Everything About the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act, Which Pritam Singh Was Charged For

On 19 March 2024, Singapore’s Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh was hit with legal trouble after being charged with lying to a parliamentary committee regarding his interactions with former Workers’ Party member Raeesah Khan.

Singh, who also serves as the chief of the Workers’ Party (WP) and Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, has denied the charges brought against him.

As he was unrepresented at that time, Singh had requested for a four-week adjournment to engage a lawyer. A pre-trial conference has been scheduled for 17 April 2024.

When asked if he had anything to say after being charged, he said he would be releasing a statement later.

What Charges is Singh Facing?

47-year-old Singh had allegedly provided false information during parliamentary inquiries.

The charges against Singh stem from the fallout of an investigation into Raeesah Khan, a former member of the WP and MP for Sengkang GRC, made claims during a debate on women’s empowerment in August 2021, alleging mistreatment of a sexual assault victim at a police station.

She repeated these claims in October 2021 but later admitted they were false, revealing she had been a victim of sexual assault herself. Subsequently, Khan resigned from the WP and her parliamentary seat.

Singh’s involvement in this saga relates to statements he made during committee questioning on 10 December, 2021, where he had lied about a meeting he had with Ms Raeesah Khan, WP Chair Sylvia Lim, and party leader Faisal Manap on 8 August of the same year. He claimed that he had urged Khan to admit to her lie in Parliament. 

Additionally, he claimed to have discussed the issue with Khan during an October 3 meeting, advising her to confess if questioned about it in Parliament the following day.

It seems like a lot of confusing dates and situations that had taken place a long time ago, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

Two years after the police opened investigations into his conduct before the Committee of Privileges, Singh is now facing two charges under Section 31(q) of the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act, where it states that it is an offence to lie when answering questions material to a subject of inquiry before parliament or a committee.

If convicted, Singh could face a maximum sentence of three years’ jail, a fine of up to S$7,000, or both for each charge.

The Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act.

If all of these seem like a bunch of legal jargon to you, let us try to break it down, starting with this question: What exactly is the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act?

Under the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities, and Powers) Act, MPs are granted immunity from prosecution and civil lawsuits for statements made within Parliament. This privilege allows MPs to speak freely and address concerns from their constituents and the public.

Yet, just like how schools have their own set of rules and regulations, the Parliament also has its set of rules that govern it to ensure that parliamentary proceedings run with effectiveness and integrity.

According to Assistant Professor Benjamin Joshua Ong from the Singapore Management University’s (SMU) Yong Pung How School of Law, the Act empowers parliament to summon witnesses and penalises false testimony, thereby safeguarding the institution’s credibility and maintaining public trust.

Law lecturer Ben Chester Cheong also describes the Act as regulating the powers and privileges of parliament and its members, including the immunities granted to them. It governs the conduct of individuals in relation to parliamentary proceedings and aims to ensure truthful testimony to protect the institution’s integrity.

It is imperative that MPs do not misuse this privilege by distorting facts, making unsupported allegations, or deceiving Parliament. Such actions could undermine the integrity of parliamentary proceedings and erode public trust in the institution.

“Unlike other people, we can (speak freely) without fear of prosecution because of the underlying public policy interests, which is to be able to raise things,” said Leader of the House Indranee Rajah.

“It’s very important when we do so that we must be able to speak truth in this House, and when we assert or make allegations to be able to back them up.”

In May 2022, the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act was amended with the fine quantum for disqualification increased from S$2,000 to at least S$10,000.

Essentially, it means that a Member of Parliament would lose his or her seat if they were fined a minimum of S$10,000.

If an MP is disqualified, the period of disqualification lasts for five years from the date of release from custody or when the fine is imposed. Throughout this duration, the individual is ineligible to contest in parliamentary elections.

The Elections Department (ELD) emphasised that the amendments aim to modernise and uphold the integrity of Singapore’s political landscape.

By revising disqualification criteria, the government seeks to ensure that elected officials maintain high standards of conduct and integrity.

Singh’s case is notable as he appears to be the first MP charged under Section 31(q) of the Act.

Previous cases have involved contempt of parliament, which falls under a different section.

Singh’s Future in Parliament

There is also speculation about the potential consequences for Singh’s political career, if he is found guilty. 

As mentioned earlier, if found guilty, Singh could face a maximum sentence of three years’ jail, a fine of up to S$7,000, or both for each charge.

Though changes to the Constitution raised the threshold for disqualification from running for office to a fine of at least S$10,000, legal interpretations differ on whether multiple charges constitute a single offence.

While some believe Singh could face disqualification if fines exceed the threshold, others argue that each charge should be considered separately.

Eugene Tan, a former Nominated Member of Parliament and constitutional law expert, emphasises that each charge should be treated as an individual offence, citing the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ statement seeking fines for each charge if Singh is convicted.

According to Tan, Singh is “under no real risk of losing his parliamentary seat”.

Despite the legal challenges ahead, Singh remains committed to his parliamentary duties. Reaffirming his plea of not guilty, he intends to engage legal representation and continue serving until the legal process concludes.

Singh added that he was well-aware of the challenges of building a “more balanced and democratic political system in Singapore” since he entered politics and said it was his “privilege and honour” to be part of the WP team.

The People’s Action Party, Singapore’s ruling party, has stated that it will not seek Singh’s suspension as an MP while legal proceedings are ongoing, indicating respect for due process.

As Singh’s case progresses, the broader implications for political accountability and public trust in parliamentary institutions will continue to be scrutinised.

The outcome could shape the future conduct of elected officials and the standards expected of them, highlighting the importance of upholding integrity and transparency in Singapore’s political landscape.