After GE2015, how did first-time MPs perform in Parliament?

Dec 30, 2016 07.00PM |

by Kwan Jin Yao

HOW should one evaluate the performance of Members of Parliament (MPs) in Singapore?

One way is to look at their parliamentary record: the number of times they spoke or the number of questions they asked, the quality of these speeches and questions, and the substantive impact of their participation.

That’s what we did, by going through Hansard and focusing on the parliamentary records of the first-time MPs. We then totalled the number of oral and written questions, speeches, questions or speeches during the reading of bills, and cuts during the committee of supply debates.

Related: The moral KPI for MPs

We also looked at recurring themes throughout these contributions, whether they moved any motions, and how their speeches were received in Parliament.

Here’s what we found: The first-time MP, on average, spoke 41 times (median of 33). All three Workers’ Party (WP) non-constituency MPs (NCMPs) – with Daniel Goh Pei Siong, Dennis Tan Lip Fong, and Leon Perera, speaking 58, 71, and 96 times respectively – outperformed the overall average.

The WP average of 75 times (median of 71) is more than two times the People’s Action Party (PAP) average of 34 times (median of 31).

The WP average of 75 times is more than twice the PAP’s average of 34 times.

And of the 14 PAP MPs, 11 spoke fewer than 41 times in the past year, the overall average of this sample.

MPs Desmond Choo, Louis Ng Kok Kwang, and Dr Tan Wu Meng, however, delivered standout performances, with a high number of questions and speeches, often well-received by their colleagues.

Here is a summary of how the first-time parliamentarians did:

PartyMember of ParliamentGRC/SMCTotal number of times spoken
WPDennis TanNCMP71
WPLeon PereraNCMP96
WPDaniel GohNCMP58
PAPYee Chia HsingChua Chu Kang14
PAPTan Wu MengJurong53
PAPSaktiandi SupaatBishan-Toa Payoh33
PAPSun XuelingPasir Ris-Punggol31
PAPRahayu MahzamJurong24
PAPMelvin YongTanjong Pagar31
PAPLouis NgNee Soon90
PAPHenry KwekNee Soon11
PAPJoan PereiraTanjong Pagar37
PAPDarryl DavidAng Mo Kio31
PAPCheng Li HuiTampines38
PAPChong Kee HiongBishan-Toa Payoh14
PAPDesmond ChooTampines51
PAPCheryl ChanFengshan22


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Evaluating the performance of MPs

Of course, that’s not the only way to evaluate the performance of MPs. In Parliament, parliamentary records matter. In constituencies, MPs take charge of town councils and tend to municipal issues, and each year the Ministry of National Development assesses these town councils in a management report across four indicators: estate cleanliness, estate maintenance, lift performance, and S&CC arrears management. Click here for the 2015 report.

And in straddling between constituencies and Parliament, MPs help to keep the G in check.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made this clear during his speech at the parliamentary debate on the President’s Address in January this year. “Our political system must foster accountability, [and] government’s actions have to be scrutinised and debated in Parliament,” he said.

“If an MP, whether it is an opposition MP or a government MP, argues a case against the government’s proposal, then either the government has to be able to rebut it and explain convincingly what it is doing and why, or if the MP makes a good case, then you have to acknowledge that and policies have to be changed.”

New MPs are not exempt from these responsibilities. In fact, many of the 22 first-time parliamentarians – 19 MPs from the PAP and three NCMPs from the WP – were sworn on January 15 this year mooting ambitious agendas.

PAP’s Mr Ng, as an extension of his General Election campaign last year, prioritised issues related to parenthood and the environment. WP’s Mr Perera explained that even though MPs from his party will not limit themselves to one particular area, he will contribute more on economic and socio-political issues.

The five office-holders – Ministers for Education Ng Chee Meng and Ong Ye Kung, Ministers of State Chee Hong Tat and Koh Poh Koon, and Parliamentary Secretary Amrin Amin – were included in this analysis.


By the numbers: The “duckweeds” top the class

Earlier this year in January, WP Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang had characterised an NCMP as “just duckweed on the water of a pond”. “You don’t have roots, unlike elected MPs where you have a constituency, you run a town council, you are in close touch with your residents, and you can sink roots there,” he added.

But based on the numbers, these WP “duckweeds” – with an average of 75 times, compared to the PAP average of 34 times – it would appear, have flourished.

Top performer Mr Perera, for instance, has consistently emphasised in his speeches and questions the importance of new industries, the potential of entrepreneurship, and the need for productivity improvements.

PAP MPs are likely to lament that NCMPs do not have the same duties in the constituencies, and hence have more time to prepare parliamentary speeches and questions, but three of their colleagues – Mr Choo (51 times), Dr Tan (53 times), and Mr Ng (90 times) – prove otherwise.

On two separate occasions, moreover, Dr Tan and Mr Ng received applause for their speeches: Dr Tan, during the debate on the President’s Address when he warned of “an exceptional Perfect Storm” in Singapore, and during the debate on proposed changes to the Elected Presidency.

Then, for Mr Ng, when he first shared at the debate on the President’s Address that he “will help increase the TFR [total fertility rate] by having another child soon”, and later during the debate on changes to the Child Development Co-Savings Act, when he announced that his wife was expecting a set of twins.

And the MPs who spoke the least?

PAP MPs Kwek Hian Chuan Henry (11 times), Chong Kee Hiong (14 times), and Yee Chia Hsing (14 times). All three hold executive positions in the finance industry: Mr Kwek is executive director of an investment company, Mr Chong the CEO of a REIT, and Mr Yee the head of a corporate finance team.

Who spoke the least? PAP MPs Kwek Hian Chuan Henry (11 times), Chong Kee Hiong (14 times), and Yee Chia Hsing (14 times).

Of the 17 first-time MPs, only two – Mr Perera and Dr Tan – introduced motions.

On March 1, Mr Perera suggested “a more aggressive approach to better exploit rooftop and water-borne opportunities for solar power generation, together with investments in research and development in areas such as electricity storage”. In response, the Ministry of Trade and Industry affirmed that such new and emerging industries would be reviewed by the Committee on the Future Economy.

Two weeks later on March 14, Dr Tan delivered a strong speech about the importance of a “design language” in Singapore, to “help pedestrians navigate new towns and redeveloped mature town centres”. The motion stemmed from his observations in his constituency of Clementi, neatly reflecting how ground concerns can inform policymaking at a broader, national level.


Setting their parliamentary agenda

Yet, quantity is but one performance indicator. Delivering a large number of speeches and questions in Parliament is critical, though a well-defined personal agenda – with a few complementary themes or topics – is equally important.

In this vein, MPs are rightfully scrutinised for their maiden speeches, either at the debates on the President’s Address or at the Budget debate, which they could use to articulate their parliamentary agendas from the get-go. MPs would, thereafter, be expected to take advantage of their professional expertise, occupation, and interactions on the ground to make useful contributions.

Mr Choo, for instance, made family issues, mothers and women, and the young his core focuses. In his maiden Parliament speech, he was committed to “help our millennials and young workers succeed at work, at home, and in society”, and also asked the G to give new mothers additional eight weeks for flexi-work arrangements, in addition to the 16-week maternity leave.

Across his subsequent cuts, speeches, and questions, Mr Choo spoke on paternity and childcare leave, workplace support for families, family-centric workplaces, affordable childcare, and subsidy for student care places.

MP Rahayu Mahzam, a lawyer by profession, only spoke 24 times – 17 fewer than the overall average of 41, and 10 fewer than the PAP average of 34 – yet drew applause for her speech during the debate on the President’s Address.

Speaking on the threat of Islamophobia and the strengths of diversity in Singapore, she also alluded to the proposed changes to the eligibility criteria for the Elected President.

“We will definitely like to see representation from our community but we would like our Malays to be chosen because he or she is the best, and not because of his or her race,” she said.

“We do not want the selection to be a symbolic one only.” These themes were continued, during the debate on proposed changes to the Elected Presidency, and when she spoke of encouraging youths to embrace diversity, and of building an open and cohesive society.

And Prof Goh, as a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, spoke about the retention of qualified teachers and the teacher-student ratio in schools, and about research with its outcomes and accountability.


Keeping score for the future

In the past two years, TMG has published articles about parliamentary records, of MP attendance and participation, and of the performance of nominated MPs. (The three nominated MPs identified as the top performers – President of the Society of the Physically Disabled Chia Yong Yong, co-founder of social enterprise group Thought Collective Kuik Shiao-Yin, and labour economist Randolph Tan Gee Kwang – were later nominated for a second term in Parliament.)

These quantitative and qualitative gauges of parliamentary performance are good starts, for Singaporeans to gauge how active and productive their MPs are.

A constructive next step, perhaps, would be for MPs to hold themselves accountable by keeping track of their own performance in Parliament. Not only should they publish their speeches or questions online – which some already do, though oftentimes with little or no context – but they should also state their agenda or strategy from the beginning, and to explain how speeches and questions are designed.

Above all, by keeping score, responses from the G or any policy changes can then be detailed, so as to track the substantive impact of their participation.

And pragmatically, when the next General Election comes around, their campaigns can be rooted in empirics and evidence, not just airy-fairy notions of progress.

For the first-time MPs, there is still time to do more, in the few years ahead. If – in the words of the prime minister – the political system is to foster accountability, it starts with the work of the MPs in the Parliament.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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