Singapore Budget 2015: Pritam Singh calls for more scrutiny on Bills in Parliament

SINGAPORE - Workers' Party (WP) MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) called for more Bills to be sent before a Select Committee, saying this will raise awareness about legislation.

Speaking on Tuesday during the debate on the budget for Parliament, he said such committees "add much needed civility to the public discourse through the active engagement of issues...and present a good opportunity for the Government to deepen discussions and generate greater public support for laws".

Replying, the leader of the House, Dr Ng Eng Hen, said various Bills had been sent before such committees over the years.

Dr Ng, who is also the Defence Minister, said it was done when the Government "judged it necessary and beneficial to refer specific Bills to a Select Committee of MPs instead of the Committee of the Whole Parliament after the second reading".

After Bills are debated, Parliament will move to become a Committee of the Whole Parliament, during which MPs can go through the Bills line by line, and propose changes.

But some Bills are referred to Select committees - made up of MPs who can solicit public feedback, call witnesses, hold hearings and suggest changes to legislation - for extra scrutiny.

The last time a Bill went before such a committee was in 2004, with the Building Maintenance and Management Bill.

Mr Singh argued that MPs ask for a Bill to be sent before a select committee when they agree with its objectives, but are "concerned about its implementation or its provisions".

His party and the Singapore People's Party, through its Non-constituency MP Lina Chiam, had called for two Bills to be committed to a select committee last year, he said.

Both times they were rejected as feedback garnered through the Government's feedback channel, Reach, was "deemed to have been sufficient", he said.

He added: "While I accept citizens have an opportunity to engage issues through the Government feedback channel...this should not mean that Parliament's role in scrutinising Bills through select committees is minimised or rendered unnecessary."

Mr Singh also said that while participating on select committees would take up more of an MP's time, this was "rightfully so".

Responding, Dr Ng noted the various Bills that had gone before such committees over the years. He cited nine, including the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Bill in 1988, the Goods and Services Tax Bill in 1993 and the Advance Medical Directive Bill in 1996.

This was to allow a smaller group to "further examine the details of implementation for complex issues or seek views from experts and other focus groups on matters related to the Bill" he said.

But he added that there are other ways to scrutinise Bills and improve on legislation.

Government agencies routinely carry out exercises to get feedback from the public before new legislation is introduced in Parliament, and the Government Parliamentary Committees also weigh in, he said.

He pointed out that many Bills introduced in Parliament have gone through such "extensive public consultation", including the Human Organ Transplant Amendment Bill in 2009, the Personal Data Protection Bill in 2012, and most recently, this year's Liquor Control Supply and Consumption Bill.

After Bills are introduced and debated in Parliament, he added, MPs can further scrutinise the Bills during the third reading when the House moves to become a committee to do it.

Citing Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong's proposed change to the wording of the Pioneer Generation Fund Bill during such a session last November, Dr Ng said it was a "positive example of how members in this House have contributed to improve legislation".

"On the whole these public consultation exercises, second and third reading in this House, select committees for some Bills, have allowed the Government to obtain views from the members of the public and MPs and pass legislation in a timely and responsive manner to meet the needs of our society," he said.