On Wednesday, we looked at what the Minister of State for Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI), Chee Hong Tat, got it wrong on his response on the videos available for the Parliamentary sittings in Singapore.
Thankfully, Gov.sg, the official FB page of the Singapore government corrected one of the points highlighted in the article that there were no videos on the Question and Answer segment of the sitting on Channel News Asia (CNA)'s microsite.
Several IB websites have used that to attack former Members of Parliament from Workers' Party but frankly, I didn't realise that the full recordings are now available as I have been asking since 2014 about the videos from CNA, Parliament and MCI, with no response on that matter.
Gov.sg, however, did not find any issues with the other points highlighted in the article. So we can assume with high confidence that the following points are factual without contention from the government.
- Hansard does not record everything that happens in Parliament.
- Video released on CNA and Gov.sg does not cover passing of bills and other proceedings in Parliament.
- The video is cut at the last reply of the Ministers without showing the Speaker disallowing follow up questions if any.
- Speeches by Members of Parliament are handed up to the ministries to prepare their response for the Ministers.
- After six months or archiving, videos are kept by CNA and public has to pay to access the videos.
- Mediacorp needs to seek the permission of the MP before the videos can be released.
- Public relies on Mainstream Media for updates on live happenings in Parliament.
Using the above-established points, I will seek to explain why live broadcasting is disallowed.
Disclaimer: Reasons are not ranked by importance.
1. Give state-backed media a monopoly
If anyone is interested in knowing what is happening in the Parliament in real-time, one will have to check the tweets or live-update on Channel News Asia, Today Online and Straits Times. Basically publications under Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp.
Both publications have a direct video feed to their newsroom, so the reporters can just quickly jot down the comment by the Minister or MP and post it up as a tweet or a post. While independent platforms like TOC have to sit in the public gallery, and take probably ten minutes or more to get out of the gallery, retrieve the electronic device to update the news and then another ten minutes to get back into the gallery.
Nevermind Mr Chee's point about poor viewership of live broadcast, this is ultimately a state-enforced-monopoly for the state-backed media. The lack of viewership may also be a result of the absence of critical analysis on what is presented in Parliament.
The Parliament and MCI have also not given an answer as to why Mediacorp, a supposedly private entity is holding onto the videos and charging for the use.
2. To hide the poor attendance of the MPs
Do you know, that most of the time when MPs are making their speeches, the parliament is less than full filled? Only when there are special occasions such as moving a motion to congratulate Joseph Schooling for his gold medal, Ministers making their speeches and where important bills to be passed in Parliament, most of the MPs are moving in and out of the Parliament.
A wide-angle shot of the parliament will show the poor attendance of the MPs to the public.
Some have said that the Hansard records the attendance of the MPs, but did you know that just by being there at the Parliament marks you as being present for the day? Late Lee Kuan Yew used to turn up at Parliament for about 5 mins or so, being assisted into the chamber and was marked as present in the Hansard as a result of that 5 mins. Despite this, Mr Lee was still the MP with the least amount of attendance in Parliament. Pretty sure, the public would be aware of this if there was live streaming.
3. To hide the fact that speeches are pre-crafted and Ministers are sometimes caught without answers
What the public is not aware of is that speeches of the MPs are sent to the parliament and ministries days before they are being read so that the ministries can craft the response to the questions or speeches for the minister.
One might expect Singapore's parliament to be as what see below in live stream of the UK Parliament sitting. Where questions are being thrown to Ministers and they would give direct answers on top of their mind.
From pre-recorded video alone, gives the impression that the Ministers have the answers to the questions asked, but in actual fact, the answers are prepared by the civil servants.
This is also why, the answers from the Ministers that come during the supplementary questions by the non-PAP MPs often sounds silly or absurd as they are not prepared by the civil servants, but off the top of the Minister's head.
Just one example of this is where MP for Aljunied GRC, Ms Sylvia Lim asked then-Minister for National Development, Khaw Boon Wan to clarify on his personal view of whether a one-month termination clause for the Town Council Managing System (TCMS), in the case of the AIM saga, is reasonable and does not jeopardise continuity of services to residents.
Mr Khaw replied Ms Lim, "I had replied very indirectly in the way I handled the NUH project. If you want, there are standard software programmes available in the market. So, indeed, if it is one month, there are available software programmes which you can buy into. But in this case, the key point is not that. The key point is AIM was most willing to extend if only you asked. You did not."
Ms Lim then sought for further clarification on Mr Khaw's reply by saying, "He cited his experience in the hospital to say that you can always buy software off the market. But does he not agree that Town Council management software is actually customised. I do not know what other software he is suggesting can be bought off the market."
In response, he said, "I did not want to say this but the Member is really trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. This big name – “TCMS” – when you dive into it, what is it? These are common financial packages. Every organisation has to charge fees, has to collect revenue and there will be bad debts to deal with, account receivable, account payable and then there are purchase orders they have to settle. And, of course, out of this, you need to settle your chart of accounts so that you can put up your monthly statements for balance sheets, for your P&L, for auditing purposes. And, of course, some add in other things like human resource packages because you need to recruit staff, HR management, how many staff do you have, what grade, salaries so that you can pay payroll. All organisations have that kind of requirements and there are standard software programmes available."
If TCMS is indeed that easy to be built from scratch, why is the town councils under PAP spending $17.6 million on a new managing software?
4. Not to show the poor debating skills of the MPs or Ministers
Did you know that in the past, Parliament sessions were broadcasted and there were live debates of politicians on TV? But it stopped decades ago for some unknown reasons.
Some say the live broadcast make the opposition look good while making the Ministers and PAP MPs look silly with their arguments on TV. Perhaps when the live broadcast first started off, the PAP thought it would make J.B Jeyaratnam and Chiam See Tong look bad.
As mentioned above, speeches are submitted way before the actual parliament sitting and Ministers typically go through the motion of speaking off from the speech prepared by their staff.
5. To edit the flow of the debate
Oh, but there are recordings of the parliamentary debates. How can the Parliament prevent the public from knowing that the actual performance of Ministers and MPs?
Well, by separating the speeches into individual speeches instead of a continuous flow of debate on a subject matter, of course.
On this, I would like to use the response by Minister of Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam on the Administration of Justice (Amendment) Bill as an example of how this affects the public's perception of the Ministers or MPs.
In his speech, Mr Shanmugam said, "And I am putting it out in writing. If anyone has any objection to me putting out in writing what is the current law, then tell me. I have not heard a single argument so far, I have not heard a single argument as to why we should not crystallise the law."
It does sound impressive and damning based on the Law Minister's comment on the opposition MPs that they are objecting for the sake of objecting without any sound arguments.
But if one were to refer to the speeches made by the Workers' Party MPs along with the nominated Members of Parliament (here & here), one would find their arguments against the bill, logical and reasonable.
Again, using Ms Sylvia Lim as an example, she said,
"But the existing law is clear that the Government is subject to the contempt of court laws. One of the only reported cases of sub judice contempt was in 1967. That case was brought by a student activist Mr Lau Swee Soong against the then Minister of the Interior and Defence Dr Goh Keng Swee.
Dr Goh had issued a press release after a student demonstration on 4 November 1966 and Mr Lau unsuccessfully brought an application for contempt of court against Dr Goh. Even though Mr Lau's application was dismissed by the court, Justice Choor Singh was careful to state in his judgment that: "It does not follow that a statement made or issued by a Government Minister can never constitute contempt of court or that the Government Minister should never be punished for contempt of court. A Minister of the Government is not above the law and if a statement made by him is calculated to prejudice the fair trial of an accused person and if the risk of interference with the proper administration of justice is a real and grave one, such a contempt will be met with the necessary punishment in order to restrain such conduct."
Madam, the present Bill replaces the oversight of the courts with a subjective test of what the Government believes is necessary in the public interest. This is a change in the law which will give the Government practical immunity."
Bearing in mind that this is just one of many arguments put against the bill, one would question the justification of Mr Shanmugam's statements within his speech if the recording had been presented in an uninterrupted manner.
Above is a screenshot of Australia government's parliament video that is available in its archive website. It allows the public to download the videos for legitimate use and is a full-length version of the parliament sitting. Why can't Singapore offer something like this?
6. To not show that Opposition MPs are often prevented from replying to accusations/statements made by Ministers
NCMP Leon Perera wrote on his Facebook post in October last year, "Today in Parliament, I raised my hand three times to speak on the online gambling exemptions for Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club, but was unsuccessful in attracting the Speaker's attention..."
This is not an unusual thing to happen in the Parliament. In fact, it happens a lot of the time. I dare the Parliament to show the recorded footage of the sessions in wide screen. Many occasions when the Ministers made blantant accusations against the opposition or questionable comments, the Speaker somehow "fails to notice" the hands that are being raised.
On 15 August 2016, MP for Aljunied GRC, Mr Low Thia Khiang rose and asked about the overpayment of $2.63 million in allowances to Volunteer Special Constabulary officer. He had wanted to pose a supplementary question from Minister Shanmugam's answer but somehow, the Speaker "missed" him.
I was there at the gallery when this happened so I saw that Mr Low was clearly looking at the Speaker and trying to raise his hands as high as he could.
When he stood up and ask to give a follow up question, the Speaker said, "Mr Low, we have already passed that question."
In response, Mr Low said, "Mdm Speaker, I regret that. I should have been allowed to ask more supplementary questions."
Mdm Speaker retorted, "You should have put your hand up very quickly, Mr Low. Unfortunately, I have already called the next question. Ms Foo, make it very short and snappy."
When Mr K Shanmugam stood and said, "Mdm Speaker, if there is any process for allowing Mr Low to ask a question, I am happy to take the question. But I leave that entirely to you."
Mdm Halimah was visibly shocked from the Minister reply, after composing herself, she said, "Minister, we have already passed the Parliamentary Question (PQ) and we have already moved on to the next PQ. So, Ms Foo, please make it fast."
This is yet one of many examples of how opposition MPs are not allowed to respond to statements made by the Ministers and not documented on video.
7. To not show the poor behaviour of PAP MPs in Parliament
As what former Member of Parliament for Punggol East SMC, Lee Li Lian profess in her Facebook, PAP MPs more than often laugh at speeches by the Opposition MPs.
One cannot see such behaviours from a close up view of a speaker on video, but clear as day when one sits in the public gallery.
You can see the number of MPs who are busy on their mobile phones or tablets while the speeches go on. Sometimes, you can also catch some MPs sleeping, though understandable because it is just so boring since everything is pre-scripted.
8. To continue the myth that the bills are well-debated and due process in passing of law
What can one derive from the list of bills that are being introduced to the point that they are passed as law? That important bills such as the amendment of the constitution for Elected Presidency, can be introduced and passed as law within a month.
As PAP holds the majority of the seats in Parliament, more than two-third of the total seats, this means that the ruling party can propose and pass any law, however, ridiculous as they want.
What happens in Parliament is that MPs, both PAP and Opposition MPs will voice their recommendations or objections to a bill, the Minister in charge of that particular bill will come out and address the concerns or just brush them as something of non-importance, and then call to have the bill to be passed on the day itself without amendment.
The time between the second reading of the bill and the third reading, is just a period of less than ten minutes.
If you were to witness the whole process, it is nothing more than a formality by the government to pass laws in this country based on what the administration or civil servants want.
9. MPs asking questions that should not be asked in the first place and Ministers not answering questions
Most of the time spent in Parliament's question and answer session can arguably said to be wasted away because MPs have to ask fundamental questions such as figures from key ministries when such figures ought to be available to the public from the beginning.
Why is there a need for a MP to raise a question of how many times did President Nathan allow the withdrawal of the National Reserve during his term, when such information ought to be public? If you are curious, it was 55 times.
Or why is there a need for a MP to ask the Ministry of Health on how much did policy holders pay for eldershields and how much was the premium pay out. For those who are curious, policyholders paid $2.6 billion while the pay out was only $100 million.
In some cases, MPs ask but Ministers fail to give the answers. Such as, how many Singaporeans visit casinos each year and what is the return from GIC in Singapore dollars.
In 2014, Mr Seah Kian Peng asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs how many Singaporeans who buy the day pass for entry to the two casinos end up buying a second consecutive day pass to extend their stay in the casinos; and whether a new restriction can be introduced to disallow such extensions.
In response, Mr Teo Chee Hean said, "The casino entry levy regime is part of our overall social safeguards regime to discourage Singapore residents from casual and impulse gambling in the casinos. In 2013, about 8% of the day entry levies were purchased by casino patrons to extend their stay in the casinos. Of the casino patrons who made such purchases, more than half did so on two occasions or less during the year.
The day entry levy is valid for multiple visits within a 24-hour period. Hence, it does not mean that all those who purchased a consecutive day entry levy stayed continuously in the casino for more than 24 hours. We do not have readily available data on the number who stayed beyond 24 hours in a continuous stretch.
The Casino Regulatory Authority (CRA) works closely with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) and the casino operators to identify casino patrons who show signs of problem gambling. For example, responsible gambling ambassadors will look out for patrons who show signs of distress and will refer them for counselling and other help services.
In addition, there are targeted measures such as Casino Exclusions and Visit Limits to protect at-risk groups from problem gambling. The NCPG has powers under the Casino Control Act to impose Third-Party Visit limits or an Exclusion Order on frequent casino patrons who are identified to be financially vulnerable or in financial distress.
There are currently no plans to place restrictions on the purchase of consecutive day entry levies. CRA and MSF will continue to monitor the situation closely and ensure our social safeguards remain robust."
Did the Deputy Minister answer the question of the MP? I will leave you to decide on your own.
Citing questionable practices of other countries but ignoring the good ones
In reference to the recent appointment of former PAP politician, Hri Kumar as the deputy Attorney General, Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Law, Indranee Rajah cited examples of how politicians in other countries such as the UK, Australia and the US have AGs who are current politicians.
But by referring to the above examples of how the named countries ensure that their parliament is carried out in utmost transparency, Singapore seems to have another preference of its own. How convenient indeed.
For two years or close to three, I have been asking the Parliament why there is no live feed and it simply refuses to give a straight answer, probably it cannot, but isn't the Parliament supposed to be an independent branch of the government? Why is it operating in a manner that favours a particular political party?
Questions that only the Parliament can answer and the citizens should ask to be answered.