Primer

What goes on in the House?

This is the second of 12 primers on various current affairs issues, published as part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz

Singapore has an international reputation as a country where there is strong rule of law. Singaporeans are also known as a law-abiding bunch, and there is even the Singlish phrase "law by law" to describe the tendency here to meticulously follow the rules.

But where do these laws come from in the first place?

Parliament is where the laws of the land are proposed, debated and approved. However, the House, as the august chamber is referred to, performs other important functions as well in holding the Government accountable for its actions and spending.

UNDER ONE ROOF

Members of Parliament are elected at general elections that take place every five years or so. There are currently 89 seats for elected MPs, of which 82 are held by the ruling People's Action Party and six by the opposition Workers' Party. One seat is currently vacant after the sudden resignation of a PAP MP earlier this month.

Singapore's parliamentary framework, adopted from Britain and known as the Westminster system, has evolved over the years to include other categories of MPs.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam addressing the 13th Parliament at its opening session in January. Singapore adopted Britain's Westminster parliamentary system, but has added unique features to it over the years.
President Tony Tan Keng Yam addressing the 13th Parliament at its opening session in January. Singapore adopted Britain's Westminster parliamentary system, but has added unique features to it over the years. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Nine nominated MPs, or NMPs, were named two weeks ago for a 21/2-year term. They were picked from 41 applicants by a parliamentary committee made up of MPs. Because NMPs usually represent different segments of society - such as the arts and business communities - and do not belong to any political party, they contribute non-partisan views.

Another category of MPs are opposition candidates who lost at the polls but scored the highest percentage of votes among the non-ruling party candidates who did not get elected.

Because they do not officially represent any constituency, they are called non-constituency MPs (NCMPs).

The NCMP scheme guarantees at least nine opposition members in the House. This means that if fewer than nine opposition candidates are elected at the polls, the rest will be made up by NCMPs. There are now three NCMPs in Parliament.

With 100 people under one roof, the House needs a hierarchy to function and keep the business of the day flowing.

The key roles in Parliament are:

Speaker of Parliament: The Speaker presides over parliamentary sittings and enforces the rules that guide debates. It is a position that is filled at the start of every new term of Parliament. The current Speaker, Madam Halimah Yacob, is from the PAP. The Speaker traditionally remains fair and impartial to all MPs regardless of party affiliation as the position is almost like that of an umpire. Part of the job involves making sure that MPs do not stray too far off the topic of debate and also keep within their allocated time limit when speaking. Madam Halimah, an MP since 2001, is the first woman to hold the position of Speaker of Parliament.

Leader of the House: If a Parliament sitting is like a long meeting, then the Leader sets the agenda and the order of business that goes through the House. Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu is the current Leader. She oversees the legislative priorities of the Government, mapping out the laws that it wants passed during its term in power. Ms Fu is also in charge of technical and procedural matters, such as extending the duration of parliamentary sittings or the time allocated to a speaker so that he or she can make a longer speech.

Party Whip: This colourful term comes from hunting, where animals that stray out of line are driven back into the pack with a whip. Hence, the Whip is the disciplinarian who ensures the party's MPs vote according to the party's position. As the PAP is the ruling party, the Party Whip, Mr Chan Chun Sing, is also the Government Whip. Occasionally, he may "lift the whip" so that MPs can vote according to their conscience instead of toeing the party line. Mr Chan, who is Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, also lists the number of speakers for each agenda item at a sitting of Parliament and estimates the time needed to complete debates so that proceedings run smoothly. The WP, the only opposition party with MPs, has the same system. Secretary-general and Aljunied GRC MP Low Thia Khiang is its Party Whip.

RULE OF LAW

We know that laws are passed in Parliament. But how are laws actually made?

  • About The Big Quiz

  • This primer is part of The Straits Times' initiative to discuss issues of national concern.

    Each Monday, the paper's journalists will address burning questions in the Opinion section, offering unique Singaporean perspectives on complex issues.

    The primer articles, as well as five campus talks helmed by editors and correspondents, are part of this paper's outreach programme, called The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz, nicknamed The Big Quiz.

    The nationwide event, with Singapore Press Holdings Foundation as its presenting sponsor, aims to promote an understanding of civics among pre-university students.

    Talks by ST journalists and quiz rounds will be held on:

    •April 6 at Innova Junior College

    •April 20 at Victoria Junior College

    •April 27 at Anglo-Chinese Junior College

    •May 18 at River Valley High School

    •July 20 at Raffles Institution

    For more information, visit www.straitstimes.com/tags/the-big-quiz

A draft of a law, called a Bill, goes through three phases, or readings, before it is passed as an Act of Parliament and recognised as law.

A Bill is first introduced and given a First Reading without debate. Though Bills are usually introduced by a minister, any MP can do so by putting up a Private Member's Bill.

At the next sitting of Parliament, the minister or MP who proposed the Bill makes opening remarks about the purpose of the Bill and later wraps up the debate by responding to and allaying concerns that fellow MPs have about certain aspects.

If MPs feel that the Bill benefits Singapore, they will vote to give it a Second Reading. This allows the Bill to be discussed by MPs in the House, raising questions on it for the minister to answer. Following a general debate, MPs form a committee to scrutinise the details in the Bill. This committee could be made up there and then by those who are present in Parliament or by a committee that is set up separately to examine the Bill in detail.

When the Bill is before the committee, those who support the Bill in principle but disagree with part of it can propose amendments to its sections and clauses.

The Bill is then presented again in Parliament for a Third Reading, after which it is passed into law.

A large number of Bills do not need amendments after the Second Reading. In those cases, the Bills pass through the committee stage, which is followed almost immediately by a Third Reading.

QUESTION AND ANSWER

Another fundamental role of MPs is to raise questions - on policy, municipal and other issues - that ministers must answer.

These questions cover the gamut of government responsibilities and are wide-ranging, and can include immigration policies, national service obligations, healthcare benefits and estate cleanliness.

MPs often have queries with regard to issues that are in the public eye. For example, earlier this month, numerous MPs asked about the suicide of a teenager hours after he was questioned by the police over a molestation case.

This prompted ministerial statements from Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng on the protocols of the police and schools when minors are involved in police investigations.

HOLDING THE PURSE STRINGS

Last Thursday, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat delivered the Budget statement - his first since being appointed to the post in October last year.

The annual Budget speech reviews Singapore's economy and outlines the economic policies for the coming year.

It is followed by at least two days of debate over the broad principles of the Government's economic goals set out in the Budget.

Parliament then examines the estimates of each ministry's spending plans for the year. Over seven to 10 days, ministers have to outline, explain and justify the cost of their ministries' policies.

The passing of the Budget by Parliament authorises the Government to withdraw the necessary monies to fund spending on the projects, services and other areas that it had outlined .

Have a burning question related to this week’s Primer topic?

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline 'What goes on in the House?'. Print Edition | Subscribe