On 15 May 2020, Leader of the House, Grace Fu, said that live parliamentary broadcasts will run the risk of turning the House into a “form of theatre” and strongly believes that live broadcasts will not add transparency to parliament sessions. Now I consider myself to be quite a woke person. Still, for the most part, I choose to be an obviously apolitical person for fear of repercussion of my opinions.
So when my editor asked me to write this piece, I thought it was a reasonable discussion about Ministers and Members of Parliament (MPs) debating on whether parliamentary sessions could take place online versus in real-life. I was wrong. In fact, this online kerfuffle is about whether we should broadcast regular parliamentary sessions live.
Now you must be wondering, ‘Why should I care? We’ve never had live parliamentary broadcasts before. Why should I, a mere citizen care?’ You should care because we’re all part of this country and the democratic process. How can we vote and have an accurate and unbiased understanding of our government if all we’re presented with are polished, edited and pre-prepared statements that are researched to a fault.
For as long as we’ve been independent, parliamentary sessions in Singapore have never been broadcasted live. Now let’s be clear—there is a difference between a live broadcast of a parliamentary address and a parliamentary session. A session is when Ministers and Members of Parliament introduce and debate policies and laws. Any clip you’ve seen online of a parliamentary session has been edited beforehand; we never get to see any ‘raw’ interactions between parliamentarians.
Do you see where I’m getting at now? Now, just like a proper parliamentary session, let me discuss three potential reasons why our government would not want a live broadcast and three reasons why we should. At the end of it, you decide for yourself if you’re yay or nay for live parliamentary broadcasts.
This could be a hot take, but I can see why Grace Fu would use this as a reason for being against live parliamentary broadcasts. When I think of live parliamentary broadcasts, my mind immediately thinks of three nations: Australia, The United Kingdom (UK) and The United States of America (US).
In the US, House and Senate proceedings are broadcast live by the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN). Live proceedings can be viewed on three of their cable network channels or online on their website. Australian Parliament Sessions are available on Watch Parliament, and the House of Commons and House of Lord sessions where UK policies and laws are debated are shown live on their parlimentlive.tv website.
Perhaps the most memorable ‘form of theatre’ would be when Julia Gillard, then Prime Minister of Australia, delivered a speech on misogyny against then opposition leader, Tony Abbott in 2012. Could you ever imagine our leaders speaking with such passion, candour and directness?
Of course, I imagine that when Ms Fu refers to ‘theatre’, she probably meant something like the US Senator’s fist fighting when tensions are high and emotions are involved during Senate hearings. But to assume that of our parliamentarians shows no faith that the leaders of this country are above theatrics. Do you have that little faith in our leaders, Ms Fu?
Perhaps one of the reasons why live broadcasts will not see the light of day in our little red dot is because we would finally see our leaders of the country as human. Gone would be the well-prepared and polished impressions they’ve spent years honing and presenting to us. If we had live broadcasts, we would finally be able to watch our leaders in their element, and we’ll finally be able to judge how well our MPs respond to questions and debates from the opposition.
Could you imagine watching our leaders, stumble over their words, as the nation questions their ability to lead with the way they carry themselves when answering questions off the cuff? It could be argued that this would result in inefficiency, for now, the government has to deal with a lot more PR than before, but is honest and transparent governing not the best way to guide?
How can a nation of people critically support their leaders if they never had the chance to decide for themselves? How can we encourage discourse and more political awareness across the country if all the information we have is always perfect and polished?
Is it presumptuous to assume that the government is currently banking on our people to vote mindlessly? On the principle of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’?
3. Low viewership
Another reason given for not being able to justify live broadcasts lies in low viewership. In 2017, then Senior Minister of State for Communications, Mr Chee Hong Tat said that those who watched the 2017 Budget live made up less than 10% of those who watched the news in the same evening. In addition, less than one per cent viewed the Budget live via streaming.
Fair enough, numbers are numbers, but I am positive that given our current 2020 COVID/ upcoming post COVID reality, more people would definitely be interested in the ongoings of our nation. How can the government assume that Singaporeans are not interested in live broadcasts if we’ve never had a taste of that alleged forbidden fruit?
But the fundamental problem of this argument is the assumption that live parliamentary broadcasts are viewed as on-demand shows by our politicians. Democracy does not depend on viewership to take place. Democracy takes place regardless of viewership. It should not even be considered in the first place, this is reality, not a never-ending channel 5 series.
1. Taking ownership of our government
I believe that with live parliamentary broadcasts, more Singaporeans will be motivated to be politically aware and more appreciative of government initiatives. We complain about many little things because we are always reacting rather than being proactive about issues that we find fault. When it is reported by the news, policies and laws are already debated on and packaged nicely, and as a nation, we’re expected to take whatever we’re given without question.
This is problematic because how can democracy survive if we’re not represented by leaders who bear the voice of their people?
Sure, we have meet-the-MP sessions where we air our grievances, and we can contact our representatives by email but does our leadership truly know what’s best for us?
Not that I’m complaining. For the record, I think our government is doing it’s best in dealing with COVID-19 in Singapore. I imagine that if live broadcasts were a reality, should the nation feel strongly about the topics debated in parliament, they would be able to make their voices heard in many ways—perhaps through live-tweeting to shed light on a particular issue or starting petitions just as MPs finish their debates.
The public will be able to make their sentiments more acutely as policies and laws are introduced. And with a big enough reaction, our leaders might even take into consideration what the populace thinks.
2. Knowing the person behind the Minister
All of our Ministers are seemingly mysterious. Occasionally we get bite-sized soundbites like “You need a very small space to have sex”, or if we’re really lucky, something in the likes of the now iconic 25-minute leaked audio recording of our Trade and Industry Minister’s dialogue with the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI).
The best way to judge our leaders should be when they’re doing their job, and how they react to debates and questions thrown their way.
To continuously drive this wedge if mystery between people and leaders has proven effective for the past 55 years. Forcing us to be satisfied with the status quo is safe and has worked well so far, but given the curiosity and aggressiveness of future generations, I’m afraid that model or secrecy will not last long.
3. We can’t be a nannied state forever
Force-feeding your children with whatever you want with little regards to their wants and needs will only make them rebel against you more. What will it take for the government to lift the curtain of perfection they’ve long honed? I refuse to believe that only those deemed ‘worthy’ will continue to govern as if this country is an exclusive club, accessible to the privileged few.
To have a live broadcast allows the average typical Singaporean to participate in political discourse and creates a generation of hyper-aware political individuals. A rise in political awareness will, in turn, force the government to work even harder and provide the best solutions for their people. There is no such thing as perfection in this world, only constant reflection and motivation for improvement. Especially so for a government that sees itself as so infallible, that an apology seems to be the hardest word.
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