As Parliament goes live, key questions will need to be addressed

SINGAPORE – Monday’s (Jan 4) Parliament sitting was notable for two “firsts” – it was the first one this year, and also the first to be live-streamed.

The public could follow the proceedings in real time on the Ministry of Communications and Information YouTube channel, a move several months in the making. It was flagged last September by Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran.

Once the veil of mystery was lifted from the chamber, the session followed a well-trodden path. The big concerns of the day came up for discussion, including Covid-19, social support, the elderly, and the economy.

On Covid-19 vaccines, those who tuned in would have drawn four key points from Health Minister Gan Kim Yong’s ministerial statement.

First, there will be enough free vaccines for all Singaporeans and long-term residents in Singapore. They will not, however, be able to dictate their choice of vaccine.

Second, current vaccines will likely be effective against the new strain.

Third, prior bookings to get vaccinated will be necessary; and finally, all who are vaccinated will be issued a vaccination card to remind them of follow-up appointments.

But the larger, more important message was that Singaporeans must not let their guard down.

Like Mr Gan, Education Minister Lawrence Wong warned that vaccination is “not a silver bullet”. Global cases continue to escalate rapidly, he said, and in Singapore alone there have already been two family clusters in recent days.

Another hot button issue was the termination of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail (HSR) project. The deal-breaker for Singapore, explained Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, was that it could not accept Malaysia’s proposal to remove the requirement for a jointly appointed Assets Company – the systems supplier and network operator of the HSR – a “fundamental departure” from the original agreement.

Given that neither country has the expertise in operating the HSR, said Mr Ong, both sides had earlier agreed to appoint a best-in-class industry player through an open and transparent international tender. The goal was to have a single train system operating between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur that would be accountable to both sides.

Given accelerated digitalisation due to Covid-19, members also addressed the need to ensure that the elderly are not left behind.

Responding to a question from Workers’ Party’s Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC), Foreign Minister and Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said that despite the discontinuation of the OneKey token from April 1, residents who do not own a mobile phone will still be able to access government e-services using SingPass.

He gave the assurance that there is no timeline to phase out physical counters to access these services, including government agency service centres and libraries.

But bridging the skills gap and helping the elderly to cross this hurdle is critical, he added.

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This is where the SG Digital Office – which has digital ambassadors present to help seniors with services – is useful, said Dr Balakrishnan. He also took note of Mr Giam’s suggestion that physical counters be extended to social service offices.

Ongoing concerns over data privacy and the use of TraceTogether were also raised.

Responding to a question from Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan clarified that the Singapore Police Force is empowered under the Criminal Procedure Code to obtain any data.

“We do not preclude the use of TraceTogether data in circumstances where citizens’ safety and security are or have been affected, and this applies to all other data as well,” said Mr Tan, in response to a supplementary question from Mr Giam who asked if use of the data would violate the TraceTogether privacy statement.

Also mentioned was a Ministry of Social and Family Development study released last month, which showed that children of divorced parents tend to earn less, and are more likely to get divorced, than their peers from intact families.

On the support available to these children, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Education Maliki Osman said school counsellors are on hand for students who exhibit emotional distress or social and behavioural changes due to their parents’ divorce. Teachers also proactively look out for any changes in behaviour, and financial assistance is available to those who need it, he added.

The issues raised on Monday are not new. But they will sharpen against the backdrop of the uneven trajectory of the pandemic and its uncertain impact on the economy, as well as a rapidly ageing population and changing social trends.

Concerns over a growing fiscal burden, inequality and intergenerational mobility have already come to the fore.

As for live-streaming Parliament proceedings, the authorities have long been reluctant to do so, citing reasons such as the risk of MPs playing to the gallery. Retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan reiterated these concerns in a Facebook post on Monday, calling the move a “mistake” that could change the political dynamic in such a way as to incentivise “a certain sort of personality to enter politics and not the kind who ought to be a political leader”.

As Mr Iswaran said on Monday, the integrity and dignity of Parliament as a forum for serious debate on national issues must be preserved. “Ultimately, the responsibility rests with all members of this House, present and future, who must continue to uphold the highest standards of conduct and decorum, as we engage in the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate,” he said.

Was this opening session the lull before the storm?

Whether Mr Kausikan’s comments will prove prescient is anyone’s guess, but the measured tone of Monday’s debate gave little cause for alarm.

For every rogue politician who sees this as an opportunity to let loose, one can imagine many others who would choose their words more carefully in front of a nation of live viewers.

As for critics who placed their bets on huge pent-up public interest, it may have been a case of “too early to call”.

The number of viewers on MCI’s live stream hovered below 4,000 most of the time and dipped to around 500 by the close of day, lending credence to the authorities’ earlier observation that public demand for a live stream – at least for now – is not all that high, notwithstanding its public education and engagement value.

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