Parliamentary Speech, Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill
Anthea Ong on Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill
Even as we ensure continuity of Parliament during a crisis, it is also important to ensure continuity of public access…
Mr. Speaker, this Bill seeks to create a mechanism for Parliament to meet under continuity arrangements, should it become impossible, unsafe or inexpedient for MPs to meet in Parliament. This is a prudent move to ensure that Parliament sittings continue in such unpredictable and challenging times so that we can still debate and “properly pass the laws and any supplementary funds the Government requires to act in protecting our fellow Singaporeans”, as you, Sir, had put it in the last sitting.
Yet, as much as we strive to maintain continuity of Parliament, we must also maintain continuity of access for the public. Otherwise, this Bill and its intent in continuity planning is incomplete and creates an unintended dismissal of Singaporeans as part of our parliamentary process.
CONTINUED PUBLIC ACCESS THROUGH LIVE-STREAMING
Public access to Parliament is fundamental to our parliamentary proceedings. As you shared in your 2018 blog, Mr Speaker, “whatever happens in Parliament affects Singaporeans and Singapore,” so Parliament staying connected to citizens could “bridge knowledge gaps and combat misinformation for a more informed and constructive public discourse on Parliament matters”. Only with such intentional and ongoing engagement can an informed and invested citizenry and therefore a “democracy of deeds” eventuate.
Other than Hansard transcripts and assorted recordings by CNA, the most direct, engaging and intimate access to parliamentary proceedings for members of the public is to watch ‘live’ from the Visitors’ Gallery and the Press Gallery. In fact, I understand that extensive attention was paid to public education of the parliamentary system in the form of galleries on a study trip by the committee members during the design of this building in the early 90s.
Unfortunately, since the introduction of more drastic safe distancing measures, these galleries have been closed to the public and media. How can we ensure continuity of this access to live proceedings?
I would propose that we expand the notion of the public gallery online through live-streaming to ensure continuity of access. This may have been seen as a “nice to have” in the past but I would argue that in these COVID-19 times, this is now an imperative. Please let me elaborate.
a) Transparency and trust in a crisis
First, the COVID-19 virus has challenged the status quo in so many ways. The daily updates by the multi-ministry task force, now live-streamed to our homes, has begun to demonstrate the kind of leadership in transparency and accountability away from exceptionalism that has, in my humble opinion, been critical in inspiring the confidence needed in Singaporeans to ride this storm together. Could trust and resilience have been built without risking vulnerability, without risking bad but honest news? I doubt so. In the same vein, instead of relying only on media analysis which is constrained by limited air time and print space, Singaporeans should be given live access to parliamentary debates. This would allow them to be fully invested in the policies deliberated and enacted to tackle this public health and economic crisis.
b) Continued access to parliamentary education for students
Second, you have made admirable efforts in engaging young Singaporeans to take more than a cursory interest in Parliament, Mr Speaker. “My Parliament Journey” allows students to observe the proceedings from the Gallery — hordes of them would come in every sitting; I used to enjoy seeing and guessing which school they are from based on their uniform. Sadly, this live experience is no longer available to them at this time. Yet, I would suggest that in fact, now more than ever, as this chamber debates Bills and makes laws with urgency to save lives and livelihoods in our biggest crisis since WWII, our young must be encouraged to witness history being made and be invested in this “war” that we are fighting together. Live-streaming ensures the continuity of this critical part of their national education and citizenship-building, and provides the opportunity for this to take place at their homes as well.
c) Engaging overseas Singaporeans
Lastly, I would also argue that we must engage in the same way with Singaporeans overseas to enfold them into parliamentary debates to tackle this crisis, and our recovery after. Many of my Singaporean friends overseas would have appreciated watching the parliamentary sessions ‘live’ in the last few sittings as they were so eager to know what the Government would do and what the MPs would be asking with such a colossal crisis at hand. Some have been away from Singapore for a while and are seeking ways to stay connected to Singapore in this trying time. This is even more important given that elections may be imminent. Having parliamentary live-streams will allow Singaporeans abroad to stay connected and is valuable as a long term measure to help these Singaporeans maintain their stake and commitment to Singapore.
FEASIBILITY AND SYMBOLISM OF LIVE-STREAMING
Mr. Speaker, more than 90 countries have given their citizens the opportunity to access parliamentary proceedings through live-streaming. Live streaming and maintaining archives are now mainstream technologies such that cost is no longer an obstacle.
“I firmly believe that given our greater appetite for self-information in this digital age, we can nudge greater citizen participation by offering official channels they can trust,” these are not my words but yours, Mr. Speaker. And I cannot agree with you more.
COVID-19 has shown us how much of a highly wired world we live in, and live streaming is becoming a way of life. However, live-streams of parliamentary proceedings are not news sound-bites competing with entertainment channels, they are in fact an investment in our future and our citizenry. And this investment is an investment we must make regardless of viewership, just like how we invested in the generous space for the public and press galleries regardless of visitorship. It must be made on a matter of principle, the same way that the Hansard and public gallery are manifestations of the democratic principle. So, will the Minister please clarify whether live streaming will be part of the continuity planning for public access to protect the integrity of our parliamentary process, especially with the public gallery closed to the electorate?
Before I conclude, Mr. Speaker, could the Minister also clarify why the Bill does not provide for Parliament to meet remotely under this new article 64(A should such a need arise so we don’t have to keep tabling urgent amendments since experts have shared that COVID-19 won’t be the last pandemic?
Sir, this Bill is significant in that it protects the integrity of our democracy by ensuring continuity of parliament especially in a time where laws have to be changed, debated and made at record speed to keep pace with a rapidly evolving crisis in order to protect our people and our economy. But we must also protect the rights of the electorate by continuing to give them direct and live access through live streaming as a continuity arrangement. We can keep distance for safety by closing the public gallery but we must come even closer between the Legislature and our people to forge a stronger compact for a post-COVID world.
Notwithstanding my suggestions and clarifications above, I support the Bill.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)
The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.
She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).
Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng