Parliament reports: More bloggers needed

On 6 Feb, I took half day leave from work to attend Parliament while the Committee of Supply (COS) debate was going on. Earlier that week, I had posted on my Facebook status: “Gerald taking leave to attend the Committee of Supply debate in Parliament this week”.

A certain NMP-cum-blogger (whom I won’t name ;-)  commented, “You’re gonna be kinda bored”.

It turned out to be quite interesting actually, though not quite as interesting as the day that this NMP and Opposition leader Low Thia Khiang were sparring with PAP MPs over the Jobs Credit Scheme.

I sat through about 5 1/2 hours of “debates” — or rather 5 hours of prepared speeches and half an hour of actual Q&A. There are lots of interesting things that happen in Parliament that do not get reported in the media. My report is here. Koh Choong Yong has his own account here, which inspired me to blog about my own informal observations.

During the COS debate, backbencher MPs (i.e., those who are not Ministers) get only 1-5 minutes to ask their questions. The Ministers get 45 minutes to 1 hour to respond! And their responses are always long speeches prepared by their civil servants, delving into the history of the policy and how wonderfully it has worked for Singapore, but usually giving short shrift to the question that the MP asked.

The more interesting parts are the Supplementary Questions that take place at the end of the debate for each Ministry. These are additional questions that the MPs can pose to the Minister in response to the answer he had given. On the day I attended, Grace Fu, the Senior Minister of State for National Development, failed to answer a question by Low Thia Khiang (WP-Hougang) about why Hougang Town Council wasn’t given ample warning before blocks of flats in Hougang were torn down. In her fluster to justify herself after Mr Low asked his Supplementary Question, Ms Fu blurted out that her ministry doesn’t even know 7 months in advance of redevelopment plans.

I’m sure this didn’t get reported in the mainstream media, and I suspect that will be expunged from the Hansard — the official Parliamentary report. But I heard it and I jotted it down immediately.

It’s also interesting to observe the behaviour of MPs. The Chinese-speaking MPs always take a full bow to the Speaker when they enter or exit, while the more “kentang” ones (i.e., those with a more Western outlook) sometimes just nod their heads.

After the mid-session break, I requested for a seat in the gallery behind the Cabinet ministers, as I was previously sitting on the other side. This was when I noticed that one minister walked in with a lot of reading material. He proceeded to read them while the MPs were making their speeches. The words on his paper were so large that those in the gallery could have probably read it with the help of a pair of binoculars. From the paragraphing, it looked like a policy paper, but it didn’t have single words stamped on the header and footer (i.e., “CONFIDENTIAL” or “SECRET”). In any case, even if I read it (which I didn’t), I couldn’t reveal it as that would be a violation of the Official Secrets Act. I think our Ministers should be a bit more discreet about displaying their reading material.

One thing I still don’t understand is how votes take place in Parliament. Typically the Speaker will pose to the Members, “All in favour say ‘aye’…all opposed say ‘nay'”. Then without anyone raising their hand, the Speaker immediately announces, “I think the ‘aye’s have it, the ‘aye’s have it.”

Huh? Maybe MPs indicate their ‘aye’ with a wink to the Speaker. Or maybe there’s some electronic voting system that I can’t see. (I didn’t see any buttons or wires.) In any case, I think it would be good if the votes of the MPs be published, so that citizens can scrutinize them for their voting records, as is done in other democracies like the US.

I hope more bloggers would take a trip down to Parliament during future sittings. There’s much more than meets the eye than what you read in the papers or watch on TV. Perhaps we should have a bloggers’ roster for Parliament sittings, so as to get maximum coverage for the benefit of all Singaporeans. ;-)

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

14 thoughts on “Parliament reports: More bloggers needed”

  1. “Bloggers roster” – yeah, that sounds like a good idea, especially if we are to flex our political muscle in the media scene.

    I’ve always wanted to attend a parliamentary session, but like you said, I loathe the idea of listening to MPs drone on and on for hours. Still, I suppose every citizen should do it at least once in his life.

  2. Great report Gerald !

    I love the part of the invisible voting system and most of all your suggestion for the Votes and Voting history to be made more Transparent !

  3. Hi Gerald,

    From what I understand, the part you described is not real voting per-se, but more of a consensus gather by the Speaker from the MPs on proceeding to the next item in the agenda. Agree that during my visits to the Parliament, the MPs rarely even bother to utter the “aye” when the Speaker asks the question, but I was told there was one incident in the past when one of the opposition MPs (not sure who) registered his displeasure of not getting a satisfactory answer from a Minister that he said a loud “no” in response to the Speaker’s question.

    I think the serious voting will occur in cases where there is a motion in the house where the MPs need to show a certain stand, like the recent voting on whether a by-election should be called in Jurong. I am not sure if the voting records are available to the public though. I would very much like to see something like http://www.theyworkforyou.com/ done in Singapore, but lack the time and resources to implement this.

    As for your suggestion of blogger roster, I think it boils down to whether there are enough interested individuals who bother to attend the Parliament. I wrote the article with the main intention of telling people that they are missing out on certain things if they don’t go to the Parliament in person. It might be a boring thing for most to spend the 5-6 hours in the public gallery, but I am sure you will agree that one learns a lot more about the particular set of policies discussed that day. It was more of a coincidence that I managed to catch some of the more interesting happenings in Parliament, and my account caught the attention of people. However, at the end of the day, if bloggers attend Parliament for the sake of trying to ‘catch’ the main stream media not reporting certain things, it seems to me to be more of an exercise to make the mainstream media look bad.

    My take is, just go with the usual bloggers’ behaviour – bloggers will go to where they are interested in, and write down things that they think are worth recording. Trying to organise bloggers is probably not an easy thing to do, and probably not a good idea either.

  4. Yuhui – Actually I think if you’re au fait with the issues, it won’t be so boring. But yes, we do have probably the most boring parliament in the world. Need more opposition MPs.

    fireeaver – You can just go down to Parliament house. Exchange your IC for a pass, and deposit your bag and camera phone. Admission is free and you can go in and out anytime. Only thing is you have to know when Parliament is sitting. That is usually announced a few days before the sitting in the press, or you can check the Order Paper at http://www.parliament.gov.sg. Sittings usually start at 1pm.

    Choong Yong – One of the MPs told me that the voting records can be found in the Parliamentary reports, although I haven’t checked it myself. In any case, if no one highlights it, it will probably be overlooked.

    I agree with you that the objective of attending Parliament should not be to ‘catch’ the MSM. But I think more ordinary Singaporeans should go down to see our limited democracy in action.

  5. Thanks, Gerald, for giving us an interesting snapshot of Parliament. A question. I presume they will refer to specific policy papers, proposals, information sheets etc. during the proceedings, i.e. when debating a specific bill or asking for supplementary statistics. Just curious, but are these materials available to the general public?

  6. Thanks, Gerald. I have never really thought about how our Parliament functions. I see in the US Congress, the lawmakers are discussing among themselves and with the White House, making deals/compromises over the contents of the stimulus package. I wonder if there is a process of amending bills to reflect our MPs’ concerns. Just curious.

  7. Hi Fargoal – basically our Parliament is supposed to function the same as in any other democracy. The principle difference is a lack of opposition members. We also don’t have a CSPAN equivalent channel which broadcasts Parliament proceedings, although CNA does do a decent job by posting the key clips (including speeches by opposition members) on their website.

    For every Bill (a proposed law), there are 3 readings by the Minister in Parliament. There is supposed to be a debate after the 2nd and 3rd reading. But since the ruling party has an overwhelming majority in Parliament, and the Whip is rarely lifted on their MPs, any Government Bills are sure to pass. Any debate is quite inconsequential. But I guess if the MPs raise valid objections, the Govt might amend the Bills, although I can’t point to any instance where that has happened.

  8. What are the students of Political Science studies doing? If you are PS student, I suggest you put your textbooks aside for an afternoon to attend Parliament. Hope Spore can churn out true Politicians.

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