From The Gallery

Making the most of Question Time

Question Time is a valuable opportunity for MPs to press the front bench on a range of matters of importance, and for the Government to shed light on them in the process of responding.

Yesterday's session, for example, saw 61 questions filed by 30 MPs on a range of issues of concern to their constituents. These included four on the headline-making "sexualised" orientation activities at the National University of Singapore.

With her usual firmness and tact, Speaker Halimah Yacob generally keeps things moving along so that many of these questions get an airing and the answers they deserve.

But yesterday's sitting saw most of the questions filed going unanswered as the allotted 90 minutes were used up in some lengthy exchanges that revealed little that was new. It left even the usually unflappable Madam Halimah appearing a tad impatient.

At the start, Deputy Leader of the House Desmond Lee had asked if Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung - who was held up and was on his way - could answer the questions on NUS' controversial orientation later.

But according to the rules of Parliament, that is possible only after all other questions for the sitting are disposed of - which, as the Speaker observed, would mean reaching Question 61, "which is not possible".

Mr Ong's answer was later released as a written reply.

The next question came from Mr Charles Chong (Punggol East), who asked what the National Development Ministry would do to better safeguard public monies and residents' payments to town councils, and to recover any improper payments made by Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC).

In replying, Senior Minister of State Desmond Lee spent 10 or so minutes summarising not just the findings of KPMG's July 2016 report on AHTC, but also whatever AHTC had done or failed to do since 2014. There was no way of telling, from Mr Lee's reply, that Mr Chong's original question had also referred in general to public monies handled by town councils.

A rather protracted exchange ensued, with Mr Lee going back and forth with Workers' Party Aljunied GRC MPs Pritam Singh and Sylvia Lim on whether AHTC should have appointed an accountant jointly with Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council, which took over the management of Punggol East constituency after last September's General Election.

The questioning drifted even further to topics like General Election 2015 speeches. In all, more than half an hour was spent on this single question, without revealing much that was new.

"I just want to remind members we've had a very lengthy extensive debate on this issue not so long ago," Madam Halimah said. "We don't want to restart the debate again because it actually concerns a broader issue." She granted Mr Lee a final clarification before moving things along.

The next two questions, taken by Senior Minister of State for Finance Indranee Rajah, were important ones on the Auditor-General's Office's (AGO's) latest report.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland- Bukit Timah GRC) asked if any systemic flaws were uncovered and how public bodies would prevent future lapses. Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) asked if there were repeated breaches of financial regulations by any ministry and, if so, whether action would be taken against officers who failed to rectify breaches.

Ms Indranee said there was no evidence of systemic weakness and most lapses were due to individual officers.

Mr Liang rose again, this time asking how the AGO's report differed from KPMG's findings on AHTC. Ms Indranee - who seemed to have anticipated this question - gave a lengthy reply.

Of course, lapses are lapses and should not be excused. Parliament is, also, where politicians naturally seek to make political points.

But more topics deserve an airing during Question Time.

The mood turned more congenial as Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan fielded questions on the hairline cracks found on 26 MRT trains, with his usual composure. His crisp answers could serve as a model for an efficient use of Question Time.

Parliament is the national platform to debate key issues. These could include help for families in need and how the slowing economy might affect the Government's long-term resources - questions MPs had tabled, which the House was not able to get to yesterday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'Making the most of Question Time'. Print Edition | Subscribe