Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong in her Parliament speech on Monday (4 May) suggested the Government to have the parliamentary proceedings livestreamed so as to maintain the continuity of public access while supporting the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill.
This amendment Bill seeks to provide a legal framework for Parliament to meet under continuity arrangements – spread out between two or more places if it becomes impossible, unsafe or inexpedient for Parliament to meet at one place.
Under the “continuity arrangements”, the presence of Members of Parliament (MPs) at any of the appointed places will count for attendance, quorum and voting purposes while the powers, immunities and privileges of Parliament will also be extended to apply to these arrangements.
Citing the Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin who said “whatever happens in Parliament affects Singaporeans and Singapore” in 2018, Ms Ong said it is fundamental for the access of public to the Parliament as the citizens could “bridge knowledge gaps and combat misinformation for a more informed and constructive public discourse on Parliament matters”, and consequently “eventuate a democracy of deeds”.
“Yet, as much as we strive to maintain continuity of Parliament, we must also maintain continuity of access for the public. Otherwise, this Bill and its intent in continuity planning is incomplete and creates an unintended dismissal of Singaporeans as part of our parliamentary process,” she said.
She also noted that the Visitors’ Gallery and the Press Gallery which enable the public to watch live streamed parliamentary proceedings have been closed to the public and media in light of the elevated safe distancing measures against COVID-19.
To ensure the continuity of the public access to live proceedings, Ms Ong hence propose for the Government to expand the notion of the public gallery online through live-streaming.
She explained, “This may have been seen as a ‘nice to have’ in the past but I would argue that in these COVID-19 times, this is now an imperative.”
She said that the daily updates of COVID-19 by the multi-ministry taskforce which is now can be watched live, was a indication of transparency and accountability leadership that needed critically to inspire the Singaporeans’ confidence in dealing with the pandemic.
“Could trust and resilience have been built without risking vulnerability, without risking bad but honest news? I doubt so.
“In the same vein, instead of relying only on media analysis which is constrained by limited air time and print space, Singaporeans should be given live access to parliamentary debates. This would allow them to be fully invested in the policies deliberated and enacted to tackle this public health and economic crisis,” she added.
Stressing the importance of parliamentary education for students, Ms Ong said, “Our young must be encouraged to witness history being made and be invested in this ‘war’ that we are fighting together.”
With the temporarily closure of ParlConnect, which is a Parliament Visitor Centre allowing the visitor to observe the parliamentary proceedings, she said that the live-streaming of parliamentary proceedings could ensure the continuity of the critical part of students’ national education and citizenship-building, as well as provide the opportunity for this to take place at their homes.
Not forgetting the overseas Singaporeans, she also explained that Singaporeans who stay abroad also eager to know how the Government tackles with the crisis during this trying time.
By having parliamentary live-streams, it will allow Singaporeans abroad to stay connected and is valuable as a long term measure to help these Singaporeans maintain their stake and commitment to Singapore, she says.
Aside from this, Ms Ong also highlighted that live-streams of parliamentary proceedings are “in fact an investment in the future and the citizenry” that the Government must make regardless of viewership.
She hence asked whether the Government will carry out the live streaming, as a part of the continuity planning for public access so as to protect the integrity of parliamentary process, especially with the public gallery closed to the citizens.
“We must also protect the rights of the electorate by continuing to give them direct and live access through live streaming as a continuity arrangement. We can keep distance for safety by closing the public gallery but we must come even closer between the Legislature and our people to forge a stronger compact for a post-COVID world,” she said.
She also questioned about the period of six months for the continuity arrangements, whether it means the six months immediately following the six months after the appointed date or any period of six months at any time in the future.
If that’s not all, she also suggested the Government to enable the Parliament to meet remotely under this amendment Bill so that the MPs would not need to “keep tabling urgent amendments”.
Live streaming should be done even if demand is low
On the same point, Workers Party (WP) Non-constituency Member of Parliament Leon Perera noted that the government has said in 2017 that the reason there is no full like streaming of Parliament sittings was that there is no great demand for it except for certain proceedings like the Budget speech.
Mr Perera suggested, however, that if Parliamentary continuity arrangements are made, live streaming could be experimented with under those arrangements to test the public demand hypothesis.
He explained, “If Parliament adopts continuity arrangements and sits in more than one location, arrangements would need to be made to live-stream the proceedings between two or more locations.”
The investment to do that would need to be made. One can assume that taking the additional step of then making that live stream between the locations available online would be relatively inexpensive.”
He added, “However if cost is an impediment, these costs could and should be discussed.”
Mr Perara stressed that demand is not static. He posited that if there is consistent live streaming of all proceedings, there is a possibility over time that more people would would tune it.
He said, “It would probably increase the public knowledge of Parliamentary proceedings, of how debates turn and how issues are discussed and decided based on arguments made. This in turn is likely to increase the public appetite for participating in Parliamentary processes by providing feedback to MPs, by participating in public debate on issues that are close to their hearts and so on.”
He went on to say that even if demand is low, he would still argue that the public has a right to see live-stream of Parliament at any given point, provided the cost of not prohibitive, which he feels it is unlikely to be.
The public already has access to full parliamentary proceedings online
Responding to questions from Ms Ong and Mr Perera, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Leader of the House Grace Fu said that the bill amendment bill in question does not deal with broadcasting.
She said, “The public will continue to have access to the proceedings as they currently do when parliament sits in this chamber,” adding that Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Mr Chee Hong Tat has explained the reason why we do not have a live feed.
This was the same point Mr Perera had addressed in his question. In 2017, Mr Chee had stated that the demand for live feed of parliamentary proceedings was low, adding that the number of people who tuned in to a major parliamentary event such as a Budget speech was only 10 percent of the audience who tuned into the news on free-to-air television on the same evening.
Ms Fu then went on to explain that members of the public already have access to full parliament proceedings online in a timely, comprehensive and easily accessible manner via two avenues.
She elaborated, “They can view the complete set of footage of parliament speeches as well as questions and answers from each sitting on the Channel NewsAsia parliament microsite. Parliamentary highlights are loaded onto this microsite within 3 hours of broadcast. In addition, the public has access to the full written record of parliamentary proceedings via the online Hansard.”
Ms Fu added, “The continuity arrangements will be activated when it is deemed that it may be unsafe for parliament to sit in one place and accordingly, to ensure the safety of the public, public viewing from the gallery should only proceed when it’s deemed safe to do so.”
- Read here on TOC’s position on why Singapore does not have live parliament streaming.
- List of countries in the world that has livestreaming for their parliament.