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The Singapore Political System Brief

What is the Parliament?

Parliament is the legislature where laws are scrutinised and made through voting by elected representatives of the electorate, known as Members of Parliament (MPs).

MPs vote on things like new laws, changes to existing laws—known as amendments, non-binding resolutions that provide a sense of what MPs think of an issue, the government budget, and changes to the constitution.

A political party or group of political parties that can command the support of a majority of MPs in Parliament forms the top executive body in Singapore, called the government, or an administration. A majority in the current Parliament of 89 seats is 45 MP seats.

The role of Parliament in approving official government budgets mean that it theoretically holds the country’s purse strings. However, overwhelming dominance by a single party in Singapore and strong party discipline, enforced by the Government Whip, means that there has never been a serious challenge to government spending plans since 1959.

Under Singapore’s Westminster-derived parliamentary system, all cabinet (such as the PM and ministers) and sub-cabinet positions (such as Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries) in the executive have to be MPs. If a cabinet or sub-cabinet official loses his or her Parliamentary seat, then he or she can no longer serve in the executive.

The Speaker of Parliament is not a member of the executive and does not have to be an MP. The Speaker is also chair of the House Committee. MPs who do not have cabinet or sub-cabinet posts and who do not have leadership roles in among the minority representatives—known as the opposition—are backbenchers. This name comes from the fact that cabinet members, sub-cabinet officials, and opposition leaders traditionally sit at the front row in Parliament.

Singapore has a unicameral legislature, meaning to say that it only has one house of Parliament. Other jurisdictions that may have two (or a bicameral legislature), typically an Upper House (like the House of Lords or Senate) and a Lower House (like the House of Commons or House of Representatives).

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What is a Member of Parliament?

A Member of Parliament or MP is a representative of Singapore citizens in the legislature. She takes part in the business of Parliament in debating, approving, or amending laws.

Since MPs are citizens’ elected representatives in the legislature, citizens can and should approach MPs about tabling, amending, or even rescinding laws and resolutions that affect them or issues they care about.  There is nothing inherently wrong about lobbying legislators so long as this is done in a manner that is legal, well-regulated, transparent, and does not exclude any citizen from doing the same.

Singapore has several types of MPs. Regular MPs are representatives elected by citizens either through Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) or Group Representative Constituencies (GRCs), where electors in the constituency vote in MPs as a group. Regular MPs can take part in Parliamentary debate and vote on all bills. Regular MPs represent citizens living in geographical constituencies.

Regular MPs can be voted into Parliament though a General Election where the electorate votes for the next ruling party, since all MPs lose their positions when the President dissolves Parliament on the recommendation the Prime Minister. General Elections in Singapore need to take place no more than five years after the previous General Election. Regular MPs can also get into Parliament through a by-election, when a particular seat or seats in a GRC become vacant.

Regular MPs in Singapore also have to run town councils that manage municipal, or estate, issues such as cleanliness. Until 1988, the HDB was responsible for municipal issues. In many other countries, elected town councils are responsible for such matters, leaving legislators to concentrate on lawmaking and representing their constituents. Consequently, Singaporeans often approach MPs about municipal matters.

Another feature of MPs in Singapore is that citizens tend to approach them to petition various government departments on specific issues. These range from getting government financial assistance to fee waivers on official charges, traffic offence appeals, and complaints about particular government services. Many of these requests come in the form of emails or meetings during Meet-the-People Sessions (MPS). MPs in Singapore do not have constituency offices that handle such matters, unlike legislators in many other places.

Unlike legislators in many other jurisdictions around the world, there is no requirement for Singapore MPs to be full-time legislators. Consequently, most Singapore MPs work concurrently in other jobs while serving as legislators. Cabinet ministers and sub-cabinet level officials, such as ministers of state, serve in those capacities full-time while also performing their roles as legislators.

Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs)

Singapore also has Non-Constituency MPs  (NCMPs) who the losing candidates from the political parties that are not in government who come closest to winning percentage across all constituencies (or “best losers”). The constitution currently allows for up to 9 NCMPs, supposedly to ensure a minimal minority voice in Parliament. The actual number of NCMPs is 9 minus the number of seats minority parties win in a General Election. If minority parties have more than 9 elected seats (i.e. more than 9 regular MPs), then there will be no NCMPs. NCMPs serve the same term as regular MPs. Parliament can, but does not have to, move a motion to declare a vacancy and replace an NCMP with the next best loser if a losing candidate does not take up an NCMP seat or steps down.

Lina Chiam, former NCMP in the 12th Parliament.

Lina Chiam, former NCMP in the 12th Parliament.

Some vagueness about the representativeness and mandate of NCMPs exist. A big part of this lack of clarity over NCMP position comes from the fact that no one directly votes for an NCMP. Voting consciously in order to produce a “best loser” is very difficult, and likely impossible, and is also inconsistent with normal voter behaviour. Voters very are unlikely to be able to predict with accuracy the “best losers” in the series of electoral contests that take place during a General Election. Even if they can, they may not be in the right constituency to vote for an anticipated “best loser,” and enough support for a potential “best loser” can create a victory rather than a close loss. Voters tend to cast voters for candidates because they want these candidates to win, think that these candidates can win, or wish to show symbolic support for candidates, their parties, or platforms.

Consequently, two not entirely reconcilable views of the NCMP position emerge. One view is that NCMPs represent the minority voters in the constituency where the candidate contested and lost. However, the NCMP does not have access to facilities in the constituency to serve constituents given the “non-constituency” status of this position. Serving a constituency also raises the question of why certain constituencies should have more parliamentary representation than others simply because there was a close electoral contest. For example, why should Ponggol East have two parliamentary representatives and Bukit Panjang one just because the former has an MP who won by a narrower electoral margin?

A second view is to see the NCMP as representing all of Singapore given the position’s “non-constituency” status. Such a view too raises questions about representativeness. There is no clear reason why losing candidates in one constituency-based electoral contest has a mandate to represent voters who live in another constituency and did not have an opportunity to vote for the candidate in question. For instance, why should losing candidates in an electoral contest in East Coast GRC have a right to represent voters in West Coast GRC or Jurong GRC since East Coast GRC candidates did not appear on the ballot for voters from the other two GRCs to vote for? Elections can be won or lost on highly municipal specific issues such as a garbage collection or lift upgrading, after all.

In comparison, other jurisdictions with non-constituency or at-large legislator positions, such as Japan, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Germany, tend to produce such positions through proportional representation via a party vote. Voters can select a party to vote for in general elections and the party will receive at-large seats in proportion to the percentage of votes they receive nation-wide, often provided that they cross a minimum threshold of electoral support (eg. 5 percent of national votes etc.). Political parties will have a ranked party list of candidates for these at-large seats, and candidates get into the legislature based on their parties proportion of the national vote and their precedence on the party list. (eg. If 30 percent of a national vote equates to 15 seats, then candidates ranked 1 to 15 on the party list will get seats in the legislature) Electoral rules can stipulate conditions such as the proportion and prioritization of ethnic and religious minorities and gender balance on party lists to ensure representation for these groups.

Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs)

Singapore also has Nominated MPs (NMPs) whom a Parliamentary Select Committee of MPs appoint. The President formally appoints this Select Committee, but the Cabinet directs the President’s decision. NMPs tend, but do not have, to represent different functional constituencies in Singapore, such as the arts, sports, business, and education. However, this is only by convention and there is no legal requirement for representation by these different groups. The different groups can propose nominees for the NMP position, but have no say on whether the Selection Committee in Parliament chooses their preferred candidate. How the different groups select their NMP selections are is not subject to oversight. NMPs serve two-and-a-half year terms.

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Eugene Tan, former Nominated Member of Parliament in the 12th Parliament.

NCMPs and NMPs currently do not have full voting rights in Parliament. They can raise questions, take part in Parliamentary debate, and vote on regular bills and amendments. However, they cannot vote on finance matters such as the budget or constitutional amendments. There is a current proposal to amend the constitution in order to change the number of NCMP seats to 12. Part of the proposed constitutional amendment also seeks to give NCMPs the same voting rights as regular MPs.

How are Laws made?

Parliament votes on proposed laws, called Bills. Bills have to go through Parliament three times. The First Reading is when the member sponsoring the bill will introduces it to Parliament. Parliament will then debate its principles before deciding whether to proceed with a Second Reading. During the Second Reading either the entire Parliament or Select Committees will go thought the Bill clause by clause, and MPs can propose modifications, or amendments, to the Bill. Following a report from the Second Reading, the Bill will go through a Third Reading where only minor amendments are permitted before its passage into law. A Bill that passes into law is called an Act.

Bills tend not to go through topic-specific Select Committees in Singapore. They may go through a Government Parliamentary Committee that consists of backbench PAP MPs, however. Some jurisdictions may have a Bill go through a legislative committee specialising on the topics it covers before introduction. For instance, a finance-related bill may have to pass the review of the legislative committee on finance before introduction, or a defense-related bill a legislative committee on defence.

In Singapore, most Bills have to go through the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The Council will examine the law to see if it differentiates against different racial or religious community and report to the Speaker of Parliament. If the Council is approves a Bill, the President will assent and the Government Gazette will gazette the Bill and it becomes law.

A Member of the Cabinet usually introduces a Bill in Singapore, although Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries can do so with the approval of their respective ministers as well. Individual MPs can also introduce Bills, called Private Member’s Bills. Bills are proposed as motions for debate. Private Member’s Bills require seconding by least one other MP to become a motion for Parliamentary debate. Ministers can move motions up to at least two days before the next Parliamentary sitting, while MPs can move motions for Private Members’s Bills up to at least seven days before the next sitting.

Singapore’s legislative process also includes “hybrid bills.” Regular bills presented by a cabinet member become hybrid bills if the bill is to scheduled for a second reading, but the Speaker determines that the bill may impinge on individual rights or interests. After the bill in question is read for a second time, the Speaker refers the bill to the responsible Select Committee. At that time, the Select Committee will hear petitions from parties affected by the bill that first presented a Petition to Parliament. The petition can be given in person or by Counsel that the petitioner appoints.

For any Bill to pass, a minimum of a quarter of all MPs not including the Speaker or some other presiding member, such as a Deputy Speakers, must be present to vote on it. This is called quorum. In the present Parliament of 89 MPs, quorum requires the presence of 23 MPs in addition to the Speaker or presiding member. So long a majority of MPs that make up quorum votes for a Bill, it can become law. This means that a Bill can become law in Singapore if one-eighth of all MPs plus one, or 12 MPs in the current Parliament, supports it. Quorum is not necessary if the President is in the House.

Voting usually takes place though a show of hands in Singapore and is not officially recorded, unless an MP calls for a Division. Divisions need support from at least four other MPs. With a Division, MPs have to vote electronically and their individual votes placed in the public record. A Division must take place when there is a constitutional amendment. An MP can record his or her dissent to a Bill without a Division by informing the Speaker or whomever is presiding over Parliament.

Strong party discipline through the enforcement of the whip and single party dominance in Singapore means that there is little effective opposition to a Bill that the administration in office introduces when it comes to voting. MPs who do not vote along party lines risk sanctions from their party. They can include restrictions on support at the constituency level, less support for reelection campaigns, removal from the party’s ticket for reelection, or even immediate expulsion from the party, which under Singapore law means vacating of the MP’s seat.

What are Parliamentary Questions and Supplementary Questions?

Parliamentary questions, commonly known as PQs in Singapore, are a key means for MPs to exercise legislative oversight of the executive over issues of policy. PQs may arise once the Chair of a Committee or the Speaker, who is also Chair of the House, moves a motion for debate. The questions about the motion make of the substance of parliamentary debate, which ends with the taking of a vote on the motion. An MP can file a total of 5 questions per sitting day, three of them for oral answer and two for written answer according to the current Parliamentary Standing Orders.

MPs can pose PQs as queries to Ministers or other MPs during Question Time, which typically lasts about 90 minutes. PQ submissions usually take the form of short written statements that MPs can elaborate on during oral questioning. Ministers and MPs have to answer questions posed to them in Parliament, but can have discretion over how they answer. PQs the Clear of Parliament receive in time will appear on the Order Paper for the particular sitting. MP can only pose questions that appear on the Order Paper for the day. The Clerk of Parliament may suggest edits to the PQs MPs submit unless the Speaker determines that a particular question is an urgent matter.

PQs can seek information on or question policy or the activities of a ministry under a MInister’s portfolio or pose questions to other members on a bill, motion, or other public matters relating to the business of Parliament that an MP is responsible for. PQs can be in oral or written form, and usually submitted to the Clerk of Parliament a week before the next Parliamentary sitting to give Ministers and MPs time to prepare answers. An MP can file up to five questions in one sitting, where no more than three can be for oral answer. Ministers provide answers to oral questions during Question Time.

Once a Minister or MP provides an oral answer, any other MP can raise supplementary questions relating to the original question without prior notice to press an issue or seek further clarification. The Speaker will call on (“recognise") MPs to pose their supplementary questions. MPs cannot make statements or speeches when posing supplementary questions. Any PQs that Ministers or MPs cannot answer by the end of question time will receive written answers from the relevant Minister or MP unless an MP requests postponement of the question to the next available sitting.

Once the Clerk of Parliament receives written questions, they circulate these answers to MPs and are published in the Official Report. Accounts of oral questions and answers will appear in Hansard for public scrutiny and official record.

How about petitions?

A person or corporation may submit a petition to Parliament through an MP. The petition should state a grievance or problem and state solutions that the petitions seek. Public Petitions Committee decides on whether to table the petition for parliamentary debate. If a petition relates to a private or hybrid bill, the committee responsible for the bill will decide whether to table the petition.

 Ms Shelley Thio and Mr Jolovan Wham, from Stop Trafficking SG, deliver their petition to MP Christopher De Souza, outside Parliament House. ST photo: Wong Kwai Chow

Ms Shelley Thio and Mr Jolovan Wham, from Stop Trafficking SG, deliver their petition to MP Christopher De Souza, outside Parliament House. ST photo: Wong Kwai Chow

Petitions have a long tradition in the Westminster Parliamentary system from which the Singapore Parliamentary system developed. They are less common in Singapore’s legislative history, but remain a channel of recourse for citizens who wish to raise an issue to Parliament. There is no stipulation on the number of signatories on a petition that a citizen submits, but a petition with more signatures obviously suggests the force of public opinion.

What are Parliamentary Committees?

Parliamentary committees are a group of MPs selected by Parliament to be responsible for particular subjects. Standing Select Committees are appointed at the start of each session of Parliament and continue for the duration of that Parliament. Ad hoc committees can be set up to look into specific bills or subjects, such as the appointment of Nominated MPs. Parliament appoints ad hoc committees by moving and passing a motion, meaning to say that the appointment of ad hoc committees are open to Parliamentary scrutiny.

Select Committees on bills and some Standing Select Committees can call for witnesses, documents, and records as they conduct hearings. These hearings can be open to the public or closed door. Select Committees make decisions by voting, where the majority opinion prevails. Voting in Committee is usually verbal unless there is a call for a Division, when the clerk of the committee will call on each member of the committee to vote and record the vote. The clerk of the committee then hands the result to the chair who will then declare the result. Once a Committee concludes its findings and recommendations, it will present a report to Parliament. Any MP can then move a motion to adopt or reject the Committee report, which Parliament will subsequently debate and vote on.

Traditionally in a Westminster-style Parliament, Parliamentary committees include members from both the majority and minority parties. This is to ensure adequate consideration of minority concerns. There are currently seven Standing Select Committees in the Singapore Parliament. The Speaker of Parliament chairs all of them and presently include minority party members. These Standing Select Committees are:

Committee of Selection - This committee selects members for sessional and select committees.

Committee of Privileges - This committee examines breaches of Parliamentary privilege.

Estimates Committee - The committee examines the Government budget, and puts forward improvements to the budget and how to present these budget estimates to Parliament. In Singapore, recommendations by the Committee of Estimates are supposed to be “consistent with the policy underlying the estimates” the current government administration presents to Parliament. This need not be the case with budget matters in other jurisdictions.

House Committee - The House Committee looks after the comfort and convenience of MPs, reporting to the Speaker of Parliament on these matters.

Public Accounts Committee - This committee examines government accounts, including the appropriation of funds granted by Parliament to meet public expenditure and other accounts for which Parliament.

Public Petitions Committee - The Public Petitions Committee is responsible for considering the public petitions Parliament receives, and reporting to Parliament on these petitions.

Standing Orders Committee - The committee reviews Parliamentary Standing Orders periodically, recommending amendments and reporting to Parliament on these issues.

A “Committee of the Whole Parliament” is a committee that includes all MPs and chaired by the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. After the second reading of a bill, for example, a MP can move a motion to form a “Committee of the Whole Parliament.” Once the motion to form that committee passes with a simple majority vote, Parliament debates on the Bill.

Singapore’s Parliament also includes a Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) system established by the current ruling party. These committees comprise only MPs from the ruling party and have portfolios corresponding to one or more ministries. GPCs are responsible for scrutinising legislation and programmes of the ministries that fall under their portfolio. There are 12 GPCs for the 13th Parliament. They include “Communications and Information,” “Culture, Community and Youth,” “Defence and Foreign Affairs,” “Education,” “Environment and Water Resources,” “Finance, Trade, and Industry,” “Health,” “Home Affairs and Law,” “Manpower,” “National Development,” “Social and Family Development,” and “Transport.” Note that GPCs have no constitutional or statutory position and are not mentioned as a formal part of Parliament in Parliament’s Standing Orders.

GPCs are responsible for scrutinising legislation and programmes of the ministries that fall under their portfolio. There are 12 GPCs for the 13th Parliament. They include “Communications and Information,” “Culture, Community and Youth,” “Defence and Foreign Affairs,” “Education,” “Environment and Water Resources,” “Finance, Trade, and Industry,” “Health,” “Home Affairs and Law,” “Manpower,” “National Development,” “Social and Family Development,” and “Transport.” Note that GPCs have no constitutional or statutory position and are not mentioned as a formal part of Parliament in Parliament’s Standing Orders.

Committee systems are common in legislatures other jurisdictions, such as the United States (both the Senate and the House of Representatives), United Kingdom, Australia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. These committees have portfolios like GPCs in Singapore and comprise legislators from majority as well as minority parties. This is to ensure that sufficient consideration of minority concerns when exercising oversight over the executive or preparing legislation. These committees commonly call for testimony from officials and experts their portfolios cover as well as studies and official documents. Committee hearings on particular topics are often open to the public, although there are closed hearings as well.

Legislative committees in other jurisdictions also have professional staff who support the work of all the legislators on the committee This support includes research, subject area expertise, staff work, liaising with relevant ministries, media relations, and outreach. Staff support seeks to help legislators on a committee discharge their duties more effectively. Much of the legislation on particular issue areas originate from the relevant committee. Legislation on education, for instance, is likely to come from the education committee. Often, committees will include more specialised subcommittees that examine more particular issues under a committee’s responsibility. (See examples of Subcommittees and Panels from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.)

Note that MPs in Singapore's Parliament does not have the assistance of a non-partisan office to independently assess budget estimates and public accounts, such as the Congressional Budget Office in the US, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer in Canada, or Australia’s Parliamentary Budget Office. Likewise, the Singapore Parliament does not have a non-partisan research arm, such as the U.S. Congressional Research Service or the research service of the Commons Library in the UK, to provide independent and expert research support for MPs when they have to scrutinize bills or exercise oversight of policy. In comparison, Singapore’s Parliamentary Librarians’ main duties are to “collection and development of reference materials and provide lending services as well as disseminate reference information.”

Speakers, Leaders, Whips, Shadows, Clerks…and Chains?

Parliament includes several special office holders in addition to the various types of MPs, Cabinet Ministers, and sub-Cabinet Ministers. The most well known is likely to the Speaker of Parliament and the Deputy Speakers. The Speaker is the presiding officer in Parliament, elected by MPs. The Speaker does not have to be an MP and cannot be a Minister, Minister of State, or Parliamentary Secretary, but needs to meet the criteria for eligibility to stand for election as an MP as stipulated in the Constitution.

The Speaker regulates debate in Parliament and enforces relevant regulations relating to Parliamentary debate. These responsibilities include calling on MPs to speak, proposing motions for Parliament to debate and vote on, and being the guardian of Parliamentary Privileges such the exemption of legal action against MPs when they speak in Parliament. The Speaker provides guidance on order and procedure, decides on points of order, and provides rulings when necessary. The Speaker chairs Standing Select Committees and the Committee of the Whole Parliament but does not take part in debates.

The Speaker can, however, vote for or against or abstain on a motion if the Speaker is concurrently an MP. If the Speaker is not an MP, then the Speaker cannot vote. The speaker holds office from the time she or he is elected to Parliament until the first meeting of the next session of Parliament. A Deputy Speaker acts as the Speaker in the latter’s absence. Parliament can elect up to two Deputy Speakers.

The Leader of the House is a ruling party MP who plans and manages the ruling party’s legislative agenda and arranges the business of Parliament. The Leader of the House advises the Speaker on the seating arrangement for cabinet and sub-cabinet office holders and initiates matters of procedure in Parliament. The Leader of the House is not an official position and carries no salary.

Unlike other Westminster-style Parliaments such as Australia or the United Kingdom, the Singapore Parliament does not have an official position of Leader of the Opposition. In jurisdictions where there is a Leader of the Opposition, members of the largest opposition, or minority, party in Parliament votes on who takes on this position. The Leader of the Opposition sits opposite the Prime Minister and has the right of reply to a speech by the Prime Minister, meaning to say that the Leader of the Opposition has the same amount of speaking time as the Prime Minister. The Leader of the Opposition chairs meetings where the opposition discusses policies and examines bills, leads in presenting alternative policies, selects and leaders the Shadow Cabinet, acts as the main Opposition spokesperson, and leads the Opposition in elections. The Opposition Leader draws an additional salary from Parliament for this position.

The Shadow Cabinet in a Westminster-style Parliamentary system is a group opposition MPs who responsible the opposition position issues relating to the portfolios of various ministries. They are not official Parliamentary positions, but are important in helping to lead opposition positions on specific issues that pertain to various ministries. Often, the members of the Shadow Cabinet take over the official cabinet positions if their party wins office in an election. Singapore does not have a tradition of shadow cabinets.

Party Whips are help manage and organise debates and voting among MPs in Parliament. In particular, they are responsible for ensuring that MPs from their party supports the party’s position in a vote or division on a motion. MPs who do not vote according to the party line risks expulsion from the party, which in Singapore means the loss of the Parliamentary seat. MPs may also receive other sorts of censure, including removal from party offices, losing the party’s nomination in the next election, receiving less party resources, or being in line for official criticism from senior party leaders. A “lifting” of the Whip means that MPs can vote along their conscience. In Westminster systems, parties in both government and opposition have Whips who may receive assistance from Deputy Whips.

The Clerk of Parliament offers advice to the Speaker and MPs on parliamentary practice and procedure. The Clerk reads the orders of the day during a Parliamentary sitting and takes charge of he daily activities of Parliament and the Parliamentary Secretariat. The President appoints the Clerk of Parliament in consultation with the Speaker of Parliament and the Public Service Commission. The Parliamentary Secretariat provides staff support for administrative matters relating to Parliament.

There are no chains in Parliament, but there is a mace. Historically, the mace was a weapon but is now ornamental. It represents the authority of the President and the Speaker of Parliament.

How about those colored papers and books?

Parliament sometimes debate over color-coded documents. Here is a brief description of what they mean:

White Paper — A policy document the government presents to Parliament to explain and discuss issues of policy. The majority party often presents a White Paper to Parliament for debate.

Green Paper — A command paper used before the formation of Government policy. It takes the form of a preliminary discussion or consultative report.

Blue Book — Official reports or statistical publications, including Government and Parliamentary reports. Select Committee reports take the form of Blue Books.

Command Paper — These are papers presented to Parliament by command of the President, which in effect, are on the initiative of a Minister. White Papers and annual reports of government ministries, departments, and agencies are examples of command papers.

Parliamentary Paper — A formal document presented to the house on matters of law, or the information and use by MPs. Ministers can present parliamentary papers for the Government, as can the Speaker or the chair of a Select Committee. Parliamentary papers can take the form of command papers, subsidiary legislation, statute papers, miscellaneous papers, parliament papers, or papers formally presented by the Presidential Council on Minority Rights.

Sources:

Constitution of the Republic of Singapore

Standing Orders of the Parliament of Singapore

Parliamentary Glossary