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On May 8, 2023, Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai requested in Parliament for more resources and support to be given to opposition Members of Parliament (MPs).
Leong's requests, which he claimed would help opposition MPs to be "more effective and hold the government to account", included asking for an "opposition hour" and a research department with an annual budget of S$1m to "provide research support for MPs as they scrutinise bills and policies".
People's Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP) and Leader of the House Indranee Rajah rejected Leong's request and explained, "The rules afford more than enough opportunity for MPs, opposition or otherwise, to hold the government to account, raise queries and debate matters."
"The answer lies not in changing the rules, but rather for MPs to develop the skills of listening, using the existing rules more effectively, to make a contribution to the debate and show that they are deserving of the trust that voters have placed in them."
On a serious government and a serious opposition
In Leong's adjournment motion on May 8, titled "Making Parliament a Fairer Arena for All", he referred to Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Lawrence Wong's April 2023 speech during the Motion of Thanks for the President's Address.
In the speech, Wong had called on the opposition to offer a "serious alternative agenda".
Leong questioned if the current parliamentary structures and processes support the work of a "serious opposition".
"Based on my personal experiences, some parliamentary processes may not be the most conducive to facilitate MPs, including those from the ruling party, to do their jobs," he explained.
Leong: S$1 million allowance to set up a research department
Leong stated that MPs might require assistance scrutinising the government's legislation, policy and executive actions as many do not come from a public policy or legal background.
Besides the Parliament library and its librarians, Leong said MPs have no other research support.
Instead, elected MPs are given a monthly allowance of S$1,300 and S$500 to hire a legislative assistant and a secretarial assistant, respectively, which he felt is "meagre" and "completely insufficient".
Leong: Allowances for Legislative assistant and secretarial assistant to be increased, and extended to NCMPs and NMPS
Leong said that NCMPs and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) have not received such an allowance since 1997.
"Then Leader of the House, Mr Wong Kan Seng’s justification for the removal of the NCMPs’ support allowances was (sic) that the duties of NCMPs were not as heavy and onerous as those of elected MPs, as only elected MPs sit on committees."
However, Leong explained that it is different now, "NCMPs have full voting rights equal to elected MPs and sit on the Parliamentary committees."
He suggested that the Parliament Secretariat be given resources to set up a research department, which provides research support for MPs as they scrutinise bills and policies.
"I think an appropriate annual starting budget for such a department is around S$1 million."
He also suggested that the government review the legislative assistants' scheme and that the allocated allowances be increased, and extended to NCMPs and NMPs.
Indranee: PAP MPs have not asked for assistance and are able to work within allowances
Indranee responded by pointing out that it is "indisputable" that their NCMP's workload is less than that of elected MPs, as they are not responsible for a specific constituency or for dealing with the needs of residents.
"As such, in principle, it is reasonable to differentiate between the support the elected MPs and NCMPs receive."
Indranee pointed out that many PAP MPs, who do not have a public policy or legal background, have not asked for more assistance.
She added that MPs have also been able to work within the allowances currently allocated to them, either by pooling the allowances or drawing into their MPs’ allowance to top up the sum.
"It is quite open to opposition MPs and NCMPs to do the same."
She highlighted that all elected MPs, whether PAP or opposition, received the same allowance. She noted that Pritam Singh, Leader of the Opposition (LO), gets more resources given his expanded duties and responsibilities.
Indranee: Marked contrast between PSP’s statements
Indranee noted that "the absence of such research facilities has not deterred the PSP from asserting its ability to advance policy positions", such as what they highlighted in their 2020 Manifesto, where they referred to various economic, social and political policies.
She pointed out that there was a "marked contrast" between the statements in the manifesto and Leong statements in Parliament on May 8.
Leong: Government should provide all data in "requested format"
Leong also asked the government to provide all the data in the MP's "requested format" unless there were national security considerations or financial market sensitivities.
He claimed that the government should not use the "risk of such data being misinterpreted" or being used for other purposes to justify not releasing it.
Indranee: We cannot fulfil every whim
Indranee highlighted that the government is already providing "more data than most countries" and reminded Leong and other MPs that data collation, as well as "slicing and dicing it in different ways", costs time, money and effort.
"We will lean forward to provide what is reasonable and practicable, but we cannot fulfil every whim."
Leong: Opposition hour in Parliament
Leong also suggested that MPs be given more time to question the government and for an "opposition hour" to be introduced.
His proposed "opposition hour" will take place on the first day of every Parliament sitting to discuss subjects chosen by the opposition with the most public interest, similar to the practice in the United Kingdom and Canada, to provide "a platform for the opposition" to account and "challenge" the government's policies and decisions.
He also asked for debates to "not end as long as there are new substantive questions from MPs", so that it will allow debate to "conclude substantively" — with the discretion to end the debate left to the Speaker.
Leong: Ministerial statements to be provided in advance
Leong also suggested in Parliament on May 8 for the government to provide ministerial statements and other speeches to MPs, whom he said will, in turn, provide the ministers with drafts of their speeches beforehand.
H explained that it would be a "win-win situation for all", as MPs and ministers don't have to "divine" whether questions have been answered by the ministerial statements, allowing for "debate on the substantive issues".
To support his point, Leong said he submitted his Adjournment Motion speech before its reading in Parliament, hoping that it would enable the government to prepare a more substantive response to the issues and suggestions he will raise.
Indranee: MPs have more than ample opportunity to engage ministers, regardless of when the ministerial statements are released
Indranee noted Leong's efforts, "I also thank him for providing his speech in advance, a departure from his norm in respect of his more recent Adjournment Motions and Motions, but quite understandable given his proposal, and well appreciated."
She explained that the system is designed so MPs can always engage and debate the ministers, irrespective of when the minister’s speech is delivered.
She also pointed out that MPs have ample opportunity and time to engage the ministers in their speeches through a wide array of mechanisms – Parliamentary Questions (PQs), supplementary PQs, motions, Bills, adjournment motions, clarifications and Committee of Supply (COS) cuts — many of which are not time-bound.
Indranee: No need for opposition hour
"For this same reason, there is no need to have an opposition hour," Indranee said.
She pointed out that as Parliament time is "finite", debates cannot go on without an end.
"Setting time limits ensures that questions stay focused, answers stay on point and more can be accomplished."
You can watch the full exchange below:
Other Parliament matters
Top image screenshot from Ministry of Communications and Information/YouTube
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