Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin speaks his mind on...
THE QUALITY OF DEBATES HE HAS SEEN IN HIS FIRST YEAR
I’m actually quite pleased with the quality of discussion and debates. Can it be better? Of course it can, but that depends on one’s expectations.
I sometimes read people saying that nothing substantive is being said, that people are not pushing the boundaries. But even for the People’s Action Party (PAP), which forms the Government, many Members of Parliament (MPs) do raise issues, questions and push the boundaries.
Being the Speaker has given me the opportunity to take in all the different perspectives. The current situation is encouraging and (it is) something we should not lose.
We should strive to create a more tolerant environment, so that people feel free to articulate their views.
ENSURING DIFFERENT VIEWS ARE AIRED
If we have limited time for oral answers to all the questions raised, I may want to make sure I get the opposition members and Nominated MPs to speak up.
It may mean the number of questions is not proportionate to their representation, but that is okay... At least the different groups get to air their views.
As much as possible, I make it a point to allow all MPs who raise their hands to ask their supplementary questions during question time, or allow MPs to ask for clarifications during debates on any item of business.
I believe this will allow for more critical debate of the important issues.
For example, at the May 17 sitting this year for the Ministerial Statement on National Service Training Deaths, I allowed clarification time to go on for about 40 minutes.
But I have also learnt that I must keep track of time – as it is, the number of hours that Parliament sits in a year has gone up.
OPPOSITION MPS’ CLAIMS THAT QUESTIONS ARE NOT ANSWERED
As long as a question is filed, it will be answered – in oral or written form. If you want to ask the question verbally and follow up with a supplementary question, you can always roll it to the next sitting and the sitting thereafter. I get the same complaints from PAP MPs too. But the fact is, many different questions are tabled for the various ministries. At some point, we will come to it.
Even if we don’t get it verbally discussed and debated, there will be a written response. The Government can’t hide if a difficult question is filed. It has to answer.
I think the real complaint may be that MPs, whatever their affiliation, prefer their questions to be addressed orally in Parliament so that they can ask supplementary questions. I can understand that.
THE QUALITY OF DEBATES HE HOPES TO SEE
MPs have quite a wide latitude to say what they need to say... and I would want to encourage them to speak their minds.
I would like the debates to be passionate, especially on issues that concern Singaporeans at large, and I expect MPs to take on the frontbench on issues they are concerned about.
If you get a strong response from the frontbench, then we expect you to respond strongly as well, if you feel strongly enough about the matter. One should be mature enough to see that none of this is personal.
While one should keep within the boundaries of what is acceptable, I’d like to take a more liberal perspective and allow that debate to take place. I think we’re better for it.
Even though we are a bit uncomfortable sometimes, as long as the situation doesn’t get out of hand – we’re nowhere near that at the moment – it is all right.
WHERE TO DRAW THE LINE IN HEATED DEBATE
As Speaker, I am guided by precedents, standing orders and a healthy dose of judgment. But my general approach is to be expansive and permissive where I can.
I don’t think we have reached a stage where people may end up trading blows. Some debates have got quite heated, but they are well within acceptable boundaries.
If it goes a bit further than where it should be, I may have a word with the respective parties’ leaders or the individuals themselves. But I have not yet seen a need to do that.
Seow Bei Yi