[TMG Exclusive] Speaking truth to Parliament

Aug 12, 2015 11.22AM |
 

MEMBERS of Parliament are busy people, we all know that. Most of them have full-time jobs. But still they have to find the time to look after you – their constituents. From dealing with parking fines, to deciding how much to spend and on what, no issue is too big or small for the people you voted to represent you in the G.

The big issues are debated in Parliament and – not including the upcoming sitting on August 17 – there have been a total of 115 sessions since the last election in 2011.

Now that GE2015 is on the horizon, we had one question: How often is your MP showing up in Parliament, and how hard is he (or she) working to speak up for you?

The results will surprise you. MPs whom you might expect to be quite vocal turned out not so; and only two MPs attended all 115 sittings. Who? Read on.

The reason we looked into this was simple: Over the past few years, the attention on MPs has focused on their duties and responsibilities as town councillors. This is an important aspect of their work – to ensure that they are able to run the housing estates under their charge.

But what underpins this work is a more fundamental duty: to speak up for the people, scrutinise new legislation, and check against G excesses.

This was a point that PM himself made right after the 2011 General Election, in a seven-page letter addressed to his party’s MPs. In the letter, titled Rules of Prudence, PM Lee laid down how he thought an MP should behave.

Topping the list with regards to Parliament? Showing up.

“MPs are expected to attend all sittings of Parliament,” he wrote. “If you have to be absent from any sitting, seek the prior permission of the Government Whip. Please inform the Whip if you have to leave the Parliament premises while a sitting is on.”

Read the full letter here.

To find out how many times each MP showed up in Parliament, we looked at every single Voters and Proceedings document filed by the 12th Parliament. As there have been 115 sittings, there were 115 reports. We combed through all of them, counted who showed up how many times, and put that into a table.

PartyMember of ParliamentGRC/SMCTotal Attendance from 2011-2015
PAPLee Bee WahNee Soon111
PAPZainal Bin SapariPasir-Ris Punggol110
PAPGan Thiam PohPasir-Ris Punggol108
PAPChristopher De SouzaHolland-Bukit Timah110
PAPDavid Ong Kim HuatJurong107
PAPZaqy MohamadChua Chu Kang100
PAPAng Wei NengJurong114
PAPBaey Yam KengTampines112
PAPTin Pei LingMarine Parade106
PAPAlex Yam ZimingChua Chu Kang110
PAPTay Teck Guan PatrickNee Soon108
PAPIntan Azura Minte MokhtarAng Mo Kio108
PAPFatimah LateefMarine Parade94
PAPFoo Mee HarWest Coast108
PAPLim Biow ChuanMountbatten112
PAPHri Kumar NairBishan-Toa Payoh105
PAPIrene Ng Phek HoongTampines93
PAPYeo Guat KwangAng Mo Kio104
PAPAng Hin KeeAng Mo Kio104
PAPLiang Eng HwaHolland-Bukit Timah112
PAPJanil PuthuchearyPasir-Ris Punggol113
PAPLim Wee KiakNee Soon112
PAPEllen Lee Geck HoonSembawang110
PAPVikram NairSembawang107
PAPSitoh Yih PinPotong Pasir111
PAPZainudin NordinBishan-Toa Payoh108
PAPChia Shi-LuTanjong Pagar100
PAPPenny LowPasir-Ris Punggol105
PAPLily NeoTanjong Pagar104
PAPSeng Han ThongAng Mo Kio110
PAPArthur FongWest Coast102
PAPJessica Tan Soon NeoEast Coast97
PAPOng Teng KoonSembawang100
PAPEdwin Tong Chui FaiMoulmein-Kallang106
PAPCedric Foo Chee KengPioneer95
PAPInderjit SinghAng Mo Kio99
PAPAlvin YeoChua Chu Kang95
PAPWong Kan SengBishan-Toa Payoh106
PAPMah Bow TanTampines82
PAPRaymond LimEast Coast82
WPLow Thia KhiangAljunied115
WPSylvia LimAljunied113
WPChen Show MaoAljunied108
WPMuhamad Faisal Bin Abdul ManapAljunied114
WPPritam SinghAljunied114
WPPng Eng HuatHougang89
WPLee Li LianPunggol East73
WPYaw Shin LeongHougang13
NCMP (SPP)Lina ChiamNCMP (Potong Pasir)113
NCMP(WP)Gerald Giam Yean SongNCMP (East Coast)115
NCMP (WP)Yee Jenn JongNCMP (Joo Chiat)110

We focused on backbenchers, because they are the ones who often have the most direct contact with the people on the ground and thus most likely to be in tune with how policy is perceived, or whether policy-makers have got it right in responding to public need.

What we found, after several days of pulling together these public records, quite frankly surprised us. For example, you’ll see that not one single PAP MP attended all 115 sittings. The most number of times was 114, with Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong) in top spot. He was followed by Mr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol) with 113, and Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines), Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah), and Mr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon), all of whom attended 112 sessions.

On the Workers’ Party side, there were two people who attended all 115 sittings: Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied) and Mr Gerald Giam, a Non-Constituency MP (NCMP). Mr Low’s fellow Aljunied members Muhamad Faisal and Pritam Singh came a close second, attending 114 sessions, and Ms Sylvia Lim, also in Aljunied GRC, attended 113.

NCMP Lina Chiam also had one of the highest attendance rates at 113 sittings.

Who attended the least number of sessions?

Mr Yaw Shin Leong from the Workers’ Party at only 13 sittings, but he was in Parliament for only two years from 2011 to 2012. Comparing MPs who were in Parliament throughout the 2011-2015 period, it was a tie between Mr Mah Bow Tan (Tampines) and Mr Raymond Lim (East Coast) – though, at 82 sittings both former ministers’ attendance rate is still at about 70 per cent.

 

Mark my words

We then turned our attention to how many times each backbencher spoke or raised an issue in Parliament. We combed through the Parliament Reports, also known as the Hansard records, hoping to find out which backbenchers in the 12th Parliament were the most vocal in questioning the G and raising issues to be discussed and debated.

As a baseline for comparison, we counted the number of sittings when individual backbencher MPs spoke up, rather than how many instances of speaking altogether. Here’s what we found:

PartyMember of ParliamentGRC/SMCTotal number of times spoken in Parliament from 2011-2015
PAPLee Bee WahNee Soon87
PAPZainal Bin SapariPasir-Ris Punggol79
PAPGan Thiam PohPasir-Ris Punggol77
PAPChristopher De SouzaHolland-Bukit Timah71
PAPDavid Ong Kim HuatJurong71
PAPZaqy MohamadChua Chu Kang71
PAPAng Wei NengJurong70
PAPBaey Yam KengTampines68
PAPTin Pei LingMarine Parade66
PAPAlex Yam ZimingChua Chu Kang65
PAPTay Teck Guan PatrickNee Soon63
PAPIntan Azura Minte MokhtarAng Mo Kio62
PAPFatimah LateefMarine Parade61
PAPFoo Mee HarWest Coast60
PAPLim Biow ChuanMountbatten60
PAPHri Kumar NairBishan-Toa Payoh58
PAPIrene Ng Phek HoongTampines58
PAPYeo Guat KwangAng Mo Kio57
PAPAng Hin KeeAng Mo Kio55
PAPLiang Eng HwaHolland-Bukit Timah53
PAPJanil PuthuchearyPasir-Ris Punggol49
PAPLim Wee KiakNee Soon49
PAPEllen lee Geck HoonSembawang48
PAPVikram NairSembawang45
PAPSitoh Yih PinPotong Pasir39
PAPZainudin NordinBishan-Toa Payoh39
PAPChia Shi-LuTanjong Pagar38
PAPPenny LowPasir-Ris Punggol36
PAPLily NeoTanjong Pagar36
PAPSeng Han ThongAng Mo Kio33
PAPArthur FongWest Coast32
PAPJessica Tan Soon NeoEast Coast30
PAPOng Teng KoonSembawang25
PAPEdwin Tong Chui FaiMoulmein-Kallang24
PAPCedric Foo Chee KengPioneer22
PAPInderjit SinghAng Mo Kio20
PAPAlvin YeoChua Chu Kang16
PAPWong Kan SengBishan-Toa Payoh2
PAPMah Bow TanTampines1
PAPRaymond LimEast Coast0
WPLow Thia KhiangAljunied54
WPSylvia LimAljunied70
WPChen Show MaoAljunied45
WPMuhamad Faisal Bin Abdul ManapAljunied70
WPPritam SinghAljunied77
WPPng Eng HuatHougang59
WPLee Li LianPunggol East46
WPYaw Shin LeongHougang7
NCMP (SPP)Lina ChiamNCMP (Potong Pasir)83
NCMP (WP)Gerald Giam Yean SongNCMP (East Coast)80
NCMP (WP)Yee Jenn JongNCMP (Joo Chiat)87

The most outspoken MP was Dr Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon), who spoke up in 87 sittings. The head of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) on National Development and Environment dwelt mainly on her area of focus, particularly on housing issues such as the waiting time to apply and obtain for HDB rental flats and the cost of buying HDB flats.

For the rest of the time, she spoke on topics ranging from hospitalisation care, benefits for foreign workers to promoting sporting activities in schools. She once suggested that the Transport Ministry stop ERP charges during evenings and Saturdays so that family members could visit each other.

In second place was Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol), who spoke in 79 sessions of Parliament. The Labour MP made many suggestions, including extending the usage of the Post-Secondary Education (PSE) Accounts to include degree programmes in private institutions, revising the target for low-wage workers’ salaries to increase in real terms by 50 per cent, and allowing foreign workers in the service sectors to be housed at approved purpose-built dormitories like their counterparts in the construction and marine sector.

Coming in third was Mr Gan Thiam Poh, also an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol. In the 77 sessions of Parliament in which he spoke up, Mr Gan proposed ideas such as providing free MediShield coverage to the lowest 20 percentile of citizens with a per capita income of $750 and under. He also supported the introduction of a new family car category for COE, and the increase in the Special CPF Housing Grant to lower income families who have more than three children to buy their own flats of three rooms or less.

We were surprised that MP Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio), known for his frank eloquence, spoke only in 20 of the 115 Parliament sittings. Perhaps, this was proof that it matters more what you say, than how often or loud you say it.

At the bottom of the list were the former ministers. Mr Raymond Lim (East Coast) spoke up zero times. Not once in all the 115 Parliament sessions held since 2011. Then there’s Mr Mah Bow Tan, who spoke only once, and Mr Wong Kan Seng (Bishan-Toa Payoh) who spoke twice.

This also surprised us, not least because we expected Mr Lim, Mr Mah and Mr Wong, all of whom are long-serving MPs, to have quite a lot to contribute in Parliament.

Mr Wong himself served as Home Affairs Minister and was Deputy Prime Minister from 2005 to 2011, but since he retired from the Cabinet in 2011, he has only spoken twice – once in 2013 to defend the G’s Population White Paper, and the second in 2015 in a tribute to the former PM Lee Kuan Yew.

We turned to PAP to see if they could help us understand what we uncovered. Was there a reason for the ministers’ silence – was it party policy, or a matter of personal preference, for example?

Also: Does the PAP keep track of these records? Were PM Lee’s Rules of Prudence binding in any way?

We sent our questions to the PAP on Monday and requested that it reply us by Tuesday. Yesterday evening, it said it regretfully could not respond to our queries given the short deadline we gave them.

Within the Workers’ Party, the most vocal MP was Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied), who spoke during 77 sittings. The MP who spoke in the least sittings – not including MPs Lee Li Lian, Png Eng Huat and Yaw Shin Leong, all of whom were voted in as MPs for only part of the four-year term (2011-2015) – was Mr Chen Show Mao (Aljunied), who spoke 45 times.

NCMPs spoke up the most number of times among the Opposition, with WP’s Yee Jenn Jong leading the group at 87 times, followed by Ms Lina Chiam (83 times) and Mr Gerald Giam (80 times).

 

Talking heads

Not counting the 39 office-holders, there are 40 PAP backbenchers in Parliament, including 17 first-term MPs. Out of these,11 are heads of Government Parliamentary Committees (GPC), which are set up to focus on specific areas such as education, transport, and health.

GPC ChairmanCommittee PortfolioNumber of times spoken on issues not related to GPCNumber of times spoken on GPCTotal number of times spoken
Sitoh Yih PinDefence and Foreign Affairs512071
Lim Biow ChuanEducation14135176
Liang Eng HwaFinance, Trade & Industry7626102
Chia Shi-LuHealth223557
Hri Kumar NairHome Affairs, Law4371112
Zaqy MohamadCommunications and Information14637183
Zainudin NordinManpower501565
Lee Bee WahNational Development and Environment141142283
Cedric FooTransport112637
Baey Yam KengCulture, Community and Youth/Deputy chair in Communication and Information4880128

The most active backbencher was still Dr Lee Bee Wah, who as chairwoman of the National Development and Environment GPC spoke a total of 238 times, about half of which were on issues related to her GPC.

Coming in second among the GPC leaders was Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang), who heads the Communications and Information GPC. Eight times out of 10, he discussed diverse issues outside of the scope of his GPC. Of the 71 sessions in Parliament that he spoke in, he broached many issues for the Malay community like their health concerns, and how Muis can better enable the Muslim community in Singapore to manage the challenges in the Islamic world.

During one of those sessions in Parliament, he had asked the Foreign Minister how he was going to communicate the G’s position to Muslims and non-Muslims regarding the Gaza Conflict so as to manage the potential divisiveness of the issue.

In third place was Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), head of the Education GPC, who contributed to the forum mostly on non-education issues during the 176 occasions that he spoke.

Rather surprisingly, another GPC chairman was placed close to the end of the “speaking” list. Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer), chairman of the Transport GPC, spoke up at only 22 sittings, even though public transport has been a primary concern of Singaporeans in recent time. Mr Foo used to be a Minister of State for the Ministry of Defence in 2002 after leaving Singapore Airlines, He took on the additional portfolio for the Ministry of National Development in 2004, until May 2005 when he returned to the private sector by joining NOL.

During the 22 sittings, he spoke 37 times, mostly regarding transport issues.

 

Rules or guidelines?

The 2011 General Election was considered by many to be a “watershed election”, with the PAP garnering 60.1 per cent of the general vote and losing its first GRC to the Workers’ Party.

PM Lee’s Rules of Prudence described the task that laid ahead for his party’s MPs: “You have to listen hard to voter concerns, help them to tackle pressing needs, reflect their worries and aspirations to the Government and persuade them to support policies which are in their own long term benefit.”

What conclusions are we to draw from these records, if any? If the Prime Minister expects MPs to attend all Parliament sittings, is a 70 per cent attendance rate good enough? Are your MPs speaking up enough to reflect your concerns in a substantive way?

We can only guess at what the PM might say. What say you?

 

Reporting by Joshua Lim, Nicholas Khaw, Jesselyn Lee, and Cindy Co.

[Editor’s note: The total number of Parliament sittings since GE2011 is 115, as reported in our story. The session on 25 February 2013 was missing from the Voters and Proceedings page on Parliament’s website but appeared in the Hansard records.]

 

Featured photo by Shawn Danker.

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