By Bertha Henson and Sean Lim
SINGAPORE — We know Er Dr Lee Bee Wah as a vocal Member of Parliament (MP) who gives social media a field day whenever she speaks in Parliament - whether about sanitary pads, ungrateful children or Ah Gong's savings. She is an engineer who was bestowed an honorary PhD by the University of Liverpool, hence the Er Dr (Engineer Doctor) honorific.
The Nee Soon GRC MP also happens to be the second most prolific griller of Government, in terms of the number of oral questions she asked.
Between 15 January 2016 and 8 July 2019, she chalked up 57 questions, with 18 targeted at the Ministry of Transport (MOT).
So who is the top questioner? Leon Perera with 62 questions, including 12 for the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Dr Lee's record is followed by Dennis Tan with 49 questions, including 16 for MOT. Unlike Dr Lee, who is an elected People's Action Party (PAP) MP, both men are non-constituency MPs (NCMPs) belonging to the Workers' Party (WP).
Question Time takes place at the beginning of a parliamentary sitting and lasts 90 minutes. MPs have to file their questions (up to three allowed) seven days before Parliament sits for a session which will be published in the parliamentary agenda called the Order Paper.
Ministers will have to answer them and can be further interrogated by anyone in the House.
Scrolling through the official parliamentary records by Hansard from January 2016 onwards when the 13th Parliament started, we sieved through 1,025 questions across 16 ministries which received oral answers. We stopped at the 8 July 2019 sitting.
Within each ministry, we classified the oral questions into topics. For example, under the Ministry of Education, questions are grouped into those relating to university admissions, school mergers and queries on SkillsFuture programme, among others.
These are the numbers as of July 2019:
We also identified the top three hot topics raised in this term of Parliament, going by the number of questions on it and how many MPs jumped on the bandwagon.
With 39 questions filed by 19 MPs, the 13th Parliament was dominated by questions about the public transport operators. About 40 per cent of the questions were asked by opposition MPs and Nominated MPs (NMPs).
The large volume of questions is not surprising given the spate of high-profile breakdowns, with the worst taking place on October 2017 when a stretch of MRT tunnel along the North-South Line (NSL) was flooded and train services were disrupted for about 20 hours.
It caused a gridlock that weekend because the NSL is the main artery of the transport network, connecting commuters between the heartlands and city. Up to 13 stations were affected, between Ang Mo Kio and Marina South Pier stations.
Questions were raised about the ability of the SMRT management to rectify the problems, which seemed to stem from a lack of regular maintenance and so-called legacy issues. The other train operator, SBS Transit, escaped unscathed most likely because it was operating newer railway lines.
Here's a zinger from Bukit Batok MP Murali Pillai, who challenged the Land Transport Authority's (LTA) regulatory role on 7 November 2017.
He wanted to know "how LTA balances its role as the regulator that determines whether rapid transit system operators should be imposed penalties for failing to discharge their responsibility with the desirability of ensuring that the same operators work closely with LTA, in its capacity as the system owner, as a team to resolve problems affecting the system's reliability."
Cracks in MOH'S digital infrastructure
The stars were not aligned for MOH either, with 28 mostly-reactive questions - half from the non-PAP MPs - on data leaks and hacking attacks.
The HIV Registry and SingHealth data leaks took up to 60 per cent of questions asked in this category. Personal information of 14,200 individuals were leaked by American Mikhy Farrera Brochez on 22 January this year. Among those affected, 8,800 were foreigners and the remaining 5,400 were Singaporeans and permanent residents. Of the Singaporeans, 3,500 are alive. In the SingHealth case, hackers stole the personal data of 1.5 million patients and the outpatient prescription details of 160,000 people, including those of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Questions about the adequacy of safeguards over health databases were raised. For example, Jurong GRC MP Ang Wei Neng wanted to know "when was the last audit, internal or external, conducted on the public SingHealth IT system, particularly in areas related to the patient database". Some questions were about transparency. Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim, for example, asked for an elaboration "on the reasons for the significant delay in informing the public of the cyber attack affecting SingHealth's database from the time the breach was discovered".
Deaths of Singaporean sons
Given that National Service is a rite of passage for every Singaporean male, every training-related death is a kick in the gut. With four such deaths in 18 months, you can expect MPs to start jumping to ask if all was well in the military during peacetime. Since the 13th Parliament started in 2016, there were 24 questions relating to military death and injury filed by 19 MPs across four sittings.
Specifically, when serviceman Aloysius Pang was killed in an overseas military training in New Zealand, 17 MPs filed 20 oral questions on the incident. Many questioned the existing safety protocols and asked if they would be reviewed in light of those accidents. For instance, Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui asked "whether the safety protocols and procedures are the same and apply as stringently for both full-time national servicemen and operationally-ready national servicemen" while WP chief Pritam Singh asked about "the scope of the safety review announced by the Ministry in the aftermath of the accident" and "how it differs from previous safety reviews announced after major incidents involving Singapore Armed Forces personnel".
These 20 oral questions received a response from Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen through a ministerial statement on 11 February 2019, the same sitting during which those questions were asked. Separately, there were also ministerial statements made on 17 May 2018, 6 August 2018 and 6 May 2019 by Dr Ng on the other military deaths.
Question Time is one tool that Parliament has to keep the government on its toes. You can bet that any perceived failure on the part of the government, even if it concerns a private entity like SMRT, is fodder for the opposition. While the original question is made known in advance, allowing for a fully scripted reply, Question Time gives MPs the leeway to question the minister further if they are dissatisfied with the answer.
In fact, it is during such questioning that the state of preparedness of an office-holder is clear for all to see. As it is off the cuff, we can see how ministers can sometimes say things without reservation and unfortunately, make a meme of themselves. On 7 November 2017, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan made a ministerial statement in response to oral questions by MPs on the flooding in train tunnels.
Replying to a supplementary question by Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui, he said that then-SMRT chief executive Desmond Kuek was "not parachuted in" to SMRT and he "volunteered for the job" with "his heart in the right place".
While Mr Khaw meant well, it drew ridicule from Singaporeans because many were already upset with the frequent train breakdowns and indirectly blaming the CEO for the failures. Some would have preferred to see Kuek's head roll, rather than have it propped up by a minister.
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Home Affairs Amrin Amin was caught in a bind when he answered an oral question from Pritam Singh. On 5 February 2018, Singh asked "whether the police will favourably consider an application to collect signatures for the purposes of a parliamentary petition on any given matter in a public place, and how and at which public venues other than Speakers' Corner can citizens legally make arrangements to sign a parliamentary petition as the parliamentary Standing Orders require a physical signature."
In a supplementary question, Singh asked how the Police exercise their discretion in requiring some calls for signatures for the purposes of a petition to go ahead without a permit, while requiring a permit in other instances, especially those outside of the Speakers' Corner.
During the exchange, Amin repeated himself in his two replies to Singh, when he asked that Singh file a separate question if he wanted to know about specific cases so a more detailed answer can be given to him. This is in addition to general statements he made, such as how the Police, in assessing the need for a permit, will "generally act on information received and conduct investigations before deciding on what actions to take".
Question time isn't a free-for-all. There are rules to go by. It is, after all, Question time which means MPs should not be making speeches but get to the point of their question.
Also, MPs cannot ask questions that contain more than one issue, statements which they cannot substantiate and those that reflect decisions of the courts, among others.
On 5 February 2018, Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Gan Thiam Poh was reminded by Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin not to question specific court decisions when he asked Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam about the Court of Appeal’s decision in the City Harvest case.
The questions asked by MPs are usually based on what is in the news or evergreen social issues such as homelessness and the Central Provident Fund (CPF).
Some of these questions can be quite basic, such as requests for statistics, while others want an elaboration from the minister. The public-facing ministries, such as MOT and MND, get some of the most questions. This is especially so when a major incident is related to their ministries and there is great scrutiny on how they respond.
The top three busiest ministries had a triple-digit number of questions - if we take the number of oral questions asked as an indicator of a ministry's parliamentary workload.
MOT, with 161 oral questions asked. Many MPs love interrogating Khaw on SMRT, but there are also other hot topics under the same ministry. These include safety issues surrounding personal mobility devices (19 questions), indiscriminate parking of shared bicycles, safety issues with bicycles (14 questions), as well as the disruption to air traffic caused by drones (12 questions).
MOH, with 118 oral questions asked. Beyond the cyber-attacks, there were MPs who sought answers about the ministry's handling of diseases like Zika and diabetes (17 questions), issues over professional misconduct by doctors and procedural guidelines (12 questions) as well as usage of the CPF in paying medical bills (12 questions).
MND, with 116 oral questions asked. Having a roof over one's head is fundamental, so it is expected that there are numerous queries regarding Housing Board flats (13 questions). Other hot topics include concerns over lift breakdowns, maintenance and upgrading (10 questions) and Build-To-Order flats (10 questions), which includes issues like application success rate, pricing and cancellation of such flats by owners.
Of the 16 ministries, MINLAW faced the least number of oral questions so far in this term of Parliament. It received 17 oral questions in total. One can attribute this to technicalities - since Parliament is an institution for laws to be created or amended, many questions regarding laws from specific ministries are directed to the relevant minister instead of MINLAW.
The kinds of questions asked by MPs are often reflective of the issues faced by their constituents. Practical bread-and-butter issues remain the top concerns.
Some MPs also use Question Time to ask oral questions specific to their constituencies. On 12 February 2019, Pillai asked the Minister for Environment and Water Resources about funeral parlour sites that are going to be developed along Bukit Batok Street 23, which is within his ward.
The work of Government Parliamentary Committees (GPC) isn't very evident during Question Time, most likely because they focus their fire on ministries under their purview during the marathon Budget debate. GPCs, comprising backbenchers from the PAP, were set up by the Government in 1987 to scrutinise the legislation and programmes of the various ministries and also serve as an additional channel of feedback on government policies.
NMPs are far more active in this area, fielding questions that have to do with their industry affiliation - and more. NMPs Kok Heng Leun and Terence Ho, for example, peppered Question Time with queries relating to arts and culture. These two NMPs are from the arts scene, with Ho as an executive director of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and Kok, who is currently an artistic director at theatre company Drama Box and ended his NMP term on 21 September 2018.
There are also others like Irene Quay, president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Singapore, who asked industry-related questions. In less than a year since she was appointed as an NMP on 26 September 2018, four out of five oral questions she asked were healthcare-related.
Likewise, on the 8th May 2019 sitting, Quay asked the Minister for Health about drug testing here in light of the Losartan recall, because the medicine prescribed for high blood pressure contained higher than acceptable amounts of nitrosamine impurity, which can cause cancer.
She asked, "How rigorous is medication tested by the HSA before the drugs enter Singapore, whether the testing is in line with international testing standards, whether there are public concerns with generic use of medications in Singapore and what are the steps and considerations taken by the Ministry compared to other countries' handling of the same worldwide concern, particularly with the Losartan recall."
Our checks showed that of the earlier batch of nine NMPs sworn in on 24 March 2016 for a period of two and a half years, all have filed at least one oral question. Their active participation did not go unnoticed if Deputy Speaker of Parliament Lim Biow Chuan's comments on the NMPs were anything to go by. In a 2018 interview with The Straits Times, the Mountbatten MP said this batch of NMPs is "more outspoken than their predecessors" and "a lot less reserved".
Among them were auto company senior vice-president Azmoon Ahmad (four questions); social entrepreneur Kuik Shiao-Yin (three questions); labour economist Randolph Tan (11 questions); media company executive vice-president Ganesh Rajaram (seven questions); corporate lawyer Chia Yong Yong (one question); businessman Thomas Chua (seven questions); theatre group artistic director Kok Heng Leun (13 questions); law lecturer Mahdev Mohan (four questions); and unionist K. Thanaletchimi (16 questions).
Of the latest batch of nine NMPs sworn in on September 2018, from the same cohort as Quay, three - Arasu Duraisamy, Yip Pin Xiu and Douglas Foo - have yet to ask any oral question.
As a group, the 42 PAP backbenchers asked the most questions, not surprising since they have the greatest representation in Parliament. Most of their questions are framed neutrally, as if they do not want to put down their ministerial colleagues from the same party.
For Parliament on 13 September 2016, both West Coast GRC MP Foo Mee Har and NCMP Dennis Tan asked similar questions on vector control for mosquito breeding. But the tone and approach differed. Foo phrased hers in general terms, asking "whether the (MEWR) will consider more stringent regulatory measures for vector control at vulnerable mosquito breeding locations such as construction sites''. Tan, who is from WP, took a sharper line when he asked "whether the National Environment Agency will be stepping up checks for mosquito breeding in construction sites and workers' dormitories all over Singapore and not merely in areas where the first cases of Zika infection are detected".
Some PAP MPs, however, can be assertive too. On 3 July 2017, MP Lee Bee Wah lobbied the government on behalf of the displaced Sungei Road hawkers by asking if it will "reconsider its decision not to provide a replacement site for the Sungei Road Hawking Zone (SRHZ), and whether an update can be provided on the help given to the vendors and whether any additional help will be given to vendors after the closure of the SRHZ."
The WP, which has nine MPs - NCMPs included - in the House, aimed most of its questions at three ministries - MOT (29 questions), MOH (34 questions) and MTI (21 questions). Under MOT, for example, 14 out of 39 SMRT related oral questions were filed by WP MPs, such as the one by NCMP Dennis Tan who asked on 7 November 2017 "when were the pumps in the tunnel between Bishan and Braddell MRT stations last inspected before a malfunction led to the tunnel flooding on 7 October 2017, how often are MRT operators required to inspect such pumps in all MRT tunnels and what is the Land Transport Authority's oversight system on timely inspections of equipment/machinery and repair or replacement of faulty equipment/machinery carried out by the operators."
It is also worth noting that WP MPs were mostly the only ones who sought answers on Temasek Holdings, which is a government-linked company, with six out of nine oral questions on that topic filed by them. One Temasek-related question was asked by Aljunied MP Png Eng Huat on 8 May 2019, on "whether there is a remuneration cap for key management staff of Fifth Schedule companies like GIC and Temasek Holdings; and for the past five years, what is the range of total annual remuneration, including salary, annual and performance bonuses, paid to the top three higher-paid executives in GIC and Temasek respectively. "
Issues on government-linked companies like Temasek has made persistent headlines on alternative media, such as The Online Citizen. The answer, from Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong, has never wavered. In his reply to Png, he reiterated that such government-linked companies are commercially-run and the Government "maintains an arms-length relationship" with them. Hence, as Wong said, the remunerations of staff in GIC and Temasek are determined independently by their respective boards.
This same position is also taken by Senior Minister of State for Finance Indranee Rajah in her reply to the oral question by NCMP Leon Perera earlier on 10 March 2017. Perera had asked about the CEO succession process at Temasek Holdings. Rajah replied that the timing and candidate for CEO are decided by the board, subject to the concurrence from the President of Singapore.
Analysing the oral questions asked by WP MPs, there appears to be signs of coordination. Questions have been asked of every single ministry. Even if its MPs filed oral questions on the same topic, there are differences in focus.
We also found out that most oral questions were filed by its NCMPs Leon Perera, Daniel Goh and Dennis Tan, instead of the other six elected WP MPs.
Some Singaporeans might wonder, "Eh, why my MP bo zuo kang one? I have never seen him or her ask questions in Parliament before!"
That could be because your MP is a minister or office-holder. In a government, ministers and office-holders belong to the executive branch, that is, the people who have to give answers to MPs.
This also explains why newly-elected MPs parachuted into a minister or minister of state position straight after the polls never got to ask questions in Parliament. One example: Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Heng Swee Keat who became Minister for Education right after his first general election in 2011.
Our checks showed that this is also the case for ex-ministers who have left office and now sit on the backbenches, like Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Lee Yi Shyan, a former Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry and National Development.
There seems to be an unspoken political tradition for former ministers to keep a low profile as a backbencher. This is a change from the past when early ministers such as former DPM Toh Chin Chye who were voluble as backbenchers and probably a pain in the neck for the ruling party.
We guess the PAP thinks that Parliament is not an appropriate forum for ex-ministers to ask questions of the Government they used to serve in.
If your MP hasn't been mentioned here, you can try looking through Hansard which will also tell you if he or she has been attending Parliament sessions and taking part in debates on Bills.
Be warned: It's tough-going.