PARLIAMENT: Budget 2019 debate

Parliament: Strengthen institutions to hold Govt to account: NMP Walter Theseira

Steps should be taken to strengthen Parliament, civic society and academic institutions, so that Singaporeans can hold their Government to account.

Nominated MP Walter Theseira made the call yesterday when he suggested ways to improve the three major institutions.

The ruling People's Action Party has had an uninterrupted mandate since independence in 1965, he noted. "But all things must pass. If and when that happens, to set and keep Singapore on the right path, let us invest today to have institutions in place that allow Singaporeans to speak from a position of strength on the issues of the day and challenge any future Government they feel is not acting in the best interests of Singaporeans," he said in Parliament.

To strengthen the parliamentary system, Dr Theseira asked for more resources for backbenchers to hire experts. With this, MPs can provide independently-researched policy suggestions in a debate, instead of relying on their own knowledge, networks or the Government to come up with solutions, he said.

He also asked for more support for MPs to hire legislative and secretarial assistants, especially for those serving on additional parliamentary committees.

Elected MPs reportedly receive stipends of $1,300 to hire a legislative assistant and $500 for secretarial support. MPs often team up to hire an assistant.

Similarly, opposition MPs would benefit from getting extra help in carrying out their work, he added.

Nominated MPs would also gain by having their own parliamentary assistants, to "ensure personal wealth and career considerations do not stand in the way of being able to serve fully".

 
 

On civil society, he said more meaningful collaborations between such groups and the Government can happen, if they have more access to information.

He proposed a "transparency fund" so that MPs' frequent requests for data in Parliament can be earmarked for regular updates and released publicly.

He noted that about half of last year's 698 parliamentary questions were requests for data, and three-quarters were answered. "These answers show that much information held by the Government is of public interest, is readily available, and by release, poses no significant sensitivities."

Dr Theseira, an economics professor, also suggested ways to encourage more Singaporeans to join academia, especially in the social sciences. While Singaporeans appear to be well represented in local academia - about 50-50 - the local representation is much stronger among teaching staff than faculty, he noted.

"We want and must have Singaporeans in academia and in research... because (they) must be in charge of asking the critical questions about who we are, what the problems in society are, and how to solve them."

He added: "We are frankly too small for experts from elsewhere to want to study us thoroughly. In any case, we should never depend on them."

He also urged the Government to "be cognisant that it has much more power than a mere academic has and there should be room for even disagreeable academics to contribute to Singapore".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2019, with the headline 'Strengthen institutions to hold Govt to account: NMP'. Print Edition | Subscribe