Speaker speaks on Parliament
Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin wants to demystify the House for the public
Right off the bat, it is clear where the priorities lie for 10th Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin.
Minutes before an interview with The New Paper last week, an update from one of his staff came in about Parliament's Instagram account - @parl_sg, barely a week-old then. It had crossed the milestone of a thousand followers, prompting an approving nod from Mr Tan.
Several of the account's posts feature the mascot Parley, a winged lion that sits encased on the 49-year-old's desk, as if watching him as he goes about his day-to-day work.
The Instagram account and Parley are the latest in a slew of initiatives that Mr Tan hopes will demystify Parliament.
In a world of "Korean dramas and football results", Mr Tan said that outreach efforts about the goings-on of Parliament have never been more important.
"There are so many things out there that occupy our bandwidth. We do not spend a lot of time paying attention," he said.
Sometimes we get lost in thinking that there is a lot of division, a lot of disagreement, but I actually think, if we take a step back, there is a lot of agreement as opposed to disagreement Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin
The Parliament website, he explained, is the main outlet for official updates.
Instagram gives a more light-hearted take on the House while Facebook straddles the space in-between and allows for the sharing of videos too.
There is also Mr Tan's blog on the Parliament website, on which he published his second post last Friday, detailing how he was looking forward to President Halimah Yacob's first Presidential Address today.
Social media outreach is being done in addition to engagements offline like Parliament visits, the Singapore Model Parliament for students, and various grassroots engagement talks.
The efforts are necessary for people to understand how "things work" to avoid being misled by untruths, said Mr Tan.
There will be some who seek to "exploit" the exchanges in Parliament by spreading misinformation and Mr Tan said this happens because people "do not realise how things (in Parliament) unfold".
He added: "They may think things are rigged (or) unfair."
Mr Tan brought up an incident last year where netizens alleged that People's Action Party MPs had filed adjournment motions to "block" Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim's adjournment motion on the Presidential Election.
There was no such coordinated attack, and Mr Tan took to Facebook to explain that the other motions had been tabled before that and balloting had been conducted to select the one that made it to the House.
There is a certain light-heartedness that Mr Tan brings to the role - perhaps most clearly shown in his wrap-up speech to the Budget debates in March.
In the 10-minute speech, which he finished writing only that morning, Mr Tan had cheekily said it would remain a "trade secret" how he manages to stay awake or "answer the call of nature".
He also spoke in Tamil - taking a cue from Senior Minister of State Chee Hong Tat who had done the same.
His posts on social media have at times taken a similar, less serious tone too.
Said Mr Tan: "I think not just the Speaker, but if MPs invest humour and a light-hearted touch, that helps to perhaps soften the tone at times and makes it more comfortable for everyone."
He is aware that not everyone is a fan and that some feel Parliament should be serious.
"In many parliaments in the world, people are witty. I think we need more of that, than less," he said. "We should be able to laugh at ourselves without being disrespectful."
A discussion about access to and understanding of Parliament would be incomplete without bringing up the question of public broadcasts.
"The reality is that people do not watch," said Mr Tan, referring to the clips uploaded online after debates.
He said firmly: "I find it insulting that some individuals, the way they put it, it is as if this is going to solve everything."
There is also a concern of "playing to the gallery", should live broadcasts be allowed.
Instead of focusing on the discussions, Mr Tan said that people might focus on other things, like which MPs are in attendance, what MPs do while speeches are given and the other goings-on "in-between".
Even so, Mr Tan doesn't rule out the possibility of changes in the future.
"I'm taking on board the various perspectives and will discuss with Government to see whether there's something we might want to do," he said.
Since he took up the mantle of Speaker last September, Mr Tan has presided over some robust debates in the House.
This includes not just the Budget, but also the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act.
When asked if anything had surprised him so far, Mr Tan blinked and said with a laugh: "I wish I had paid a bit more attention to what the Speaker does."
He said it had been "useful" to get a helicopter view of all the things said.
"I was able to listen through all the ministries' areas of focus and the concerns, queries and perspectives that MPs may have on the issues and the debates that ensued," he said.
The former Minister for Social and Family Development sees the role of Speaker as an influential one and said he uses his position to champion causes he cares about, particularly in the social sector.
Outside of Parliament, Mr Tan still oversees SG Cares, the national movement to promote volunteerism, and advises the National Council of Social Service.
As he admitted in his wrap-up speech, it can be difficult tostay quiet during debates.
"Yes it is challenging in a sense that you would like to participate but you can't," he said.
"But then your task really is to help to facilitate the exchanges and the debates that take place."
At various points in the hour-long interview, Mr Tan mentioned the vision he has for his role: To be an impartial "referee" facilitating the most productive debates.
He said: "Sometimes we get lost in thinking that there is a lot of division, a lot of disagreement, but I think, if we take a step back, there is a lot of agreement as opposed to disagreement."
Is it true that debates have become more heated since he took over as Speaker?
Mr Tan joked: "Maybe because people think GE (the General Election) is coming?"
But he quickly clarified that there have always been robust debates in Parliament, which he feels is important for issues that are "contentious, emotive and significant".
He said: "Debates should be passionate and involved, and of course, some topics more so than others... I expect people to be able to defend themselves and stand up for themselves."