“The widening income gap and the challenges that low-wage Singaporeans face will take centre stage when Parliament sits next week” (MPs To Raise Low-Wage Workers Issue, Miss Cassandra Chew).
As Singapore’s Member-of-Parliaments (MP) make preparations for the upcoming Parliamentary sessions – revealed in the news report “MPs To Raise Low-Wage Workers Issue” (January 8, 2011) by Miss Cassandra Chew – and with the imminent General Elections (GE), it is worth contemplating the value of parliament sittings and sessions beyond its traditional symbolic purpose. As a legislative body, it has done reasonably well in its responsibilities of financial control, bill debates and general law-making; however, because of the dominance of a singular political party, there is considerable room for improvement with regard to maintaining ministerial accountability.
The solution lies in rendering sessions for engaging, and empowering MPs with greater liberty to spontaneously raise questions to ministers and stakeholders, as well as to exchange policy perspectives more freely. The current system of requiring politicians to submit written notices of their queries seems counter-intuitive, since the status quo encourages pedantic exchanges that could be duplicated in written formats; thereby rendering a majority of vis-à-vis parliamentary sittings unnecessary. This practice of going through the motion discourages active debate on issues of considerable importance, as Cabinet ministers are safeguarded by pre-prepared substantiations and assertions.
Increasing the interactivity of Question Time would significantly raise the profile of parliamentary sessions, and grant MPs – particularly those from the Opposition parties – the ability to highlight certain developments or the lack of clarity in statements, government policies or views. More importantly, ministers and appointment holders are naturally tasked with the role of defending or espousing their departments’ rationales, addressing criticisms skillfully, and convincing – as opposed to coercing – fellow colleagues and stakeholders to collectively agree on appropriate courses of action.
Even though the general intention of Parliamentary sittings is to generate momentum for substantive agreement for bills or policies, a good start would be to ease restrictions on existing questions. Given the increasing importance of rhetorical capabilities and convictions, MPs that cleverly draw opinions, arguments or present inferential expressions should be given credit. The presentation of hypothetical scenarios can go a long way to value-add questions-and-answers, if the politicians can make tangible links to the discussion at hand. An assortment of diverse speech-styles and presentation of questions provide another form of subtle check-and-balance; further refining legislative pills or policy documents.
Instances in Britain, through the Prime Minister’s Questions, have shown that these platforms not only raise accountability of politicians, but also increase the public’s awareness and comprehension of political discourse. If managed properly with heightened levels of civility, the administration can most certainly adopt a similar format to enhance the existing quality and utility of sittings and sessions.