CNA Explains: What are Pritam Singh's charges, and could he be disqualified as an MP?

 CNA also looks at next steps in the court process, as well as what could lie ahead for the opposition Workers' Party.

SINGAPORE: Singapore's Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh was charged on Tuesday (Mar 19) with lying to a parliamentary committee, in relation to a case involving his Workers' Party's (WP) former member Raeesah Khan.

Singh, who is WP chief and a Member of Parliament (MP) for Aljunied GRC, has pleaded not guilty. 

What are the charges he faces? 

Singh, 47, faces two charges under Section 31(q) of the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act. 

This section states it's an offence to lie when answering a question material to a subject of inquiry, during examination before parliament or a committee. 

Singh is said to have lied on Dec 10, 2021 about a meeting he had with Ms Khan, WP chair Sylvia Lim and party leader Faisal Manap on Aug 8 that year.

He's also accused of lying on both Dec 10 and Dec 15, 2021, about what he said to Ms Khan on Oct 3 that year.

If convicted, Singh faces up to three years' jail, a fine of up to S$7,000 (US$5,200) or both, for each charge.

What exactly is the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act? 

It's a law essentially setting out rules that govern parliament. 

Assistant Professor Benjamin Joshua Ong from the Singapore Management University's (SMU) Yong Pung How School of Law said the Act focuses on matters that enable parliament to perform its functions effectively.

"For example, it empowers parliament to summon witnesses to give evidence before it, and makes it an offence to, among other things: Disrupt parliament’s proceedings, to deliberately lie to parliament or a committee of parliament, to use 'force' to compel an MP to vote in a certain way, and even to challenge (an MP) to a fight on account of his conduct in parliament."

Law lecturer Ben Chester Cheong described the Act as regulating the powers and privileges of parliament and its members, and detailing what kind of immunities - or exemptions - they are given. 

The Act also governs the conduct of individuals in relation to parliamentary proceedings, he added.

The specific section that Singh was charged under "aims to ensure that individuals providing testimony or evidence to parliament do so truthfully", said Mr Cheong, who's from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).

"It is designed to protect the integrity of parliamentary proceedings and to maintain public trust in the institution."

Experts said Singh appears to be the first MP to be charged under Section 31(q) of the Act.

Others have previously been taken to task for contempt of parliament, which is under Section 20.

Could Singh be disqualified as an MP? 

In 2019 and ahead of a general election, the opposition Singapore Democratic Party's John Tan - who was not an MP - was fined S$5,000 for contempt of court. 

At the time, under the Constitution, anyone fined at least S$2,000 or jailed a year or more for an offence would have been disqualified from running for election as an MP; while a sitting MP would have lost their seat.

The threshold has since been raised to S$10,000. 

Singh's fate depends on the reading of the Constitution, experts said.

As mentioned earlier, the maximum fine for each of his two charges is S$7,000. If both charges are taken together to be an offence, then the cumulative fine of S$14,000 could disqualify him as an MP and from standing in the next election. The disqualification lasts five years. 

But law don Eugene Tan was of the view that each charge should be taken as a single offence.

He referred to the Attorney-General’s Chambers' statement on Tuesday that it would be seeking a fine for each of Singh's charges, if convicted.

"Unless there are very compelling reasons, the courts will likely go along with what the prosecution seeks as appropriate," added the former Nominated MP, who teaches constitutional law at the Singapore Management University. 

And according to the associate professor, "there is no basis to read the Constitution as indicating that you can add the different fines together".

"Mr Pritam Singh will not lose his parliamentary seat ....  I think there is no real risk," he said. "And likewise ... he would be eligible to contest in the next parliamentary election."

SUSS' Mr Cheong concurred, but also said the Constitution was not "absolutely clear" on this. 

"To me if the court eventually fines him S$14,000, I think it could be open to challenge that this would have exceeded the S$10,000 threshold," said Mr Cheong. 

"If the court fines an individual S$14,000, it is problematic because when one asks what sentence the person eventually received, it would be the (total) sentence."

In the 1970s, former MP Wee Toon Boon faced five charges for corruption and was eventually sentenced to six months' jail for each of four charges.

Then-Leader of the House and Law Minister E.W. Barker had pointed out in parliament that under the law at the time, an MP would be disqualified for being jailed at least a year or fined at least S$2,000.

"Mr Wee would not, by virtue of his convictions and sentences, be disqualified from remaining as a Member of Parliament," said Mr Barker in a 1976 ministerial statement.

"Mr Wee accordingly remains a Member of this House."