By Bertha Henson and Sean Lim
SINGAPORE — Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen. And for the worst reasons. He had to explain how five Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Home Team national servicemen died and what the ministry and the SAF were doing to ramp up safety measures.
Yes, you do hear very, very long speeches from Ministers in Parliament. If it's not because they're pushing for Parliament's assent to legislation, then they are probably making a statement in response to queries or, well, making a statement. Which was what Dr Ng did on four occasions. In all, his ministerial statements alone lasted 2 hours 19 minutes.
Each was accompanied by slides explaining what had happened, the sort of inquiry that will be conducted and what sort of recommendations had been made.
It makes sense sometimes to lump the questions by Members of Parliament (MPs) together and answers all in one go. There were 11 out of 19 such ministerial statements in the 13th Parliament. In contrast, four out of eight such statements were made in the previous term of Parliament.
This doesn't mean that further questions can't be asked after the Minister has delivered his or her statement. Asking for clarifications are allowed but not debates, according to Parliament's Standing Orders.
MPs can rise and ask the Minister to explain certain points in his statement which were unclear, but they cannot make a long 20 minutes speech putting forth new arguments. In the case of Corporal First Class (CFC) (NS) Aloysius Pang's death in January 2019, 17 MPs asked the Minister questions ranging from the cause of his death to whether operationally ready national servicemen (NSMen) undergo sufficient training and refresher courses before embarking on an exercise.
That's the norm, unless the Minister moves a motion to debate on the statement, which was what happened two years ago. On 3 July 2017 and 4 July 2017, Parliament had a marathon debate over the statements made by Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy PM (DPM) Teo Chee Hean on the 38 Oxley Road dispute. It lasted close to 10 hours, with 37 other MPs from both sides of the political aisle chipping in and seeking clarifications. PM's statement took 1 hour and 23 minutes, while DPM Teo was on his feet for 47 minutes.
Here's the breakdown of those 11 ministerial statements, made as a result of oral questions filed by MPs, as of 8 July 2019:
Sometimes, the Minister makes a ministerial statement without any cues from parliamentary questions by MPs, as seen in the remaining eight out of 19 statements. This could be because they expect questions to be asked of a subject, such as findings of a report, or believe that the issue should be aired to generate public discussion.
Bertha lectures at NUS Communications and New Media department and Sean is a final year political science undergraduate.
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