Workers' Party Chen Show Mao scored a victory in parliament yesterday after he successfully cornered Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong into clarifying his stance on whether a Minister or Political Appointee should go to court to defend his reputation.
Read his succession of parliamentary questions here.
Q. I'd like to ask the Prime Minister at the next Parliamentary sitting: "When should a Minister or political appointee go to court to defend his or her reputation and when should he or she refrain from private litigation and seek instead to address such allegations publicly, such as in Parliament?"
A. Your question asks about matters concerning decisions made by Ministers or political appointees in their personal capacity. As stipulated in the Standing Orders, parliamentary questions must relate to affairs within the official functions of a Minister. In view of this, do you wish to withdraw your question.
Q. I respectfully disagree.
The question relates (and I have revised its wording to make it clearer) to defending one's reputation as a Minister or political appointee in his or her official capacity as Minister or political appointee, as the case may be. Has there been, for example, as alleged an abuse of one's official position as a government Minister?
A. Your question has also been ruled inadmissible as it seeks an expression of an opinion. It is also not the function of Government to decide whether a Minister should seek court action to defend his reputation or refrain from doing so. Such decisions are made by the Minister himself.
Q. I respectfully disagree.
What I seek from the PM is not an expression of his opinion, but an answer on the norms upheld in his government among his Ministers and political appointees, as they relate to the issue of defending their reputation for honest dealing in their official or public capacity. The integrity of our leaders in government, and the consequent trust that our people place in the government, could not have been more emphatically touted by past governments. PM Lee Kuan Yew spoke often of it. Almost twenty years ago, PM Goh Chok Tong said that "if they've defamed us, we have to sue them — because if we don't, our own integrity will be suspect. We have an understanding that if a minister is defamed and he does not sue, he must leave cabinet. By defamation, I mean if somebody says the minister is … less than honest. If he does not rebut it, if he does not dare go before the court to be interrogated by the counsel for the other side, there must be some truth in it."
That was a clear enough statement of a norm ("standard, pattern, understanding, practice, how we behave") .
Norms change over time, even if only slowly. The norms upheld in his government among his Ministers and political appointees in their official capacity is a fair question for PM Lee Hsien Loong.
Mr Chen Show Mao asked the Prime Minister what are the rules, directives, practices, understandings, standards and norms governing the circumstances under which a Minister or political appointee should defend his reputation in his official capacity in the courts or refrain from such court action and address allegations publicly, such as in Parliament.
Mr Lee Hsien Loong: I have addressed this in my Ministerial Statement on 3 July 2017. Any Minister who is accused of improper conduct must clear his name publicly. He should not allow the allegations to fester and affect the reputation of the Government. If it is a serious allegation, I would expect the Minister to take court action for defamation, unless there are other special considerations. He may also need to render account in Parliament, particularly if the matter concerns his discharge of public duties and is of public interest. These are not mutually exclusive options. In all cases, there must be public accounting.