Parliament Q&A: Facts and figures can be touchy subjects too

Screenshot of Singapore Parliament during Budget 2019/Gov.SG YouTube

By Bertha Henson and Sean Lim

SINGAPORE — Most of us are familiar with oral parliamentary questions, since they are often captured in video clips or in the television news bulletins. But there is another way for Members of Parliament (MPs) to ask questions - and get their answers in written form instead.

It's not that they are camera-shy, but probably because they are straightforward requests for statistics, data and direct explanations. It is also possible that the MP has filed it as an oral question, but it was not answered because Question time in Parliament lasts just one-and-half hours. In such a case, the MP might choose to "roll over'' his question to the next sitting, or ask for a written response instead.

Here are examples of really straightforward questions, with answers in parenthesis:

1. On 8 July 2019, Pasir Ris-Punggol Group Representation Constituency (GRC) MP Zainal Sapari asked the Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong whether there has been an increasing trend of motorcycle owners being summoned for illegal parking at carparks or service roads in the last three years (no clear trend because the numbers are around 25,000, 28,000 and 21,000 respectively for 2016, 2017 and 2018) and whether Housing Board (HDB) will consider providing designated motorcycle parking lots next to the loading and unloading bays, near HDB flats, to allow short-term parking for delivery riders given the increasing trend of home deliveries (No. Use the loading and unloading bays instead).

2. On 29 February 2016, Sembawang GRC MP Lim Wee Kiak asked the Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung for the number of junior college students who do not go on to universities after their graduation for the past five years (About 4,400 per year), and of these students, the number of male students who do not go on to universities after completing their national service (About 1,600 of them).

3. On 6 February 2017, Hougang MP Png Eng Huat asked Grace Fu, who is the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, for the amount of expenditure incurred by grassroots organisations in FY2015/16 ($206 million) and the percentage share of this expense incurred by Citizens' Consultative Committees (37 per cent), Community Club Management Committees (27 per cent), Residents' Committees (22 per cent), Neighbourhood Committees (two per cent), and others (12 per cent). The then-Minister in Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing answered on behalf of Fu.

The drawback of written answers, however, is that MPs can't get Ministers to clarify the answers on the spot, and might have to file another question.

For instance, on 14 January 2019, Jalan Besar GRC MP Lily Neo asked Wong for the number of incidents of fires in HDB flats in each of the last three years and the main causes of those fires.

Wong chose to give his reply in averages. He wrote that there was an average of about 650 fire incidents reported per year in HDB flats for the past three years, and the fires were mainly due to unattended cooking, of electrical origin, or involve naked flames. If Dr Neo wanted specific number of fires for each of the three years, she didn't get it and would have to file a follow-up question to clarify.

Likewise, the parliamentary question filed by former Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang on 7 February 2017 regarding government tenders for public opinion polls got a mixed response from then Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim.

He asked:

a. What is the number of public opinion polls put up and not put up for tender on the government tender portal GeBIZ between 2014 and 2016?

Answer: 14. All have to go through the tender portal.

b. What is the total amount spent on such polls during this period?

Answer: In line with market rates (Which means Low has to do some homework of looking at market rates to speculate the cost of polls).

c. What is the number of respondents in each poll?

Answer: Between 1,000 and 2,000.

d. What are the criteria government feedback unit REACH use to determine if the findings of a poll are of interest to the public and hence worthy of publication?

Answer: Topical issues.

You can read it here.

Even though written answers to parliamentary questions are usually mundane and receive less attention, a few are by no means less controversial. On 10 September 2018, Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera asked the Prime Minister (PM) for the bonus paid to cabinet ministers in each of the past five years. He wanted the statistics in terms of the average total number of bonus months, as well as the highest and lowest total number of bonus months paid to an individual minister.

In his reply, PM Lee Hsien Loong gave a breakdown on performance bonuses in terms of months, including a range and the actual average number of months’ worth of performance bonus received. He didn't specify other types of bonuses such as 13th-month non-pensionable annual allowance, national bonus and the annual variable component as paid to civil servants. He said these pay components could be found in the White Paper on "Salaries for a Capable and Committed Government" tabled in Parliament in 2012. Neither did he reveal the highest and lowest bonuses paid to ministers.

Given that issues surrounding ministerial salaries are contentious and often get Singaporeans riled up, it wasn't a surprise that alternative media had a field day criticising the PM for giving an incomplete answer. That led to various (mis)calculations on the total bonuses ministers received and what the national bonus might be. Mainstream media like CNA didn't delve into calculations but focused on the decrease in average performance bonus received by political office-holders in 2017.

The deluge of misinformation resulted in a response on 16 September 2018 from the government website Factually, which is run by the Public Communications Division of the Ministry of Communications and Information. It published an article debunking various online falsehoods such as how the PM is being paid $4.5 million in total, with $2.2 million as a base salary, not including bonuses. This is false, according to Factually, because his $2.2 million annual salary includes bonuses.

This shows that it is easy for written responses to be misconstrued if answers are not clear and sharp enough, especially for contentious topics.

Such political controversies arising from written replies to questions are rare. Here is one more which got netizens tittering.

On 8 July 2019, Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah asked the Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam on minors tattooing their bodies. She asked, with the replies that follow:

a. Has there been any study on the number of minors tattooing their body in the past three years?

Answer: No

b. How does the ministry ensure that a minor has the consent of parents or guardians before getting a tattoo?

Answer: The ministry doesn't check.

b. What redress is there for parents if a minor has been tattooed without parental consent?

Answer: Not answered. But Shanmugan did say minors are not required to seek parental consent to get a tattoo.

c. Are there any persons who have been prosecuted for such an offence?

Answer: It is not an offence

d. Will the Ministry consider imposing a minimum age on getting tattoos in Singapore?

Answer: No.

You can read the full response here.

Lee's question was criticised by some netizens who felt that her question was too inconsequential and irrelevant to be raised in a national forum like Parliament. In addition, they think she should not be advocating the micro-management and moral policing of people's lives. These sentiments were reflected in the comments section of media pages like Yahoo News Singapore and forums like Reddit.

There were those, however, who agreed with Lee's point on minors getting parental consent before having a tattoo - as seen in a forum letter to The Straits Times on 17 July 2019. In his letter, Seah Yam Meng said Singapore is still largely conservative and many feel that having tattoos may not be seen as portraying the "right" image, hence necessary to have minors seeking permission from parents in case they regret later on in life.

Written answers and contentious topics don't seem to bode well in parliament due to their propensity for misinterpretation. However, when such a crossover arises, it is no less effective in sparking public debate for greater transparency in state affairs.

Bertha lectures at NUS Communications and New Media department and Sean is a final year political science undergraduate.

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