Thursday, October 27, 2011

Make Parliament More Accessible


Parliament sat to debate the President's Address from 17 October 2011 to 21 October 2011. It has been [about] five days since the debates ended. It is clear that the mainstream media has failed to provide comprehensive coverage of the debates.

For example, Parliament provides a link on its website to a special page for Parliament on Channel NewsAsia. Yet, when one accesses that link, one finds many speeches or exchanges involving Members of Parliament over the week are not even there.

From alternative sources like the Facebook pages of relevant Members of Parliament, it is clear that a good number of Members of Parliament received almost little or no coverage.

Either the editors of these mainstream media outlets felt that such speeches were not newsworthy or it was just impractical to do so (more likely the latter).

As an aged lawyer and Saint, you must appreciate the value of providing Singaporeans unfettered access to developments in the highest law-making organ of this country.

Without meaning to disrespect your wisdom on this front, I only wish to add that the benefits of such access far outweigh the costs associated with it.

In this regard, while I note and appreciate that members of the public already have hassle-free access to the public galleries of Parliament, I have a number of suggestions that I hope you will consider:

a. Set up a channel on Starhub, Mio TV or the Internet to provide live streaming or coverage, when Parliament sits;

b. Make available uncensored recordings (preferably with subtitles) of Parliamentary proceedings on parliamentary website within a day of any Parliamentary sitting; and/or

c. Publish parliamentary reports on the Singapore Law Watch website as soon as these become available.

I hope your team and you can look into these possibilities, among others, of making parliamentary proceedings more accessible or connected to lay persons like me.

Notwithstanding that you were the current Prime Minister's second choice as Speaker of Parliament, I am hopeful that your legacy as Speaker will be a Parliament of many firsts.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Monday, October 24, 2011

REACH needs new chief


A few years ago, there was a rebranding of the government’s Feedback Unit. Led by a new chief then, the Honourable Member of Parliament Amy Khor, it became Reach.

Reach plays an important role as an arm of the Executive. In its own words, its role is “to feel the pulse of the ground and keep the government apprised of key issues of concern amongst Singaporeans”.

This year, through its different leaders, the government conceded that it had failed to comprehend the concerns of the people, and it had misread the pulse of the ground on key policies.

If nothing else, this showed that Reach had failed miserably in that mandate. The only reach that Reach achieved in its restructuring was its sheer lack of reach.

Reading the speech of its chief to support a motion to thank the President for opening Parliament, one can perhaps understand why.

Khor remarked, “Online engagement will increasingly become more important with the growing number of digital citizens. It is simply impossible to engage on all sites. The government could engage on sites which allow for reasoned and constructive debate and gain traction. Netizens themselves who desire rational discourse should support such sites or else start them. They should not be afraid of being labelled 'pro government.'"

In essence, Khor seems stuck in a time-warp. She is merely reiterating a past strategy of government that has failed: we deal with online media, on our own terms, with persons who will bravely wear the badge “pro government”.

In doing so, Khor has only shown why she is a better politician reaching out to her exclusive die-hard white-wearing fans rather than a feedback chief desiring to be inclusive, regardless of how critical the views may be of government. She seems to have no misgivings polarising the digital citizenry by labelling them as irrational and destructive. Her sentiments perhaps reflect that Khor may have passed her ‘use by’ date, and why one would be hard-pressed to justify her relevance as the face of Reach.

Contrast Khor’s remarks with the more enlightened and practical approach highlighted by her colleague, the Honourable Member of Parliament Baey Yam Keng.

Baey shared, “All communication media are neutral and social media is no exception. It is just another milestone in the evolution of media landscape. It is up to us to adapt and leverage on them.”

He then suggested, “The government does not have to rebut every single rumour or set the record straight for every misrepresentation made, even on the platforms it chooses to engage. Sometimes, it is better to leave the discussion open and not jump into defence too quickly or even at all. Firstly, it is not possible. Secondly, the time, money and effort expended would not be justified. Thirdly, the government should also trust in the public’s ability to make logical assessment of the information they encounter online. The government has to accept that it cannot and should not try to have the last word on every debate. Whether we like it or not, civic engagement in cyberspace has to be treated with the same level of respect and care, planned and delivered with the same competence we wish to achieve in our physical domain. Netizens expect their government to engage with finesse, diplomacy and sincerity.”

Baey speaks from the heart. He is a media veteran, in light of his track record as an artiste and communication professional. It is no surprise therefore that his views resonate with many in online media circles, including veteran journalists like Cherian George.

Being the natural charmer that he is, he has the potential to reflect the face of a government capable of engaging its citizens ‘with finesse, diplomacy and sincerity’. It is time for Baey to replace Khor as chief of Reach.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Empower Law Society if Government open

According to one news media, the Honourable Minister for Law Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam has recently remarked, "We don't, as the government, have a monopoly on ideas - nor expertise, nor resources in every field. And there's a clear recognition that to achieve the best possible policies for Singapore, we have to tap on the private sector and volunteers. This ensures a range of perspectives and diverse, and often better ideas."

While I accept the Minister means well, I approach his views with some measure of caution. If this is something the Minister is really serious about, he can do two things immediately in an area that comes under his direct purview.

First, section 48 (1) (c) of the Legal Profession Act (LPA) allows the minister to appoint 3 advocates and solicitors to sit on the Council of the Law Society of Singapore. A former President of the Law Society has expressed concern about this power. The minister can return or delegate this power to the general membership of the Law Society or the Council.

Second, section 38(1)(c) of the LPA restricts the Law Society from "commenting on matters affecting legislation not submitted to it". The Law Society has sought an amendment of this provision in the past but it fell on deaf ears. The Minister can repeal this provision in order to better reach out to the private sector and to ensure diversity in perspective and ideas.

If the government has no monopoly on ideas, the minister can start by loosening his somewhat monolithic control of the legal profession.

Dharmendra Yadav

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