Memo to next Parliament: Members should not be reading from prepared scripts; they should speak off the cuff with no more than cue cards. Same applies to ministers replying to questions.
I caught a few minutes of Mediacorp’s Parliament report a few days ago and the lifelessness of parliamentary proceedings struck me. There’s nothing remotely like debate. Members stand up, read their questions — often, in the cases of People’s Action Party MPs, prefaced by praise for a job well done and apologies for having a question to ask, nonetheless — followed by a minister standing up and reading his reply.
This is ridiculous. Even teenagers do better at school debates.
The worst part of it is that even if the minister’s reply is full of nonsense, or begs more questions, the scripted nature of proceedings means that the member who asked the original question, or any other member, does not rise to press a point home.
Is that because the rules of proceedings do not allow impromptu questions and interjections? Or is that because none of the members in the chamber could see whitewash and nonsense when it was laid out in front them by the minister?
If it’s the first, then rules must be changed — thus, no more scripted questions and answers, as I said in my first paragraph. If it’s the second, then the whole lot of them should be turfed out for incompetence.
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Members of Parliament Irene Ng, Zaqy Mohamad and Sylvia Lim asked Minister for Community Development and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan about the cost overruns for staging the recent Youth Olympics. He provided a breakdown of the final costs, which you can see from this graphic by the Straits Times.
Interestingly, at no time during his reply did the minister provide a breakdown of the initial estimates for comparison.
As reported by the same newspaper:
The initial YOG budget was $104 million but was revised in July to $387 million, three times the original sum.
The minister bluntly admitted the initial estimates were inaccurate, adding that he had ‘underestimated the requirements and consequential cost of several major functional areas which were necessary to host these Games’.
For instance, they did not foresee the need for costly world-class timing and information systems.
— Straits Times, 16 Sept 2010, YOG budget estimate fell short due to inexperience
Vivian Balakrishnan’s answer to the MPs desperately begged for follow-up questions. While the unexpected need for “world-class timing and information systems” might, at a pinch, be understandable, what about the rest? Look, for example, at the final cost figure for ‘upgrading sports venue and equipment’ and ‘logistics’. They were S$76 million and S$44 million, which add up to S$120 million, higher than the original total cost estimate of S$104 million.
Was the minister trying to tell us that his ministry could not foresee these? The venues used were existing ones; we didn’t build any new facilities. Their conditions could have been assessed way back when the bid was put in for the Youth Olympics, while ‘logistics’ — cleaning, transport, supply — are everyday affairs for all sorts of events.
How on earth could his ministry fail to arrive at an initial estimate that was not even close to the final figure? We know that they totally failed in this regard because if they had some idea of these two cost components alone then the initial estimate would not have been as low as S$104 million. It would be above S$120 million.
What it suggests is that his ministry is incompetent. They did not know the condition of their facilities and equipment, and therefore what upgrading was needed. As for logistics, they must have plucked their initial estimates out from thin air.
Yet, no member of parliament followed up to grill him on this.
Singaporeans are very poorly served by our “parliamentary democracy”.
To rub salt into the matter, the minister gave us the kind of rationalisation that treated us like children:
Elaborating on the gains from the YOG, he gave these figures: $7 million expected from merchandise and ticket sales; an additional $57 million in tourism receipts; $60 million worth of sponsored products and services; and $7.6 million in cash sponsorship.
Further, ‘all subsequent Olympic flags which are transferred to the host city, at the bottom right corner of that flag is embroidered ‘Singapore 2010”.
It is a permanent legacy that helps ensure Singapore stays on the radar of future investors, said Dr Balakrishnan.
There are zillions of little mementoes bearing inscriptions “Bethlehem” or “Loch Ness” taken home by tourists to these world-famous places. Are we to believe that these “permanent legacy” tokens have made them prime investment spots?
Once again, no member of parliament rose to challenge him on such juvenile statements.
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Perhaps I need to make clear my position. Personally, I was not against hosting the Youth Olympics. What gets me is how it compares to their refusal to spend even the same amount on Public Assistance for the destitute and needy. Additionally, it annoys me that Vivian does not come clean and own up to the tremendous cost and public relations bungles that so characterised the event.
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The other day, I was having dinner with some people who were civil servants. At some point during our conversation, they mentioned that they were expecting huge bonuses now that the Singapore GDP is expected to increase 13 – 15 percent this year over 2009.
I had to bite my tongue.
As I have mentioned in an earlier post, the GDP increase is impressive only if we ignore the fact that it was rebounding from a recession. Secondly, it was mostly achieved by shovelling more inputs, like foreign labour, into our economy. On a per capita basis, let alone taking into account income distribution towards the lower-paid, Singaporeans are not benefitting from this “growth”.
Yet, the GDP is the reference figure and key performance indicator for rewarding those in government service.
But what really tested my patience was when one person at the table said his wife might get an even bigger bonus (or extra bonus) than himself, she working in the Ministry of Community Development and Sports, and having had something to do with the “successful” Youth Olympic Games. It may well be wishful thinking on his part — I have no way of knowing how exactly bonuses are determined — but this expectation alone indicates a troubling disconnect between the “in-crowd” and those left out in the cold.