11 November 2012

Parliament: Why Quorum Is Important But Not Enough

On 16 October 2012, Parliament met at 1:30 p.m. and the sitting continued until 3:44 p.m. when it was suspended by the Speaker.  When the sitting resumed as scheduled at 4:05 p.m., a (Nominated) Member asked the Speaker to confirm, as a point of order, that there was a quorum in the Chamber even though he (the Member) believed that a quorum would be achieved in due course.

A count was duly made at 4:07 p.m., and it showed that there were only 11 MPs present.

The Constitution prescribes the quorum of the House to be one-quarter of the total number of Members, excluding the Speaker (or the MP presiding in his absence).  The current Parliament has 99 Members, including Non-Constituency Members and Nominated Members.

86 Members, excluding the Speaker, were present when the House met at 1:30 p.m.

Members were "summoned into the Chamber as if for a division" (according to Hansard).

According to Standing Orders of the Parliament of Singapore (2010), if objection is taken in regard to a quorum as permitted by law, Members shall be summoned as if for a division.  Had it not been for the Member who "challenged the quorum" (in the words of the Speaker), the sitting would have continued without a quorum until a sufficient number of Members decided to return to the Chamber.

Some people find it odd that the quorum was or had to be challenged.  Wasn't it obvious that there were only 11 Members present in the Chamber and there was no quorum?  Could it be that the lack of a quorum did not matter unless a Member challenges the quorum or a division (i.e., vote) is imminent?

Whatever the reason, many Members were not in the Chamber at the appointed time (plus 2 minutes) and there was no quorum.

Once the quorum is challenged, the Constitution prescribes that Parliament shall be adjourned if the quorum is not achieved after such interval prescribed in Standing Orders of the Parliament of Singapore, and this interval is two minutes.

At 4:09 p.m., the Speaker announced that there was a quorum.  Hansard did not record the number of Members who responded to the summon.

It is not clear why Members needed to be summoned to the Chamber.  Could it be that a Parliamentary sitting is an occasion for Members to get together, and it becomes a place for socialisation?  Hopefully not when a Parliament session is in progress.

How many Members constitute a quorum?
A quorum, especially when it comes to a vote, should be a meaningful representation of the Members in Parliament.

Many people assume, incorrectly, that the quorum is one-half of the number of Members.

What is the practice in other countries?

The quorum in the British House of Commons in the event of a division (i.e. voting) is 40 MPs, out of a total of 650 MPs.  It appears that a quorum is not required during debates, although it is not clear whether such interpretation is consistent with the Standing Orders or simply a gentlemen's agreement.  Ample notice is usually given of divisions.  The responsibility for maintaining party attendance rests with the respective party whips who will inform MPs of expected important divisions.

The quorum in Canada's House of Commons is 20 MPs for a meeting of the House (out of a total of 308), which number has remained unchanged since 1867.

The quorum in Malaysia's Dewan Rakyat is 26, which was one-half of the number of MPs in 1957 when the country gained independence, but which has not be revised even as the number of MPs has increased over the years to 219.

The quorum in Australia's Lower House is one-fifth of the total number of MPs.  It was reduced from one-third of the total number of MPs in 1989.

The quorum in the US House of Representatives is a majority of the representatives.  A quorum often is not present on the House floor, but any Member may insist that a quorum must participate in any vote that takes place in the House.

The size of a quorum, whether for debate or division, usually does not affect the outcome of any debate or the passage of any Bill, provided the Government whip is not lifted.

Inasmuch as the timing of a division is within the Speaker's control, and the Speaker is typically a Member from the Government party, a Government Bill can be defeated only if there is widespread complacency or indifference among its Members as to being present in the Chamber.

Nevertheless, the people want, and expect, every Member whom they elected to represent them in Parliament, to participate in debates even though the outcomes of divisions are foregone conclusions.  Every Member has been elected to be a Member of Parliament first and foremost.  There is little reason  for any Member to be absent from Parliamentary proceedings, which have been held on only nine days in the first seven months of this work year, unless he or she is excused on medical grounds or is attending to urgent matters of the State.


1. Parliamentary Debates Singapore Official Report 16 Oct 2012.

2. The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore.

3. Standing Orders of the Parliament of Singapore, 2010 edition.

4. British House of Commons Standing Orders of the House of Commons, 18 Sep 2012.

5. Parliament of Canada House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd ed. 2009.

6. Australian House of Representatives Standing and Sessional Orders, 20 Oct 2010.

7. Office of the Clerk, US House of Representatives Legislative FAQs (viewed on 11 Nov 2012).

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