A busier and more active 13th Parliament

By Sean Lim, Justin Chua and Thaqif Ismail

ILLUSTRATION: LORAINE LEE


The curtains have come down on the 13th Parliament, after President Halimah Yacob disbanded the Parliament and issued the Election Writ yesterday (23 June). Candidates and where they will contest will be finalised on Nomination Day next Tuesday (June 30), and Singapore will head to the polls on July 10.


That being said, the 13th Parliament is retiring after a lot of hard work. Parliament sat more often, and for longer, to dispatch a heavier legislative workload, checks by Class Notes found. MPs also seemed to have re-discovered a tool for debate in the form of adjournment and Private Member’s motions, with 44 different topics aired in the House.


The work of the 13th Parliament was also remarkable for the number of ministerial statements made. Of the 30 statements, 10 were on the handling of the Covid-19 virus and the four budgets announced to ease the pain of lockdown measures on workers and businesses earlier this year.


Parliament at a glance

*figures are accurate as of June 5, 2020


After a hiatus of 22 years, a parliamentary select committee was convened, to gather feedback and make recommendations for a fake news law.


The 13th Parliament has ended and based on a count by Class Notes, it sat for 135 times, exceeding the 117 sittings of the previous Parliament. Campaigning guidelines and rules for a safe election in the midst of the outbreak have already been released.


Above is a short summary of Parliament’s work. You may click on the links to related stories for more detailed analysis.

Sittings and duration


Parliament suffers the unfortunate impression that it is always half-empty. That’s what people see when television cameras pan over the chamber. Parliament keeps records of attendance, and MPs who need to absent themselves have to give notice and a reason. But whether an MP attends the full-session of Parliament or drops by for a quick pop-in isn’t recorded in Hansard.


Perhaps, this will change when Parliament introduces a facial recognition system to track the real-time attendance of MPs, instead of a manual recording at the beginning or end of a sitting day. The plan was announced on Nov 7 last year and the tender closed on Dec 2.


Based on a tally by Class Notes, the MPs who chalked up the largest number of absences include Prof Fatimah Lateef (67) and Mr Masagos Zulkifli (55).


The 13th Parliament has already chalked up 135 sittings over 53 months, since it was convened on 15th January 2016. There are just six more months before the constitutional deadline for dissolution. The figure would have been higher of late due to the four budgets delivered by the Finance Minister, which also include its own Committee of Supply proceedings.


While every Budget delivered has its own COS before it is considered and approved by the House, only seven cuts were filed for the recent Fortitude Budget as compared to over 500 for the Unity Budget — which is also the customary annual Budget — in February. They were filed by NMPs Anthea Ong and Walter Theseira.


During the COS deliberations, an MP will usually ask for a symbolic $100 “cut” to a ministry’s estimate and talk about his or her concerns over that specific ministry’s policies, and questioning details of the government initiatives that will be supported by the projected budget of that ministry. MPs will then withdraw the “cut” once the minister has satisfactorily addressed their concerns.


No cuts were filed for the Solidarity and Resilience supplementary budgets. Technically, nobody is stopping MPs from filing cuts during these supplementary budgets. However, the time limits for COS discussions are stricter and hence less time for speeches and replies by the Government. The onus is on the MP to decide which part of the proceedings — be it during the debate on the Finance Minister’s statement or COS — to raise the issues.


The 12th Parliament had 117 sittings, stretched out over 46 months. It started work “later’’, five months after Polling Day, while the current Parliament had its first sitting four months after.


The heavier legislative workload would explain why MPs met more often than the previous term.


SOURCE: PARLIAMENT OF SINGAPORE


Parliament sessions also last longer, according to tabulations by CNA. In the previous term of Parliament, each sitting stretched for about five to six hours on average while data up to March 2018 showed longer hours, inching close to seven to eight hours per sitting.


SOURCE: CNA


The longest debate in this term of Parliament was over Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, or POFMA, which took 14 hours before the Bill was passed — longer than the combined debates over the Medishield Life Scheme Act (5 hours 14 mins) and Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Act (5 hours 8 minutes) in the 12th Parliament.


SOURCE: PARLIAMENT OF SINGAPORE


Debate on Bills was not the only reason for longer sittings. MPs were also using motions to air their pet topics or push a certain agenda, which they might not have the time or opportunity to do so during Question Time or debates on Bills. This means that Parliament is going beyond having ministers answer questions and debate legislation.


Both the 12th and 13th Parliament had special sittings outside of the typical parliamentary agenda. On 26 March 2015, MPs convened in the House to pay tribute to founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had died three days earlier. On 3 July 2017, Parliament heard PM Lee Hsien Loong address his siblings’ allegations of abuse of power over their family house. This session is also notable for being the only time the Whip was raised to allow MPs free rein to speak and not to vote with the party.


A question of parliamentary privilege and propriety surfaced once, on 1 March 2018 when Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim debated with Ministers Heng Swee Keat and K Shanmugam on the increase in GST from seven to nine per cent between 2021 and 2025. The Aljunied GRC MP said she suspected that the Government intended to introduce the tax hike immediately (instead of 2021) but retreated after getting a negative response from the ground. The ministers said Ms Lim was accusing them of lying to Singaporeans.


Ms Lim refused to apologise for her statement and House Leader Grace Fu warned that she would refer her to Parliament’s Committee of Privileges if she repeats such conduct.


MPs have immunity in Parliament, which means they cannot be sued for words they utter in the chamber. But if they are found abusing this privilege, the committee will investigate and punish them. So far, no MP has been investigated by the committee during the 12th and 13th terms of Parliament.


MPs also bade farewell to Madam Halimah Yacob when she stepped down from her role as Speaker in 2017 to contest in the Presidential Election. Former Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin took over her position. As a parting gift, she allowed Wi-Fi in the House, although it later led to observations that MPs were not paying attention to proceedings and more fixated on their laptops doing non-parliamentary work.


Recently, Parliament also put in place safe distancing measures due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Instead of sitting in their usual allocated spots, MPs were scattered around the chamber and galleries.


These safe distancing measures are not new. Four ministers who had visited hospitals during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 were put in a separate room when Parliament sat and they communicated with their colleagues in the chamber via video conferencing.


MPs usually decide on laws using the electronic voting system, which started in 1999 when Parliament moved into its current premises. But with safe distancing measures, the voting process has returned to more primitive methods, with the Clerk of Parliament calling out names and MPs indicating their vote by raising a “Aye”/ “Noe”/ “Abstention” placard.


During the debate on May 5 to allow Parliament to convene in multiple locations, NMP Anthea Ong renewed calls for live broadcast of parliamentary proceedings. She made this suggestion because the gallery is now closed to the public due to the pandemic and people can no longer watch the proceedings live. But just like before, the proposal was turned down by Leader of the House Grace Fu because written records and delayed video clips of proceedings are already made available online.


The same suggestion for live streaming was made by NCMP Leon Perera in 2017. Then Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Chee Hong Tat turned it down, citing low demand for a live feed of parliamentary proceedings as the reason.

Bills — Old and New


With 197 Bills introduced and passed during this term of Parliament, it has exceeded that of the 12th Parliament.


SOURCE: PARLIAMENT OF SINGAPORE


There was a re-focus of workload this time due to more legislation on law and order by the Government. About 31 per cent of the 54 new laws were of this nature, in line with more security concerns over foreign influence, the threat of terrorism and the need to maintain our social fabric. Many countries are facing greater divides over political ideologies, socio-economic class, or race and religion.


Besides new Bills, existing legislation was also amended to ensure its relevance to current threats and challenges. Big changes were made to the Criminal Law Reform Bill, more commonly known as the Penal Code. More protection was given to vulnerable groups (such as domestic helpers and disabled people) and the young, with those who abuse and cause their deaths threatened with jail terms of up to 20 years. The offence, “Causing death of a child below 14 years of age, domestic worker or vulnerable person by sustained abuse”, was not in the Penal Code previously.


Taking upskirt photos and other similar voyeurism offences have been made a standalone offence instead of being part of the Insult of Modesty provisions of the Penal Code and the Films Act. The penalty has also increased from a maximum of one-year jail term to two, with caning as a sentencing option too.


There were two other changes which drew attention: A person who attempts suicide will no longer get into trouble with the law and non-consensual sex between a married couple will now be criminalised under marital rape.


Most Bills go through the second reading, committee stage and third reading without fuss. But there have been instances when a Bill was stopped before the third reading for changes. The Supreme Court of Judicature (Amendment) Bill in November 2019 was one, where Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong proposed an amendment to Clause 12 of the Bill, which was accepted by the MPs present.


Another case was during the legislation on online falsehoods when NMPs Anthea Ong, Irene Quay and Walter Theseira tried to get the Bill delayed. They did so by proposing amendments before the third reading to require the Government to explain its decisions when exercising the law, expediting appeals against its decisions and having an independent council review the Government’s decisions. The amendments were rejected by PAP MPs while WP MPs abstained.


RELATED STORY: How often do MPs speak on Bills?

Constitutional amendments


This is the real showcase of Parliament’s power. As the mother of all laws in the country, the Constitution lays down the country’s political framework and contains provisions including those relating to sovereignty, fundamental liberties, citizenship and the public sector.


MPs in this term of Parliament made 10 changes on three occasions - and not without controversy. In comparison, there were six changes on two occasions to the Constitution during the last Parliament, which includes the incorporation of Temasek Holdings in the Net Investment Returns framework from FY 2016 onwards.


Unlike normal Bills which require a simple majority from all MPs, amending the Constitution requires two-thirds of MPs (excluding Nominated MPs) to say yes. There are 100 MPs in this term of Parliament, of which 88 are elected, three are Non-Constituency MPs (NCMP) and 9 Nominated MPs. The numbers are similar to that of the 12th Parliament, except there were 87 elected MPs instead of 88.


Constitutional changes were made to the Elected Presidency, the NCMP scheme and the structure of the Supreme Court. Changes to the Elected Presidency scheme was the most controversial because it was perceived by some as a political move to prevent former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock, who was seen as a non-establishment figure, from contesting in the 2017 presidential election.


Some lamented introducing a racial dimension to the nation’s top office. Under the updated Constitution, a presidential election will be reserved for a particular racial group if none from that group has been president for five continuous terms.


The Government will start counting from the term of Dr Wee Kim Wee, who was the first president to be vested with the powers of an Elected President. The counting was itself a controversial decision since some people thought Mr Ong Teng Cheong should be counted as the country’s first Elected President instead.


All six elected MPs from the WP opposed the amendments, when they voted on it on 9 November 2016. Seventy-seven MPs — all from the PAP — gave the nod. The Bill was approved and it became the Malay community’s turn to have a president from their race the following year. Madam Halimah Yacob was then elected president.


RELATED STORY: Top billing: The MPs who put legislation in Parliament under the microscope


In May, amendments were also made to allow Parliament to convene in more than one location, in light of the Covid-19 outbreak. MPs from both the PAP and WP agreed to the amendments. Originally, the constitution required Parliament to only meet at one physical location.


President Halimah has since appointed three other locations, according to the e-gazette. They are: The Arts House, NTUC Centre and the Civil Service College, which will take effect till Nov 20 this year.


In light of the pandemic, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, leader of the Progress Singapore Party, called for the Government to amend the constitution for the general election to be held after the deadline of April 2021 when the outbreak has stabilised. He suggested having a caretaker government in the interim.


But his call was rejected by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, who said the suggestion “shows a disregard for or lack of understanding of the Constitution” and “can only confuse and mislead Singaporeans to the detriment of Singapore and Singaporeans”.


SM Teo added that the move will weaken the Government’s mandate at a time when a strong one is needed and the only way to delay an election is for the president to declare a state of emergency.

Motions


Of the 44 motions by backbenchers, nine were Private Member’s motions, which must be seconded by at least another MP. This included one on aspirations of Singapore women, moved by five People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs in 2017. There were no Private Member’s motions in the 12th Parliament.


Adjournment motions can take up to half an hour while a Private Member’s motion usually lasts longer. While motions are not legally binding and merely reflect ground level occupations with an issue, the Government can be held accountable since its responses will be recorded in the Hansard.


One salvo came on May 4, when Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Intan Azura Mokhtar spoke about the plight of home-based businesses in light of the coronavirus pandemic.


Other topics MPs brought up in their motions include arts and culture, national service issues and the environment. Based on tabulations by Class Notes, MPs Louis Ng and Murali Pillai gave the most adjournment motion speeches.


RELATED STORY: Record number of motions filed by MPs

Ministerial statements


While MPs found motions useful to push their agenda, the front-benchers are ramping up the use of ministerial statements to address issues. The 13th Parliament is known for making a large number of ministerial statements — a total of 30 — as compared to only 10 in the previous term. Many of the 30 statements were due to government updates on the Covid-19 situation and addressing national service deaths.


In 2018 and 2019, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen gave four ministerial statements on national service deaths, lasting more than two hours in total. Each statement was accompanied by slides explaining what had happened, the sort of inquiry that will be conducted and the recommendations made.


Mrs Josephine Teo made her first ministerial statement during the Covid-19 outbreak, since her appointment as Minister for Manpower in May 2018. She updated the House on plans regarding the workforce and the welfare of migrant workers during the pandemic. Ditto for National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who gave updates as the co-chair of the multi-ministry task force.


In his only ministerial statement so far during this term of Parliament, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ordered the whip to be lifted as he addressed allegations made by his siblings over the abuse of power. He wanted the whip to be lifted so that MPs can question him and his ministers vigorously to restore confidence in the Government.


There were no instances in the previous term of Parliament when the whip was lifted. The last instance was in November 2010 when Parliament deliberated changes to the Maintenance of Parents Act.


RELATED STORY: And the minister most often up on his own two feet was...

Private Members Bills


Three Private Member's Bills were introduced over the last two parliaments. Such Bills, which are introduced by backbencher MPs, are rare because these MPs usually have fewer resources and experience at their disposal to craft legislation. Government Bills make up the bulk of Parliament’s legislative workload and they are introduced by ministers who have staff from their ministry to help them.


In the 12th Parliament, the Prevention Of Human Trafficking Bill was introduced in 2014 by MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Christopher de Souza. Another was the Animals and Birds (Amendment) Bill introduced by MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC Yeo Guat Kwang in the same year, which also stood in the names of Mr Alex Yam, Mr Gan Thiam Poh, Mr Vikram Nair and Mr Edwin Tong.


In this term of Parliament, Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng and Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui pitched the Wild Animals and Birds (Amendment) Bill, passed in March this year. The amended legislation serves to increase penalties to those who are guilty of feeding, releasing, trapping or killing wildlife.


Six backbenchers spoke on it in support of the law, saying that it is important to protect the country’s rich biodiversity. Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and National Development Sun Xueling also weighed in to address concerns from MPs on how the amended law will be carried out.


And of course, Parliament is also a forum for the Government to announce how much they intend to spend on the country’s development for the upcoming year and MPs to debate whether the projected expenditure is justified. This is what we call “The Budget”. You can read more about it here.

By NUS Communications and New Media

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