved by Parliament on Monday (9 May).
Currently, an MP will lose their seat if they are fined at least S$2,000 and jailed for at least one year.
Education Minister Chan Chun Sing noted that the raise in fine quantum, which has not been revised since Singapore's independence, took into account inflation over the years.
"$2,000 (then) would amount to $8,000 today," said the Minister-in-charge of the Public Service.
The revision also took into account sentences handed down by the courts for committing serious tax evasion and corruption offences, which are relevant to the integrity of a person, he added.
"Notwithstanding the proposal to update the fine quantum, Singaporeans should reasonably expect that members of this house and those who aspire to be members of this house must hold themselves to the highest standards," said Chan.
He also explained that there will be no change to the minimum jail term, as Singapore's imprisonment term of one year remains at an "appropriate threshold" that does not require further revision for now.
This comes as part of the review by the Elections Department (ELD), which found that the imprisonment terms for MP disqualification in selected Commonwealth countries – such as Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the UK – ranged from one year to at least two years.
The amendments also include extending the disqualification for those who have been convicted overseas, beyond Singapore and Malaysian courts.
$10,000 figure 'within reason': WP's Sylvia Lim
Workers' Party (WP) chairman and Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim said that the figure of $10,000 was "within reason" and "an attempt to retain the same standards of eligibility that existed when the law was originally enacted".
However, she noted that the current approach of setting the cut-off based on the quantum of punishment by a court was "imperfect", as it made no distinction about the type of offence involved.
"On the other hand, imperfect though it is, the advantage of having a cut-off simply based on the punishment quantum is that it is easy to apply and is clear to everyone," Lim said.
She noted that in countries such as Australia and the UK, candidates at a national election are generally not disqualified if they are merely fined in court, whatever the amount.
Lim cited the example of opposition politician John Tan, without mentioning his name, who was fined $5,000 for contempt of court shortly before the general election in 2020, placing him above the $2,000 disqualification threshold for standing for election.
"When he applied to the High Court for clarification on his status, the judge ruled that so long as the court fine was of the required amount, it did not matter what the underlying charge was. The court held that matters considered quasi-criminal, such as contempt of court, would suffice for disqualification," Lim added.
She said that given the multitude of regulatory laws in today’s modern society, "there is always a risk" that persons engaged in businesses or certain industries may be fined for some non-compliance.
"Should we embark on such a further review in the future, careful consideration should be paid to how to balance upholding respect for Parliament as a national institution with having a set of eligibility criteria that is relevant to modern Singapore," Lim said.
Focus on nature of the offences, say PAP MPs
Bukit Batok MP Murali Pillai and Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan suggested looking beyond the fine quantum to focus on the nature of the offences that would disqualify an MP.
Murali cited cases whereby individuals who were convicted of sexual crimes or fraud had been fined or jailed below the cut-off.
Professionals such as doctors, lawyers, engineers will not be allowed to practice if they were convicted of offences that involve moral turpitude, irrespective of the sentence, he noted, adding that civil servants and uniformed officers may be dismissed or reduced in rank.
"What should be avoided at all costs is the perception that the Bill is an attempt on the part of one political party trying to constrain the public's right to vote for a candidate of their choice," Murali also stressed.
Lim said that a bar ought to be set in the Constitution that disqualifies a person from being an MP if the person is convicted of an offence that relates to dishonesty, fraud, corruption, bribery, or sexual misconduct, but not for careless driving.
"For other offences that are technical in nature, or what we call statutory offences, we ought to reveal whether such offences result in disqualification to be an MP as well," he added.
In response to the MPs' suggestions, Chan said the amendments were kept intentionally narrow and focused on updating the disqualification criteria, in keeping with the democratic ideal that the rights of individuals to participate in the political process and to stand for public office should be unfettered as far as possible.
"While we need to ensure fitness for individuals to be parliamentarians, the bar cannot be so high that we undermine our parliamentary system which is founded on representative democracy," he added.
"Keeping the disqualification criteria to a reasonable threshold also allows voters broad discretion to choose who they wish to represent them."
Chan also pointed out that many jurisdictions disqualified elected members based on the fine quantum or jail sentence and not the type of offences, as it is inherently challenging to list specific offences and to frequently amend a "basic document like the Constitution".
"As the basic document, the Constitution has to establish a suitable balance for Singapore between ensuring wide representation of all sectors of our community in Parliament, while ensuring the representative fitness for office," he added.
Chan said that the Constitutional ineligibility which is covered by the Bill "simply sets the minimum threshold" for those seeking office in Parliament and addresses the parliamentarians' "minimum moral aptitude".
"Beyond the disqualification criteria, political parties must continue to ensure that the candidates they field and MPs from their parties are persons with integrity and who adhere to the high standards of conduct, " he said.
"Ultimately, our voters will decide at the ballot box the fitness of the person seeking to represent them in Parliament."
The fine quantum for disqualifying an MP had recently come under the spotlight after WP chief and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh and fellow Aljunied GRC MP Faisal Manap were referred to the public prosecutor to "consider if criminal proceedings ought to be instituted" over former WP MP Raeesah Khan's dishonest conduct.
Singh had in a Facebook post on 10 February – the same day that the Committee of Privileges (COP) report was released – said that there are "a number of unknowns" for now, including the prospect of both he and Faisal losing their parliamentary seats and stepping down as MPs if either of them is fined $2,000 or more.
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