When MPs' questions get coy answers

Parliament's Tuesday sitting saw some uncharacteristically assertive questioning of an office-holder by a PAP MP.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Hawazi Daipi had just replied to a parliamentary question from Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC). Unsatisfied, the latter rose to ask for "a specific response".

Replied Mr Hawazi: "I'd appreciate if the member is specific about what he wants to follow up with."

Mr Zainal, clearly nettled, began reading out the original question he had filed.

The point was clear: a parliamentary reply is not always a proper answer.

But in the absence of a Freedom of Information Act here, parliamentary questions are one of the better avenues for seeking official data. Withholding sensitive information is understandable, but it is a pity when relatively harmless questions do not get answers. This hurts both the questioner and the questioned, for a lack of information could instead lead people to believe the worst.

Mr Zainal had asked for:

•The percentage of principals, vice-principals and heads of departments who are at the pay grade for their appointment; •The percentage of those who are still not at such a grade even after five years of holding the appointment; and •The percentage of school leaders who retired at a grade below their appointment. He received none of these figures, though the Ministry of Education (MOE) did reveal that "a majority" of principals and vice-principals retire at a pay grade at or above their appointments.

Of course, this is not the only case of a parliamentary question being left unanswered.

One type of data in particular has long been off-limits: breakdowns of the non-citizen population by nationality, whether these are foreign workers or permanent residents.

But there, it is easy to see possible justifications. If the data shows a reliance on workers of a certain nationality, for instance, that could give that country political leverage over us.

Less clear are the possible dangers of shedding light on the promotion situation of principals.

The Education Ministry's coyness on the matter is even more perplexing when one looks at the questions that the Government is willing to answer.

Other questions filed for last Monday and Tuesday's sittings that received direct replies include:

•How many Singaporean citizens have held foreign citizenship between 1980 and 2012;

•How many applications for national service deferment were received from male artists, between 2003 and 2013; and

•How many families have been identified as homeless and camping by the beach between 2010 and 2012.

These questions, touching on issues of citizenship, defence and social problems, could well be considered more "sensitive" than Mr Zainal's. The Government's willingness to answer them is a good thing, but makes its silence on other questions more pronounced.

In choosing to withhold information, ministries may also end up hurting the public's perception of the issue at hand.

When pressed by Mr Zainal last Tuesday, Mr Hawazi said: "We don't think it is useful to give the figures."

But at issue is a phenomenon that calls for explanation: not getting paid as much as your appointment should command.

Mr Hawazi did outline the principles of remuneration and appointment being based on performance. Yet without giving the figures Mr Zainal asked for - in other words, without revealing what the actual picture is - MOE has made impossible any assessment of the situation.

In the first place, is this even a widespread phenomenon?

And if it is, what does that suggest? Does it mean that school leaders are underperforming and hence not being paid at the substantive pay grade?

The ministry undoubtedly has its reasons for not revealing such data. But when information is withheld, a natural reaction - even if unwarranted - is to wonder what there is to hide.

MOE could have revealed the figures and given a clear explanation of what they mean. This would have taken the discussion forward, rather than leave it mired in doubt.

janiceh@sph.com.sg


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