Just before this election campaign began, a friend shared with me some thoughts about the performance of opposition MPs in the last parliament. He wasn’t criticising them, just voicing aloud his relative disappointment that through the last four years there had not been more in-depth debate about the issues.
By chance, this was a point that Lee Hsien Loong tried to make about a week later.
“The opposition frankly has been disappointing, because when you go for election rallies, it’s very easy to make fierce rousing speeches. But when they come to Parliament, none of these issues are raised. Because they know that if in Parliament they raise those issues, face to face, in debate, they’ll be pinned down and the fallacies and insincerities will be exposed,” said Mr Lee.
“So you voted for a tiger in the chamber and you got a mouse in the house. It’s one of these Frankenstein monsters. Every night it turns into a tiger and every day it turns into a mouse.”
— ChannelNews Asia, 1 September 2015, The future of the country is at stake at this General Election: PM Lee Hsien Loong. Link
I don’t intend to get into discussion as to whether this is an accurate characterisation of opposition MPs’ performance or not, though it is worth noting that each one of them spoke up or asked questions at a rate well above that of nearly all PAP members of parliament.
I suspect that key reason that left my friend slightly dissatisfied is that there were simply not enough of them. To have a debate that is truly substantive requires two conditions:
If there were more opposition MPs, they could divide the issues among them. Then there would be something analogous to the ‘shadow cabinet’ that typify how the lead opposition party organises itself in the UK or Australian parliament.
Having more opposition MPs – and hopefully of a calibre that can face off a rough debate – is of course a matter for the Singapore electorate to produce. In Singapore’s case, I think we need at least 20 opposition MPs (preferably 30) before they can afford to specialise, but I don’t foresee such a result from this election.
An equally big problem is that debating in the absence of data can be dangerously prone to inaccurate assumptions.
My friend was particularly frustrated by what he saw as the extreme reluctance of ministries to release data. He felt the civil servants ought to engage more with all members of parliament. I am not sure that the problem can be attributed to civil servants alone; I am pretty sure there is a political motive to being parsimonious and selective about data release, and this political motive naturally springs from the minister himself or herself.
The way to cure this is to have a Freedom of Information Act – something I have written about previously (so I won’t rehash it here). In brief, it would mean institutionalising a process by which any citizen can request for data, subject only to a filtering mechanism to check whether the information so requested would be highly damaging to Singapore’s security and diplomatic interests. But it would be naïve to think that having more opposition members of parliament (even 30) will bring us closer to a Freedom of Information Act. Something like this needs a legislative majority.
In the interim, one way around it is to have opposition MPs ask plenty of verbal and written questions at each sitting of parliament. This however is less than satisfactory because the minister may simply give a partial reply. Moreover, a concise question is sometimes a poor way to obtain raw data that needs to be in several tables in order to be useful and open to dissection and analysis.
Most crucially, there is a rule limiting the number of questions an MP can ask in each sitting to five. Parliamentary Standing Orders, section 20(3) says:
(3) A Member may have up to five questions on the Order Paper at any one time and not more than three of these questions shall be for oral answer. A Member requiring an oral answer to his question shall mark it with an asterisk.
With such a tight limit, we’re once again back to this problem: if we want more substantive debate, we first must have more data, and to get data, we need more opposition MPs.
Getting data is not a complete substitute to civil servants engaging with MPs. Within every ministry, all sorts of worthwhile studies are done, and many of these studies produce multiple projections based on varying scenarios or they unearth qualitative insights. Conversations between MPs and civil servants, not parliamentary questions, are the best way for MPs to share and benefit from the same insights and projections. Moreover, the MP can add insights drawn from his or her ground-level interactions which the civil servant can use to refine those studies. This would make for more thorough parliamentary debate and sounder policy-making.
How will we ever get the MPs and civil servants to talk to each other? My friend asked, perhaps rhetorically.
I could think of no ready answer. I’m not sure if this can ever be legislated. “But,” I mused, “maybe this is the kind of problem that will take care of itself one day.”
Consider this: If we had truly competitive politics and an opposition party had a real shot of winning a majority in the following election and forming the government, wouldn’t the civil servant naturally adjust his behaviour? Self-preservation would suggest to him that should the MP ask for a meeting and a sharing of information, the civil servant would more likely accept than decline. After all, this MP could well be his minister and boss after the next election!
There is of course the possibility that the existing government might use the Official Secrets Act liberally and forbid civil servants from sharing anything with MPs. The way I see it, it is civil servants themselves who decide what’s secret and what’s not. Using the OSA liberally in a way to stonewall discussion with MPs may itself be taken as a sign that the civil servant is playing partisan politics. Not a smart way to protect one’s career.
So here again, this is the bottom line. If we want a more substantive debate about alternatives, if we want more informed debate in parliament and sounder policy-making, we just need more opposition MPs. Changing the gross imbalance that exists now is to change the whole tone and dynamics of parliament… for the better.