Parliament: Ask and you shall receive ⁠— most of the time

Updated: May 31

By Christalle Tay and Loraine Lee


Class Notes trawls Parliamentary records from over a year for the Government’s answers to Written Questions, to see if Members of Parliament (MPs) always get the information they ask for.


While requests for live broadcasts of Parliament have been shot down yet again, there are other less visible parliamentary proceedings taking place away from the public eye. One of these is known as questions for written answers. Unlike for oral answers, these questions and answers aren’t for the cameras in Parliament. Instead, they are published online on Hansard like other parliamentary proceedings for citizens to peruse about seven working days later. 


Class Notes reviewed answers to 515 Written Questions from January 2019 to March 2020. These covered replies by the 15 ministries as well as the Prime Minister’s Office, which are usually to requests for statistics by MPs. Some MPs also try their luck at pushing for policy changes - usually to no avail.  


The drawback in asking for written answers is that the MP cannot ask supplementary questions to clarify them. They would have to table another question or get an answer in oral form. Knowing this, how well does the Government answer their Written Questions? A detailed look at our analysis can be found here.


Our conclusion: On average, the ministries answered three in four questions in full.


Only the Ministry of Law (MINLAW), Ministry of Finance (MOF) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) replied to all questions in full. These ministries also had fewer questions to answer: MINLAW had 13 questions, MOF had four and MFA had the fewest with two. The median number of questions sent to a ministry over the 15-month time period we examined was 29.5. 


Each MP may ask up to five questions at each sitting, with a limit on three oral questions which are answered in Parliament.


RELATED STORY: Which MPs have asked the most questions in Parliament?


MPs’ questions are always focused on a single topic and typically asked in parts. We considered the answers “partial answer” if one or more parts were unanswered; it is a “non-answer” if no parts were answered. If the ministry provided an explanation for not answering a part, we considered it answered. 


Our checks showed that the public-facing ministries drew more interest from MPs, like the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) which had 84 questions, the Ministry of Health (MOH) with 69 questions and the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) with 66. Of the three, MEWR had the highest percentage of full answers, 80.3 per cent, but it also had two non-answers. 


MOH, along with six other ministries, had a smaller percentage of full answers than the average of 76.5 per cent. Five ministries had between 65 and 71 per cent — MOH, Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Ministry of Education (MOE), Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and the PMO. The remaining two fell below the average by larger margins: MINDEF answered only half of its four questions fully and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) answered just five of its nine questions in full.



 A summary of popular topics by ministry can be found here.


Most of MOM’s 84 questions were about work passes, foreign domestic workers and the CPF. There was some interest in workplace-related injuries, such those who work in the heat or at heights. The issue of sufficient segregation in foreign workers’ dormitories, which was said to be a cause for the bulk of confirmed Covid-19 cases, was brought up only once in the time frame we explored.


Non-constituency MP (NCMP) Dennis Tan on March 4 asked how those on Stay-Home Notices would be separated from other workers in the dorms. He was told that those on SHN would stay in a separate area, be provided with food and daily necessities, and kept to their rooms unless they required medical attention. MOM also said it had advised dorm operators to cease mass activities and stagger the use of common facilities.


For MOH, most of the questions had to do with long-term care services and MediSave. Eleven of 69 questions were on the capacity, utilisation and cost of long-term care services and another 11 were MediSave-related, usually asking for an expansion of healthcare coverage.  Other recurring topics were caregiver numbers and mental health, most of them asked by nominated MPs (NMP) Anthea Ong and Walter Theseira. 


Unsurprisingly, air quality was the hot-button issue for the MEWR, particularly around early-October last year, when Singapore suffered the worst haze since 2016. Haze-related questions made up 21 of the 66 the ministry received. Another current event which prompted multiple questions was when the Ministry of Transport (MOT) had to respond to questions on a string of PMD-related accidents which culminated into a controversial ban of PMDs from footpaths on Nov 4 last year. It received 12 questions, the most popular topic of its 42 questions.


DO SOME TYPES OF QUESTIONS GET ANSWERED BETTER?


Questions for written answers typically ask for figures, clarification of policies or their progress. Compared to other ministries, MOH, MSF and MINLAW drew more questions for statistics. The bulk of the questions, however, are more qualitative in nature, which give ministers the leeway to elaborate as much or as little as they like.


Even though statistical questions, by nature, ask for straightforward replies, they made up the majority of the partial and non-answers for five ministries: MOH, MHA, MOE, MTI and MINDEF. The ministries either ignored the question or gave partial statistics, like leaving out statistics for some years or age groups without explanation.


In one case, the ministry gave a general response to a question that only asked for statistics. Mr Louis Ng had asked MOE for the percentages of students who live in rented HDB flats, in the Normal (Technical), Normal (Academic) and Express streams in secondary school. 


Without providing any number, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung replied that the “percentage of students in Normal streams living in public rental HDB flats are higher than that in Express stream”. He added: “Social economic status has become significantly correlated with PSLE results. This is inevitable as lives improved and lower income families make progress over the years, with children doing better than their parents.”


It also seems that statistical questions, when too nitty-gritty, are more likely to go unanswered. For example, NMP Anthea Ong posed a four-part statistical question to MND about rental flats. Only two parts — part (a) and (c) — were fully answered. 


The rest of the questions wanted statistics on very specific groups. Part (b) asked how many rental flats house more than one nuclear household, broken down by three different housing schemes — Public Rental Scheme, Interim Rental Housing Scheme and Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme. The ministry said it was around 70 rental flats, without breaking it down by scheme. 


Part (d) asked: “how many rental flats house (i) 3 persons (ii) 4 persons (iii) 5 persons (iv) 6 persons and (v) more than 6 persons, broken down by (i) 1-room (ii) 2-room (iii) 3-room and (iv) 4-room flats respectively.” The answer combined the number for flats housing at least three persons and only broke it down by 1-room and 2-room or larger. 


Other times, MPs are simply told that the data is not collected, which we took as an answer in full in our tabulation. This did not stop Mr Ng, however, who in August last year  asked two similar questions in two consecutive sittings. 


On Aug 5, he asked MOH how many 7- and 12-year-old children have contracted Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (HFMD) at least once during their life, and was told it was not recorded. The next day, he repeated his question, but modified to include children “(i) below 7 years old and (ii) between 7 and 12 years old (inclusive)... who contracted HFMD (i) once (ii) twice or (iii) three or more times respectively”. 


He was told again that it was not tracked. 


MPs also sometimes suggest new measures or ask if the ministries would consider changing some parts of their policies. When the answer is no, the MPs are cited existing measures or get a standard regurgitation of policy rationale, occasionally punctuated with a promise to review them someday.


Parliamentary questions rarely spark announcements of new policies or policy changes but MPs like Ms Joan Pereira remain enthused in suggesting them. Among others, she has asked for guidelines for seniors’ eyecare, hawkers to prevent contamination and to identify rotting trees; learning programmes for schools about personal hygiene, vaccines and scams; and a workshop for parents to learn how to help their children with schoolwork. She is usually told the Government has already implemented sufficient solutions. 


A few MPs, usually opposition or Nominated MPs, have asked for information to be made publicly available with varied success. 


Between January 2019 and March 2020, there were eight questions asking for information to be made public, of which six were answered — not all positive. 


Of the six answered requests, one did not have the requested data to make available, one was told the information was already publicly available and another two received the information they had requested to make public in the answer itself. Two requests — to make Government Financial Statements (GFS) available for public perusal online and for publicly accessible digital materials held by the National Library Board (NLB) and National Archives of Singapore (NAS) to be available for download — were rejected. 


These were the six requests that were addressed:

These are the links to the questions:

The two unanswered questions were posed to MEWR and MOT. 


Last year, Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh asked MEWR when the National Environmental Agency (NEA) life cycle assessment study on plastics would be made public in its entirety. MEWR said that a factsheet on the key findings of the 2016 study was released in 2018, and NEA “will work with NUS to release more information on the study, focusing on the methodologies and assumptions… when ready”. 


MEWR did not provide a date nor explain why a then-three-year-old study needed more time.


To MOT, Mr Louis Ng asked in March if there would be independent environmental assessments of the construction of the Cross Island MRT Line on the Central Catchment Nature Reserve area, and if the ministry would release regular reports to the public. 


The ministry said there will be an environmental consultant, independently assessed by a panel of experts, to implement mitigation measures that were identified in an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report published in September 2019. There was no mention of the “regular reports” that Mr Ng asked about.


However, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) had in 2016 and 2019 appointed a private consulting firm, Environmental Resources Management Pte Ltd, to study the environmental impact of the line. Its 2016 report was available for public viewing at LTA while the 2019 report was made available online and open to public feedback for a month. 


Compared to the PAP MPs, opposition and nominated MPs seemed more interested in certain ministries. 


Of the ministries, WP MPs were most interested in MND, asking 14 questions mainly on public housing. They had fewer than 10 questions for most ministries, none for MFA and only one question for MCI, MCCY and MINDEF. To MOF, which received among the least questions, three of the four questions it received were asked by WP MPs.  


Besides Mr Singh’s question on Government Financial Statements put online, NCMP Leon Perera asked two questions: how the Government would reduce “overly conserative budgeting”, and if the state investment arms Temasek and GIC change their audit engagement partners regularly. 


WP also seemed particularly interested to find out from MOH how many people used MediSave to pay for their parents’ healthcare costs. In January last year, MP for Aljunied Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap asked: “in each of the past five years (a) what is the number of people using their MediSave to pay for their parents' healthcare cost; and (b) what is the median withdrawal value.”


The minister gave this table:

PHOTO: HANSARD, MINISTRY OF HEALTH


Class Notes considered it a full answer for having answered the point of the question, despite some details deviating from what was requested: it gave the number of withdrawals instead of the number of people, and “average” amount instead of “median” amount. 


However, this did not satisfy the WP, which had a second member, Mr Chen Show Mao ask the exact same question in September. To which, the ministry gave an almost identical reply, but with additional details for 2018.  The only difference between both answers was an additional column displaying the number of withdrawals as a percentage of unique bills.


PHOTO: HANSARD, MINISTRY OF HEALTH


GENERALISATIONS FOR GRASSROOT QUESTIONS 


Questions that touch on partisan politics usually receive vague replies or are glossed over. Three questions involved the People’s Association (PA), the statutory board that oversees grassroot matters and the receiving end of accusations of partisanship, such as its links with the ruling party and the disbursement of funds for community projects


NMP Anthea Ong asked MCCY in November last year about the influence PA grassroot advisors and elected MPs have over the appointment of grassroot leaders, and its operations and decisions of Citizens' Consultative Committees (CCCs) and the funds it administers — the Community Development and Welfare Fund (CDWFs) and Citizens' Consultative Committee ComCare Fund (CCF).  


MCCY answered this together with a second question by Ms Ong, which asked for more numbers about how the CCC’s funds were used for residents. Both were partially answered. 

Ms Ong’s attempt to differentiate between a grassroot advisor’s and elected MP’s role may be prompted by events that were ongoing at that time. A few weeks earlier, WP chief Singh on Facebook pointed to a delayed ramp project in his constituency and accused the PA, which disburses funds for community projects through the CCC, of ignoring proposals by opposition MPs. 


The Opposition has long criticised the politicised role of PA grassroot advisors, who are all PAP members, even for opposition wards. 


RELATED STORY: Face-off in Aljunied, Hougang


Mr Chan Chun Sing, also the deputy chairman of the PA, answered for the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth: “The role of Grassroots Advisors is different from that of MPs… These include difficult and unpopular policies which are necessary for the good of Singapore… In appointing GRAs, the PA therefore looks to those whom can be entrusted to carry out this role faithfully.” 


It was a revival of his response to WP MPs who questioned the role of grassroot advisors in opposition wards during a debate in March 2018


“This includes explaining difficult and sometimes unpopular policies that are necessary for the future of Singapore, such as the GST hike and foreign manpower policies. We do not presume that opposition Members of Parliament believe that they will be willing or able to execute this role for the Government of the day.”


Another question involving the PA was asked by WP chairman Sylvia Lim to MND. She asked (a) why HDB issues Temporary Occupation Licences (TOLs) over state land to entities such as the PA’s CCC for durations of several years at a time; and (b) what is the rate of fees the PA is charged for the TOLs.


MND’s reply was vague. It stated the standard rules for TOL and referred Ms Lim to the Singapore Land Authority’s website for the rate, which depend on factors like “the type of use, the duration requested by the applicant, and when the land is required for development”. The relevant specifics for Ms Lim’s question on the CCC were not given. 


True to the Prime Minister’s tradition of keeping mum about the formation of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) until it has been formed, his office dodged a question from Mr Singh who asked in July last year if the EBRC had been formed, and if not, when the PM intended to do so. 


The reply was simply that the EBRC was not yet appointed. The second part of the question was ignored.


The EBRC’s report, which maps out new boundaries and is seen as a harbinger of elections, has always been a point of interest for the Opposition, who are anxious to draw up election plans with the new battleground. The Opposition’s probing may be warranted, as the formation of the 2015 committee was only revealed two months later in a parliamentary response. The most recent EBRC was announced a month after its formation last August.


RELATED STORY: Boundaries committee report: Why so secret?


A later question by Mr Singh, which came after the announcement of the EBRC, asked for the date of formation. This was fully answered — the committee was formed on 1 August 2019.


NO SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION


Parliamentary questions are governed by a set of guidelines laid out in the Standing Orders, papers which dictate parliamentary decorum. The guidelines are to ensure the questions are not used as fuel for debate and that they are kept concise. Although the Speaker of Parliament only lets through questions that abide by the guidelines, some ministries still face befuddling questions outside their purview. 


Aljunied GRC MP Muhamad Faisal asked MCCY for its strategy for Singapore’s national football team to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in 2034, a question usually asked of the athletes or their management.


Minister Grace Fu, unsurprisingly, deferred the question: “We look forward to hearing from the FAS (Football Association of Singapore) on their plan to achieving their stated goal, and how the football fraternity, community and the Government can support them in their efforts.”


Another seemingly random question was posed by Ang Mo Kio MP Gan Thiam Poh, who asked MOM for the proportion of full-time and part-time jobs, last held by persons who have died. The ministry said it did not track such figures.


RELATED STORY: Parliament Q&A: Facts and figures can be touchy subjects too


Despite one guideline that forbids questions that seek information already set forth in accessible documents or ordinary works of reference, MPs have asked for information available on the Internet. 


For example, Nee Soon GRC MP Henry Kwek asked MOM if it could share how monthly payouts from CPF Life or the Retirement Sum Scheme are calculated and the assumptions in determining the payouts, through the publication of guidelines and online calculators. He was told the online calculators as well as the information he asked for were already on the CPF website. 


Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Joan Pereira also found out from MOE that online versions of schools’ syllabus could be found on MOE’s website, when she asked the ministry last November if it could do so, to allow parents to guide their children where needed. 


ASK, ASK AND ASK AGAIN

Unlike oral answers in Parliament, the written answer format makes it impossible to follow-up on the answers in the same sitting if the MP is dissatisfied. But that hasn’t prevented a few MPs from having a second or even a third try for some clarity and details. 


Over three Parliamentary sittings, MP Louis Ng asked Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo about discrepancies in work permit holder’s salary and the amount stated in their In-Principle Approval (IPA) letter. You can see his attempts here


NMP Walter Theresia asked MOH for the number of Singaporeans using care services, broken down by nursing homes, home care, day care and respite care services but was only given the numbers for subsidised care services.  


The next parliamentary sitting, he asked again, this time for the capacity and utilisation rates of the services. The second part of his question asked if the utilisation rate indicates an unmet demand or underutilisation. The ministry answered him in full.


It seems there is no one formula to scoring a full answer from a particular ministry, although certain pitfalls are more obvious — like asking about the feasibility of a new policy or a policy change. Also, issues that touch on grassroot matters that affect the political playing field usually get the brush-off.


The questions asked tell as much about the MPs’ pet topics and research done (or not done), as well as the ministries’ attitude towards transparency. Some MPs have proved more tenacious than others in getting replies, while others seem content to let non-answers or partial answers slide. 


However, the fact that MPs have to resort to filing parliamentary questions to receive basic information like government expenditure — on Singapore’s Bicentennial activities and foreign students — raises questions about whether some information should be freely available and not just for politicians alone. Questions filed to obtain statistics about the effectiveness of policies are also typical, such as those on the utilisation of MediSave and welfare funds.


The 2015 Global Open Data Index ranked Singapore 23rd out of 122 countries in data openness with an openness level of 50 per cent, the worst-performing aspects being election results and government spending. Ministries might wish to benchmark their transparency profiles, such as how much information they make available, against the practices of other bureaucracies. 


One group that would be pleased to have more data to crunch would be the academics. Assoc Prof Theresia commented during the budget debate on Feb 27 that increasing access to data will allow for more credible academic research, which will “allow Singaporeans to speak from a position of strength on the issues of the day”. He added that increasing publicly available data can also help dispel misguided views, such as immigration, in Singapore. 


This is in reference to his calculations which showed that while PRs earned 35 per cent more than citizens, they are 50 per cent more likely to be retrenched. Describing it as a “mixed picture” that needed more study, he noted that academics needed data, not estimates, to paint an accurate picture of immigration in Singapore.


More data in the public domain can allow for better assessment of issues and crafting of solutions. During a webinar in April hosted by Community for Advocacy and Political Education and the Singapore Policy Journal, community researcher at Massey University Kokila Annamalai said the restriction of data hinders non-governmental organisations from having fruitful and informed discussions with the state.


The filing of parliamentary questions, a privilege accorded to MPs, cannot be the only way to obtain information that should be publicly available. And when questions are asked, ministries need to be more accountable in explaining why answers are not available — instead of ignoring or fudging the answers. 


More information will only add to the civic education of citizens. Please don’t make them so hard to find. 


Additional reporting by Ethan Tay, Alvina Koh, Calida Soh, Chandreyee Ray, and Cheng Yui Seeng.

By NUS Communications and New Media

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