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. ;-)