Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai’s suggestions to provide more resources and support to opposition Members of Parliament (MPs), NCMPs and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) were rejected by the Leader of the House, Indranee Rajah.

Ms Indranee argued that the current rules “afford more than enough opportunity for MPs” to hold the Government to account and debate matters.

In his adjournment motion for a fairer parliament on Monday (8 May), Mr Leong Mun Wai proposed a wide range of suggestions to give MPs from both sides of the aisle more resources and support.

This includes MPs being handed ministers’ speeches in advance, setting up a research department within the Parliament Secretariat, more flexibility in timings when it comes to seeking clarifications during debates, increasing the allowance to hire legislative assistants and secretarial assistants, and strengthen the role of the Opposition.

Since the last General Election, the Government appointed Mr Pritam Singh as the Leader of the Opposition and provisioned some resources to assist him in discharging his duties.

“While the PSP supports these moves, we think that these steps are insufficient to recognise the Opposition’s role in our political system, ” Mr Leong said.

“The Government can definitely do more to encourage a serious Opposition that is an integral part of a mature Parliamentary democracy. “

Suggestion to set up a research department

Mr Leong, who is the Secretary-General of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), said that he learnt a lot more about the processes and procedures of Parliament since he entered Parliament in August 2020, and participated in numerous lively and substantive debates.

He and his PSP colleague, Ms Hazel Poa, assumed the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) positions in the General Election 2020. Being the top-performing runner-up, the PSP West Coast team secured these seats. The Constitution guarantees a maximum of 12 opposition seats, but since the opposition only obtained ten seats, two NCMP seats were available.

Based on his personal experiences, Mr Leong suggested that some parliamentary processes may not be the most conducive in facilitating MPs, including those from the ruling party, to do their jobs.

He noted that many MPs from both sides of the House do not come from a public policy or legal background, and may need assistance in their work on scrutinising the Parliament.

“However, while there is a library in the Parliament and the librarians are very helpful, there is no other research support. In place of that, elected MPs are provided with an allowance of $1,300 to hire a Legislative Assistant and $500 for a Secretarial Assistant to assist them.” said Mr Leong.

He proposed that the Parliament Secretariat should be given resources to set up a research department, and the appropriate annual starting budget for such a department is around S$1 million.

He also called for the rise in allowance to hire legislative assistants and secretarial assistants and for the allowance to be extended to NCMPs and NMPs.

“The Opposition lacks access to the resources of our excellent civil service. Handicapped by these lack of resources, alternative policies created by the Opposition will not have the same breadth and depth of the Government’s,” said Mr Leong.

Indranee said “indisputable” that NCMPs and Nominated MPs have a lighter workload than elected MPs

In response, Ms Indranee claimed that “it is indisputable” that NCMPs and Nominated MPs have a lighter workload than elected MPs since they do not have the responsibility of a constituency or its residents.

Moreover, there is no differentiation in allowances between opposition MPs and those from PAP.

As for Mr Leong’s call for a research department to be set up, she said: “Many PAP MPs do not come from such (legal or public policy) backgrounds either, they are not asking for this. They have been able to work within the allowances currently allocated to them.”

She also noted that PAP MPs pool their legislative assistant allowances to hire an assistant to support two or more MPs and draw upon their MP allowance to supplement the sum.

But at the same time, PAP MPs enjoy the support from the People’s Association and its grassroots leaders while the Opposition MPs do not as they are not appointed grassroots advisors even when they are elected by the constituents.

During the General Election 2015, PAP MP Lim Biow Chuan questioned if his competitor, Ms Jennette Chong could assist residents in Mountbatten with no experience and no grassroots leaders to help.

He proudly stated that he could do so because he has over 300 grassroots leaders to help him connect with residents and make the area better.

Indranee: Singapore government “provide more data than most countries”

In his speech, Mr Leong also called on the Government to provide all data requested by Members in the requested format, unless there are national security or financial market sensitivities.

” The Government should not use the risk of such data being misinterpreted or being used for other purposes as justification for not releasing it. ”

In response, Ms Indranee defended that the Government already provides more data than most countries.

“The key to better debate in Parliament lies in understanding the main issues at hand, acknowledging our fundamental realities and constraints and taking not just the easy decisions but also the hard ones.”

“It is not through making unending requests for ever more detailed data, which are then used as an alibi for not offering more constructive ideas or better alternative policies during debates, ” she said.

Ms Indranee also warned that the data collation process can be time-consuming and costly, “we will lean forward to provide what is reasonable and practicable, but we cannot fulfill every whim.”

During the debate on the President’s speech last month, Mr Singh suggested that the 4G PAP leadership should be more open and not dismiss the opposition’s requests for information, as this openness will be crucial for building a strong social compact with Singaporeans.

Mr Singh said, “As that debate proved, getting the People’s Action Party (PAP) Government to reveal information on the number of Intra-Corporate Transferees from India that worked in Singapore upon the introduction of CECA was like squeezing blood from a stone. Parliamentary questions had been filed by the Workers’ Party on the issue from 2016 but forthright answers were not forthcoming.”

In a follow-up exchange from Mr Singh’s speech, he highlighted that Minister for Health Ong Ye Kung also agreed during a parliamentary debate in 2021 that while some data is confidential, but it is better to releasing the information early, particularly when it comes to issues like racism and xenophobia.

Leong Mun Wai suggested  an “opposition hour” during the first day of every Parliament 

Mr Leong also suggested to introduce an “opposition hour” during the first day of every Parliament sitting to discuss subjects chosen by the Opposition.

“These are likely to cover current topics which have the most public interest. This is not new, and is done in other Westminster Parliaments such as the UK and Canada. ”

He urged that the Q&A and clarification time for all debates, including PQs, Ministerial Statements, bills and motions, in the House should not end as long as there are new substantive questions from MPs.

“This would allow for debates to conclude substantively. The Speaker obviously would have the discretion to end the debate if he is of the view that further questions being asked by MPs are not covering new substantive ground.”

On Mr Leong’s “opposition hour” suggestion, Mr Indranee said the current system allows for MPs to engage and debate ministers, regardless of when the speeches are delivered.

“They can do this through PQ, moving full motions for debates as an MP S are doing in this sitting, or moving adjournment motions.”

‘Parliament time is finite’

Mr Leong also suggested that MPs could benefit from more flexibility around timekeeping for questions and debates so as to have more substantive debates on policies.

However, Ms Indranee Rajah, Leader of the House, noted that this is “the surest way” to trigger Parkinson’s Law, which states that when work increases to fill up the allocated time.

“Parliament time is finite, and questions and debates cannot go on without an end. Setting time limits ensures that questions stay focused, answers stay on point and more can be accomplished,” said Ms Indranee.

Perhaps as an example of what Mr Leong was referring to in his speech, Ms Indranee took up the full ten minutes allocated to her for the response, leaving no time for Mr Leong to respond to the points made by her.

PAC should be chaired by an opposition MP, suggests Leong

Mr Leong also proposed that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Public Petitions Committee (PPC) should be chaired by an opposition MP, with MPs from all political parties represented on the committee.

He noted that PAC had been chaired by an opposition MP up to 1968, when there were no opposition MPs in Parliament.

“The first PAC chairman under a PAP government in 1959 was A.P. Rajah, who was an Independent. The second was Lim Huan Boon, who was from the Barisan Sosialis. ”

He said the PPC plays an important role in providing a platform for citizens to voice their concerns and grievances to the Government. It is, therefore crucial that the PPC is seen as objective and non-partisan, and having an Opposition MP as the chairperson can help to ensure this.

In response, Ms Indranee questioned whether having an opposition MP chairing the two committees would result in their independence and non-partisanship.

“The composition of each standing select committee should reflect the balance between the government benches and the opposition benches in Parliament.”

“And if you think about it for a moment, that is fair — because it reflects the proportion of government and opposition MPs.”

In addition, she pointed out that the selection of chairs for the two select committees is based on the mandate of the people. Specifically, the Speaker of Parliament serves as the chair for the Public Petitions Committee, while the chair of the Public Accounts Committee is appointed by the Speaker.

“In any case, opposition members serve on the select committees and are entitled to ask questions and argue issues fully. There is no reason to think that they have not done their jobs properly”

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