Commentary: Almost one year on, what has livestreaming of Parliament achieved?
The success of the livestreaming of Parliament is not about how many people tune in but how it strengthens our democracy, says Institute of Policy Studies’ Dr Gillian Koh.
SINGAPORE: Since Jan 4, the public has been able to watch the proceedings in Singapore’s Parliament as they unfold, even if few might have lasted through the 10-hour marathon sessions in September and October.
This has raised the level of public engagement in the governance process and improved the quality of data and argumentation in our legislature.
Surely, it has also chastened our politicians to maintain integrity and dignity in their approach to the thrust and parry of parliamentary debate.
Unfiltered, the livestream hosted by the Ministry of Communications and Information was originally thought to be a bad idea - for fear it would feed the grandstanding, seeking to provoke rather than persuade with rigorous, rational deliberation.
Far better, it was thought, to leave it to professional journalists. They would spotlight key debates and decisions, disciplined by the constraints of time and conciseness, and be guided by a “nation-building” ethos expected of them.
Of course, this has long been overtaken by netizens and citizen journalists crafting what they think people should really be reading and thinking.
Audiovisual recordings and transcripts of parliamentary proceedings remain available for record-keeping and deep analysis.
So, what difference has the livestreaming of parliamentary sessions made on national discourse?
CITIZEN PARTICIPATION IN REAL TIME
First, the live medium has lent immediacy to the reactions and responses of the public to parliamentary business. This is a lesser evil than the apathy or cynicism of citizens.
Ordinarily, a few hundred viewers tune in to Parliament at any time, but more do so when they are made aware ahead of time that hot-button issues would be debated.
Viewers also invite contacts to join in through social media feeds but there is no doubt both supporters and opponents of parliamentarians do the same. Reactions can emerge swiftly.
On Sep 15, while the 10-hour debate on the value of Singapore’s free trade agreements and their implications on foreign worker policy raged on, the public was already offering assessments about the parliamentarians’ performance - primarily Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai who put forward the initial motion of debate, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who offered a competing motion, and Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam.
Social media lit up asking why Mr Leong could not be more persuasive about his specific issue with the FTA with India with its obligations on flows of workers to Singapore.
Others asked if the Government bench was trying to obfuscate the issue by alleging that Mr Leong was racist for picking on this particular agreement.
Also, who will forget the “hot mic” controversy involving two Ministers when they disparaged Mr Leong’s performance? This could only have happened because viewers were tuned in live, chanced upon it and fanned political wildfire by circulating the timestamp of the incident.
In the end, the People’s Action Party (PAP)-dominated Parliament passed Mr Wong’s motion on securing Singaporeans jobs and livelihoods and rejected Mr Leong’s motion. One of the front bench ministers caught on the hot mic, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, apologised to Mr Leong for his “private remarks” the next day.
Another indication of this extreme form of engagement arose when Workers’ Party Member of Parliament (MP) Raeesah Khan (WP-Sengkang) admitted she had misled Parliament in August about the police’s alleged insensitive management of a victim of sexual abuse.
On Nov 1, word of her mea culpa circulated as she delivered it and netizens reacted contemporaneously.
Second, livestreaming has thrown up these ground-up reminders to parliamentarians that they are held to higher standards of ethics and decorum.
The virality of circulation through social media means parliamentarians can be held accountable for their conduct in ways that can be unexpected and more severe than might have been a year ago.
MORE EVIDENCE-DRIVEN DEBATES AND DETAILED EXPLANATIONS
Third, the development has spurred more evidence-driven debates on and detailed explanations of public policy and its implementation.
In Parliament in July and September, the Government released annual data under the FTA with India for the first time, indicating the number of intra-corporate transferees - overseas employees at multinational companies who have worked for at least a year in the company before being posted to a branch or subsidiary in Singapore – has been “consistently low”.
Hard numbers on workers entering through FTA provisions helped some members of public to recognise there were other reasons for the sense of insecurity Singaporean workers are feeling.
Those other factors are now being addressed through measures announced in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally (NDR).
We see the same with the complexities of the Government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Facing complaints on the ground, it was possible to assess not just the validity, but also the sincerity, of the leaders’ explanation of the challenges in implementing the Home Recovery Programme.
EVALUATING SUCCESS OF PARLIAMENTARY LIVESTREAMING
The success of the livestreaming is not a question of whether vast numbers of people tune in as they might on Budget Day or the NDR.
Instead, it should be about the less quantifiable aspects: The quality of response, its impact on policy discussions especially with the public, and its contribution to the strengthening of our democracy — that people know we can participate in policy formulation if we want to, listen to responses to our feedback, and assess our elected representatives’ contributions.
These boil down to why our votes matter.
We can watch how a dominant PAP exercises its power and assess the wisdom of the opposition and nominated MPs in saying ”nay” to a bill, as they did after a robust 10-hour debate in October on the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill which became law that night.
With 104 parliamentarians including the nominated ones, no other media can do justice in terms of coverage.
Making the livestream available as a default provides the political and psychological countermeasure to an age of rising cynicism about mainstream media and ruling elites.
Those who worry they are being fed selective parts of the situation know where and how they can view things uncut and in real time. This is also a deterrent against misinformation.
The open contestation of ideas on the live broadcast is far better than any civics or political theory lessons can deliver on how our parliament works.
This direct process of communication can motivate a higher level of well-informed and even real-time citizen involvement in the enterprise of achieving progress for our nation.
Dr Gillian Koh is Deputy Director (Research) and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.