The motion before the House, to cite the MP for Jelutong, Sdr Karpal Singh, with parliamentary contempt is most unprecedented, for it is not only most irregular, unlawful, but also breaches all canons of parliamentary practice and conventions, being nothing more than a tyranny of the majority over the minority.
On 5th November 1984, during a question on police standard of service and performance, when Sdr. Karpal Singh asked a supplementary question which has become the subject matter of this motion, the Speaker had disallowed the supplementary question, and the MP for Jelutong had accepted the ruling of the Speaker, and the matter should have rested there.
But we have today the motion before the House which is to resolve that Sdr. Karpal Singh had committed a contempt of the House in asking the supplementary question which had been ruled out of order, and to mete out punishments accordingly.
As the matter before the House concerns the privilege, dignity and powers of the House of Parliament, I hope all MPs could approach it from point of view of MPs, and not from any narrow partisan party angle. Let us bear in mind that what we are deciding today will bind Parliament for the future and would be used as a precedent, and we are in fact exercising judicial powers which do not allow party bias, personal vendetta or other extraneous considerations to intrude into this deliberation.
Firstly, I do not think that any reasonable man could accept that the MP for Jelutong had committed a contempt of the House in his supplementary question, as it had already been ruled out of order and which ruling was accepted by the MP for Jelutong.
The motion states that Sdr. Karpal Singh had violated Standing Order 36(8) which reads:
“The conduct or character of His Majesty the Yang di Pertuan Agong, or any of their highnesses, the Ruler or their Excellencies the Yang di- Pertua Negeri, or Judges or other persons engaged in the administration of justice, of members of the Armed Forces Council or of any Service Commission established under Part X of the Constitution, of members of the Elections Commission, or of sovereigns of friendly state shall not be referred to except upon a substantive motion moved for that purpose.”
Firstly, I wish to point out that Standing Order 36(8) is inapplicable to the case in question, as Standing Order 36 refers to ‘contents of speeches’ under the section on ‘Rules of Debate’ for motions in the House.
The proper provision should be Standing Order 22(m), relating to ‘Contents of Questions’, which read:
“a question reflecting on the character or conduct of any person whose conduct can only be challenged on a substantive motion shall not be asked.”
Secondly, does a breach of either Standing Order 22 or Standing 36 tantamount to a ‘contempt’ of the House? If this is the case, then almost every day, Members of Parliament are committing contempts of the House, although nothing is being done about it.
Thus under Standing Order 36(1), it is provided that “A Member shall confine his observations to the subject under discussion and may not introduce matter irrelevant thereto.”
Every day, we hear MPs, especially from the Barisan Nasional ranks, making remarks and observations in their speeches which are sometimes completely irrelevant to the subjects under discussion. Are they guilty of ‘contempt’ and if so, why have not motions been moved against them for their ‘contempt’?
Standing Order 36(4) provides: “it shall be out of order to use offensive and insulting language about members of the House”. Standing Order 36(6) states: “No member shall impute improper motives to any other member”. Standing Order 36(10) states: “It shall be out of order to use: (a) treasonable words; (b) seditious words; (c) words which are likely to promote feelings of ill-will or hostility between different communities in the Federation or infringe any provision of the Constitution or the sedition Act, 1948.”
It is not unusual for Barisan MPS to break all these Standing Orders, as when my motive and that of my comrades in the DAP were imputed as wanting to destroy Bank Bumiputra and the Malay leadership when we persisted in our demand for a full-scale public inquiry into the $2.5 billion BMF loans scandal in Hong Kong; as when the entire Indian community was slurred and insulted by remarks comparing them as worse than snakes. Was there any motion to cite such MPs for ‘contempt’ against the House?
Or we take Standing Order 23 relating to ‘contents of questions. The rules governing contents of questions include the following:
“23(1) (a) a question shall not include the names of persons or statements not strictly necessary to render the question intelligible;
(c) a question shall not contain any argument, interference, opinion, imputation, epithet or misleading, ironical or offensive expression nor shall a question be frivolous or be asked seeking information on trivial matters;
(d) a question shall not refer to debates or answers to question in the current session;
(e) a question shall not refer to proceedings in a Committee which have not been reported to the House.”
Would any supplementary question which violate any of these Standing Orders be ‘contempt’ of the House, apart from being ruled out of order?
Thirdly, if it is contended that Sdr. Karpal Singh had committed a breach of privilege, then why wasn’t he committed to the Privileges Committee for investigation as Standing Order 80(1) provided that “There shall be referred to this Committee any matter which appears to affect the powers and privileges of the House”.
At most, it could be contended that the MP for Jelutong had committed a breach of privilege, which should be studied in depth by the Committee of Privileges, but I cannot by any stretch of imagination see how the question of ‘contempt’ against the House arises.
Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practise (20th Edition), Chapter 5, states:
“The particular privileges of the Commons have been defined as: ‘The sum of the fundamental rights of the House and of its individual Members as against the prerogatives of the Crown, the authority of the ordinary courts of low and the special rights of the House of Lords.” (page 70)
In page 71, it states:
“When any of these rights and immunities, both of the members, individually, or of the assembly in its collective capacity, which are known by the general name of the privileges, are disregarded or attacked by any individual or authority, the offence is called a breach of privilege, and is punishable under the law of Parliament. Each House also claims the right to punish actions, which while not breaching any specific privileges, are offences against its authority or dignity, such as disobedience to its legitimate commands or libels upon itself, its officers or its Members. Such actions, through often called ‘breaches of privilege’, are more properly distinguished as ‘contempts’”
Erskine May in Chapter 10, on ‘Breaches of privilege and contempts’ defining ‘contempt’ states:
“It may be stated generally that any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either Houses of Parliament in the performance of its functions, or which obstructs or impedes any Member or officer of such House in the discharge of his duty, or which has a tendency directly or indirectly, to produce such results may be treated as a contempt even though there is no precedent of the offence.”
Can we in all conscience assert that Sdr. Karpal Singh’s supplementary question, which was ruled out of Order and which ruling was accepted by the MP for Jelutong, could be classified as ‘acts … which obstruct or impede the House of Parliament in the performance of its functions’? There was not obstruction or impediment whatsoever!
In fact, Erskine may define ‘contempt’ by strangers or non-MPs as: “Any disorderly contumacious or disrespectful conduct in the presence of either House or any committee thereof”. Here, for an MP, there is not even the ‘disorderly, contumacious and disrespectful conduct’ which is necessary to found a contempt charge for strangers to the House.
Thus, parliamentary conventions about privileges and contempts mentioned in Erskine May’s Parliamentary practise are only of persuasive authority, where the procedure to be followed is concerned, and not as far as the substantive issues as we have the House of Parliament (Privileges and powers) Ordinance 1952. Parliament does not have powers and privileges which are not to be found within the Ordinance itself.
Section 10 of the House of Parliament (Privileges and Powers) Ordinance 1952 provides that the House may summarily punish for contempt by a member of the House or any other person 14 categories of such ‘contempt’ offences.
I give below the 14 categories of ‘contempt’ offences for which this House has powers of summary punishment as we are being asked to do today:
“The House may, for or in respect of any of the offences here in after mentioned, whether committed by a member or by any other person, summarily punish for contempt by fine not exceeding one thousand ringgit as provided by the standing orders or by this Ordinance; and if any such fine so imposed be not immediately paid the offender shall be committed to the custody of the keeper of any goal or of an officer of the House in such place as it may direct until payment be made or until the House is dissolved or prorogued, whichever by the earlier.
“The said offences shall be –
(a) Disobedience to any order for attendance or for production of papers, books records, or documents made by the House or any committee duly authorized in that behalf, unless the attendance or production be excused as provided in section 20 of this ordinance;
(b) Refusing to be examined before or to answer any lawful and relevant question put by the House or any such committee, unless such refusal be excused as provided in section 20 of this Ordinance;
(c) The wilful failure or refusal to obey any lawful order of the House, whereby the House is or is likely to be obstructed or impeded;
(d) The offering to or acceptance by any member or officer of a bribe to influence him in his conduct as such member or officer, or the offering to or acceptance by any member or officer of any fee, compensation, gift or reward for or in respect of the promotion of our opposition to any bill, resolution, matter, rule or thing submitted to or intended to be submitted to the House or any committee;
(e) Assaulting, obstructing, or insulting any member coming to or going from the House or on account of his conduct in the House or endeavouring to compel any member by force, insult, or menace to declare himself in favour of or against any proposition or matter pending or expected to be brought before the House;
(f) Assault upon, interference with or resistance to an officer of the House while in the execution of his duty;
(g) Sending to a member any threatening letter or challenging a member to a fight on account of his conduct in the House;
(h) Creating or joining in any disturbance in the House or in the vicinity of the House, whereby any proceedings of the House are or are likely to be interrupted;
(i) Tampering with, deterring, threatening, beguiling, or in any way unduly influencing any witness in regard to evidence to be given by him before the House or any committee;
(j) Presenting to the House or to any committee any false, untrue, fabricated or falsified document with intent to deceive the House or any committee;
(k) Prevarication or other misconduct as a witness before the House or any committee;
(l) The publication of any false or scandalous libel on any member touching his conduct as a member;
(m) The publication of any Report of a Committee of the House or of any evidence given or any documents presented to such Committee or extracts from such documents, before such Committee has presented its Report to the House;
(n) The publication of any report or statement purporting to be a report of the proceedings of the House in any case –
(i) Where such proceedings have been conducted after exclusion by order of the House of the public; or
(ii) When such publication has been expressly prohibited by order of the House; or
(iii) When such report or statement constitutes or contains a wilful misrepresentation of the proceedings of the House or of the speech of any member thereof or is otherwise not made or published in good faith.”
The only section that may remotely have any connection with the subject at hand is Section 10(c), which reads:
“The wilful failure or refusal to obey any lawful order of the House, whereby the House is or is likely to be obstructed or impeded.”
But we must search our conscience as to whether Sdr. Karpal Singh had committed ‘wilful failure or refusal to obey any lawful order of the House, whereby the House is or is likely to be obstructed or impeded.’ He had done the opposite, for when the Speaker ruled that his supplementary question was out of order, be complied with the ruling and made no attempt whatsoever to challenge the ruling, or to continue in the same line of questioning.
Parliament must not take lightly actions to punish MPs for breach of privilege or for contempt, for Parliament in such circumstances has taken on judicial powers, and must not only be fair, but be seen to be fair.
How could Malaysians be convinced that this action against the MP for Jelutong is fair, when he could not possibly be guilty of the offence of ‘contempt’ as provided by the House of Parliament (Privileges and Powers) Ordinance 1952. I challenge any Barisan Minister of MP to tell me and the country under which of the 14 categories of contempt offences under Section 10 that Sdr. Karpal Singh’s action falls under.
What we are doing is setting a dangerous precedent, whereby just because the government has the overwhelming majority, it could decide to punish any opposition MP it wishes, even though it is irregular, unparliamentary and even unlawful – knowing that there is no remedy as the action of Parliament has no appeal, however perverse, unfair or unlawful.
TYRANNY OF THE MAJORITY
If Parliament persists in such action, its standing, credibility, and respect among the people can only fall to an all-time low.
Recently, my comrades in the DAP had tried to refer one Barisan MP to the Committee of Privileges, but this was sent into the limbo of oblivion, on the ground that it is a private motion and would not be debated and decided unless the government agrees. It would appear that in the Malaysian Parliament, only Opposition MPs could be guilty of breaches of privileges, for the Opposition MP concerned could be sent to the Committee of Privileges by government motions, while the same could not be done for government MPs.
Now, we are having a new situation where Opposition MPs could be cites and punished for contempt against Parliament, when there is not such ‘contempt’ by whatever reading of the House of Parliament (Privileges and Powers) Ordinance 1952. Such is the tyranny of the majority in Parliament.
(Speech by Parliament Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary-General and MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Kit Siang in Dewan Rakyat on the motion to cite Sdr. Karpal Singh for contempt of the House on November 22, 1984)