Sharper questioning in Parliament to come, but MPs should uphold spirit of constructive discourse: Indranee

Leader of the House Indranee Rajah said that new MPs on both sides of the House had put up a good showing during the five-day debate on the President's Address.
Leader of the House Indranee Rajah said that new MPs on both sides of the House had put up a good showing during the five-day debate on the President's Address.PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - With greater diversity in Parliament, sharper questioning and more robust exchanges will be par for the course, said Leader of the House Indranee Rajah.

That has already been borne out in the past week, she told The Straits Times in an interview on Friday (Sept 4), with MPs seeking more clarifications on speeches.

Summing up the five-day debate on the President's Address, which saw 31 newly elected MPs making their maiden speeches, Ms Indranee said new MPs on both sides of the House put up a "good showing", which augurs well for the 14th Parliament.

While she had earlier warned against greater polarisation in the House, Ms Indranee said MPs had, by and large, kept to the spirit of constructive discourse.

"Many of the ideas and suggestions were within a broad central mainstream range. You had some outliers on both sides, but nothing so extreme that you could say it was pulling society apart," she added.

That said, she noted that there had been points where MPs or ministers had to sound cautionary notes against certain lines of arguments or points made that could have consequences down the line.

On the prospect of more robust debate, she said: "What I hope will happen is that everyone gets better at it, in terms of time management, and in terms of really being able to crystallise the issues."

Ms Indranee, who is Second Minister for Finance and National Development, expects sharper questioning on specific Bills and policies in the months ahead when the political parties - namely the People's Action Party, Workers' Party and Progress Singapore Party - disagree.

"But difference is okay, diversity is okay, provided that you uphold the dignity of the House," she said.

Parliamentary rules can help to set the tone, she added, citing how MPs do not directly address other members as "you" but instead use the term "honourable Member" so that questioning does not turn personal.

Questions are also channelled through the Speaker of Parliament, she noted, and this element of having a third party also helps to make for a more measured debate.

 
 
 

Constructive discourse can be achieved in the House, she said, as long as all MPs remember to put the well-being of Singaporeans and Singapore as their foremost priority.

"I think if you keep that as your firm focus, then you can agree to disagree. You can have impassioned debates, but it is not, and should not be personal...our Parliament should always be a place where we... focus on the substance of the debate and the policy."

Commenting on the Government giving its in-principle agreement to live-stream parliamentary proceedings, Ms Indranee said that while it still holds reservations about such a move, it is also cognisant of people's appetite for getting information speedily in today's technological age.

The authorities will thus have to study how to implement this in a way that works well.

"You don't want members playing to the gallery, but what you do want is people to be able to watch and to see, oh, this is how Parliament works," she said. "So you have to hold these things in balance."

Ms Indranee also responded to suggestions put up by Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) during the debate to improve parliamentary processes.

 
 

Among other things, Mr Murali had proposed that Parliament invest in a new IT system that can check the attendance of MPs, establish a parliamentary record of the outcome of MPs' proposals that ministers had agreed to study, and also provide the option of taking an MP's speech as read and making it public to boost efficiency.

While Ms Indranee said several of his ideas are worth considering, she also noted that it may not be feasible to fully implement all of them.

For instance, while copies of speeches could be made available online as soon as they are delivered, she still sees value in having MPs deliver speeches in the House.

"People need to hear you and they need to hear your conviction - because otherwise you could have a brilliantly written speech by somebody else, and it doesn't reflect your voice," she said.

It could also be tricky to establish a record of the outcome of MPs' proposals, she noted. For example, policies that the Government has implemented may have taken reference from various ideas put forth by MPs, but may come out in a different form from what had been proposed .

"So the proposal may not come out exactly the way the MP who proposed it intended, but it has its roots in its origins - so it depends on how you define (an outcome)," she said.

The Government, however, generally gives credit to those who have contributed ideas and suggestions to a policy, she added.