On the evening of 11 January 2018, CAPE hosted its very first Parliament 101 session at The Substation. The event was graced by the presence of Member of Parliament (MP) for Nee Soon East, Mr Louis Ng and his team of Legislative Assistants. Attracting a crowd of over 80 comprising students, civil servants, activists and members of the public, the theatre space was quickly occupied as soon as the doors opened.
The session began with an introductory crash course on all things parliamentary, expedited by Mr Ng’s legislative assistants, before finally concluding with a Q&A session with Mr Ng himself. All of Mr Ng’s legislative assistants, who have full-time careers elsewhere, work closely with Mr Ng before and after every parliamentary sitting – preparing for the proceedings, conducting research and offering suggestions for issues to be raised.
CAPE is grateful for their kind support in making the session a meaningful and productive one, as well as to Mr Ng for sharing his thoughts, despite being ill on the night.
The audience was brought through a quick primer on Singapore’s government structure modelled after the Westminster system, with the co-existence of the three different branches – executive, legislative and judiciary. The Parliament thus forms the legislative branch of the government and consists of the Speaker, the Prime Minister, Leader of the House, Party Whips, Cabinet Ministers, Elected MPs, Nominated MPs (NMPs), and Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs).
When Parliament sits once a month (except for June and December), the agenda of issues up for debate can be found in the Order Paper which is available online for the public to view. The printed Order Paper is also available for members of the public who wish to sit in for the parliamentary sessions. The Standing Orders (a rule-book for the Parliament) can also be found online.
The Parliament has three major roles:
1) To make laws;
2) To scrutinise Executive actions; and
3) To exercise financial control.
How exactly does the Parliament go about making new laws or reform existing policies? How and to what extent is scrutiny expressed in the House? What sustains a parliamentary debate?
To a lay person, the answers to these questions lie hidden in obscurity, veiled by the elaborate procedural rules and decorum of parliamentary discussions. As a result, members of the public shy away from pertinent debates held when Parliament sits, consuming information after the fact from the press or social media.
A Parliamentary ‘Toolbox’
Interactions between members of the House are governed by mechanisms which drive debate and discussion, culminating in a possible legislative review or policy reform. Mr Ng’s legislative assistants conceived of these mechanisms at the MPs’ disposal as parts of a parliamentary ‘toolbox’.
Similar to using an actual mechanical toolbox, MPs are empowered to utilise a combination of tools to ease their grievances or queries into the sphere of parliamentary discourse. From parliamentary questions to public petitions, bill speeches, motions and budget cuts, a wide array of options is availed to every MP regardless of political affiliation – PAP and opposition, elected and nominated, constituency-based and non-constituency-based Members.
As the tools’ efficacy directly depend on how they are strategically used, we see a divergence in tactics for parliamentary questions: written questions tend to be largely quantitative in nature (statistics, data, etc.) while oral questions seek substantive, qualitative answers from the ministries.
Limitations of specific apparatuses are made up for in others. For instance, as parliamentary questions require strict phrasing and adherence to form, emotionally charged issues will lack the human touch necessarily inseparable from them. MPs can choose, then, to move an adjournment motion, where a 40-minute slot allows them to imbue anecdotal accounts from their constituents in impassioned speeches – backed by authorised statistics – in order to inspire policy reform.
In late 2017, Mr Ng filed an adjournment motion to convince the House to extend paid parental leave for those with premature babies and multiple births. This move was not merely a re-expression of grievances of a minority of child-bearing parents, for it struck a chord with Mr Ng himself – after his experience of having premature twins. The nuance of sensitive issues such as the above cannot be relegated to discourse propagated by parliamentary Q&A and instead warrants the House’s undivided attention and deliberation.
Public petitions, while rare, can be used to target specific ministries and address legislative concerns potentially shared by a number of signatories. While motions moved in Parliament often deal with policy matters, public petitions seek to trigger legislative amendments and hence are directed to, for example, the Ministry of Law or National Development.
Mr Ng’s team of legislative assistants conceded that the success rate of public petitions is low. In fact, the term ‘success’ would technically be called into question as there is no explicit acceptance or rejection of a public petition. Upon the submission of a petition to parliamentary clerk, the Public Petitions Committee summarises its content to be presented to the Parliament. The response from the relevant ministries and other parties such as civil society groups are then published in a report by the Committee. Contrary to popular belief, public petitions are neither accepted nor rejected.
In late 2017, Mr Ng submitted a public petition for inclusive public housing for single parent families. A reply from the Ministry of National Development (MND) in the Committee’s report acknowledges the petition and in response, MND reaffirmed their commitment “to ensure that no child is without adequate housing, regardless of whether his or her parents are single or married”.
While no legislative amendments were effected, the reply opens up an avenue for the obligations and commitments of the ministries to be accounted for, and even followed up on through future parliamentary questions. Mr Ng noted the power of whatever is conveyed in Parliament and as such, replies by the ministries should not be entirely dismissed.
The reality is that there exist different concatenations of parliamentary tools suitable for issues of varying degrees of national importance to be brought to the House’s attention. The mandate to use these tools rests on the shoulders of its members. While Singaporeans may see both a physical and occupational divide between them and the Parliament, the affairs in the halls are not – and should not be – seen as independent from active citizenry.
An Accessible Parliament?
A cursory look through the Standing Orders reveals pages upon pages of rules which are enforced and thus strictly govern Parliamentary discourse. Singaporeans unfamiliar with legislative language and parliamentary jargon may naturally lose interest in the content which ride on the vehicle of debate in Parliament.
It is also worth noting that Parliament does not exactly sit at very convenient timings. Working adults or students do not have the luxury of time and transport to spectate parliamentary proceedings in the heart of town on a weekday afternoon. A lack of interest from the ground coupled with the perceived inaccessibility of parliamentary debate make for a gradually sleepy citizenry.
Answering a question fielded by an audience member concerning the lack of live-streaming services of parliamentary sessions, Mr Ng mentioned how low physical attendance of the public in the House might be a reason. While Mr Ng himself personally believes that proceedings in Parliament – as they develop in real time – should be made available in the public domain, the answer in the future still remains a likely no.
In a Committee of Supply discussion which took place in early 2017, MP Pritam Singh asked the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) if live-streaming of Parliament will ever be adopted. The ministry cited low viewership of live broadcasts as a reason for the lack of such a service. The ministry also highlighted an existing platform on Channel NewsAsia’s Parliament microsite where parliamentary clips are organised and conveniently made available after the sitting for an archival period of six months.
Mr Ng remedies the opacity of parliamentary proceedings by ritually posting parliamentary questions which have been filed and issues which have been raised in Parliament on his Facebook page. He also regularly publicises proposed policy reforms or ongoing public consultation sessions for the public to respond. Where transcripts are available, they are made accessible via his posts.
Mr Ng and his team also manage a blog where changes to bills, responses to parliamentary questions and debates are presented to be easily understood by the laymen. Official reports of parliamentary proceedings are indeed available on Hansard, but it may be difficult for members of the public to navigate. Hence, the blog serves to churn out digestible summaries of proceedings minus the formalities.
Common to these two platforms is the possibility for Singaporeans to relay their concerns regarding bills or offer suggestions on parliamentary questions for future sittings. But is this role an understated one?
Where Singaporeans Step In
Mr Ng stressed that if all MPs diligently emulate (if they have not already done so) the consistent reporting of parliamentary affairs to members of the public, constituents, volunteers and social media followers, the two-way mode of communication will be sustained for time to come. As with any other form of communication, the inputs of both sides are equally important.
Singaporeans should then realise that their voices matter. Meet-the-People sessions, walkabouts and block visits are part and parcel of an MP’s job description. Even if physical interactions are not feasible for all Singaporeans, MPs should be engaged on online platforms like dedicated Facebook pages.
Besides voicing concerns directly with an MP, established agencies like REACH exist to gather ground sentiments and encourage public engagement on Singapore’s public policies. Institutionalised feedback channels empower ordinary Singaporeans to collaborate with the government towards the goal of policymaking. A bustling active citizenry is also fundamentally supported by civil society groups and NGOs which represent the needs of subgroups and interests of Singaporeans.
The legislative branch often seeks the views of the public through these channels. Most notably, upon the introduction of bills in Parliament, MPs make reference to the work and opinions of these groups in their bill speeches before new laws come into operation.
However, to begin advocating for greater civil participation at the grassroots level, basic political literacy of core parliamentary functions and mechanisms should be grasped. If Singaporeans are convinced that the halls of Parliament are where opinions not from the state machinery go to die, then there is little to no impetus to be involved in civil society groups.
Confidence in the legislative branch is essential in maintaining the ecosystem comprising the Government, civil society groups and activists which dictates legislative amendments or policy reforms. Once civil participation thrives, the conventional top-down approach of Singapore’s policymaking culture can transform appropriately. A debate generated, albeit mellowed by stately decorum, is better than no debate.
Parliament 101 sought to provide Singaporeans a basic understanding of how Parliament works. For audience members who had prior experience in engaging MPs or attending a parliamentary sitting, Mr Ng and his team elucidated the specific tools which drive proceedings as well as their unfortunate limitations. Plenty of misconceptions were also debunked; only with greater clarity of the workings of the legislative branch can Singaporeans be inspired to ensure the Parliament operates as intended.
It is easy to be lulled into the belief – either from sensationalist media or otherwise – that the Parliament is home to partisan bickering and where a game of dodge-the-question takes place. These misconceptions are not entirely malicious, stemming from an incomplete understanding of how proceedings are held. For instance, speculation alleging favouritism in the sequencing of oral questions to be debated on the floor can be attributed to the Leader of the House opting to thematically group questions or arranging them based on degree of national importance and anticipated debate length.
Orders governing the time allowed for each MP to speak or the number of questions which can be filed are just among some of the rules established. Yet, these limitations have been misconstrued as an attempt by the Government to stifle productive debate or to delay clarificatory statements without which the integrity of our institutions will be threatened. Such misinformation is antithetical to the transparency which the Parliament should ideally arrive at.
Most importantly, as long as Singaporeans gain wisdom of basic parliamentary functions, foster attentiveness to parliamentary proceedings, and there remains unfettered access to the official records of the debates which echo in the halls of 1 Parliament Place, the fine line between abuse and compliance in respect of legislative affairs can be rightfully discerned.
This piece was written by Ahmad Musthofa Murdifi, a first-year student at Yale-NUS College reading the double degree programme in law and liberal arts jointly offered by NUS Law.