The debate on the repeal of Section 377A has brought into spotlight the function of the Party Whip.
In this debate, the PAP opted not to lift the Party Whip, meaning that all PAP MPs will have to take the Party’s position when voting on the repeal.
On the other hand, the Workers’ Party opted to lift the Whip. Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said: “Given the very public opinion on the impending repeal of Section 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 the house.”
This is not quite true.
In his speech during the debate, MP for Bukit Batok SMC Murali Pillai explained the clear difference between airing views and voting under the Party Whip.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam (Nee Soon GRC) repeated the point in his roundup speech on the debate today (Nov 29).
“Mr Singh said his lifting the Whip on WP MPs was democratic, so as to allow for a full and honest representation of all views. That explanation is factually untrue. Every MP must know that. So, it does no
credit to this House, to say these things. The WP MPs could have made all the speeches they made, even with the Whip in place,” he explained.
An MP can represent their constituents — even those who view the issue of Section 377A as, to borrow Mr Singh’s words, a “matter of deep religious belief and conscience” — by being their voice in Parliament.
Minister Shanmugam added that the Whip is relevant for voting, not speaking, and the Whip sets out the Party’s position.
WP didn’t decide on a Party position
In this regard, the Workers’ Party had debated among themselves but didn’t decide on a Party position, said Minister Shanmugam.
He said: “Mr Singh, Ms Sylvia Lim, for example, support the repeal. And while Mr Singh supports the Constitutional Amendments, Ms Lim and Ms He Ting Ru do not support the Constitutional Amendments. Mr Dennis Tan and Mr Gerald Giam are against the repeal but support the Constitutional Amendments. Mr Leon Perera is for the repeal – somewhat more enthusiastically than his Leader. And as for the Constitutional Amendments, he takes a divergent position from his Chairman, Ms Lim.”
“If this is how one decides, how will such a team function if they are in charge?”
In contrast, Parliament is able to make a decision because the PAP has the Whip in place, he added.
The crux of the issue is that the Workers’ Party, said Shanmugam, does not want to take a stand on this matter.
“It does not want to be seen as supporting the repeal. At the same time, it also does not want to be seen as opposing the repeal. That way it hopes to be all things to all men and not too much of anything to anyone.”
The Workers’ Party understands the legal risks if the repeal of Section 377A does not go through. Yet they refuse to take a position.
In the context of the repeal of Section 377A, it means that the Workers’ Party are choosing to “leave the decision to the Courts and let Singaporeans face the negative consequences, including perpetuating differences and polarising our society further”, said Minister Shanmugam.
Parliamentarians have a responsibility and duty to take a position and deal with the problem squarely.
“The position with Section 377A is like a train approaching. The question is whether we have the courage to act or rather dive for cover to protect yourself and leave society to face the train wreck.”
PAP Government will take responsibility
In closing, Minister Shanmugam said that the PAP Government has consulted widely, and has come to a position.
“We believe that our policy offers a way forward. It balances the different views, maintains our social cohesion, keeps us together. PM and DPM Wong have stated clearly that they will maintain this position,” he said.
“On this difficult matter, we will do our duty and take responsibility for holding society together.”