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The mistake made over NMP scheme

They really should be named Appointed MPs or AMP!

When I saw the title of the book of essays on the Nominated MP scheme, Are unelected voices still necessary in Parliament?, I did what I think any normal person would do : count how many of the 20 contributors said yes or no. 

It was tough. Not all the 20 (19 past NMPs and one still in service) answered unequivocally. 

Some said yes, citing the need for representation for sectors like sports, youth and environment, even institutionalizing them. In other words, they need successors to continue banging the drum for their constituencies in Parliament. 

Lim Sun Sun spoke for academia: “In a world overrun with fake news and faux experts that is concurrently grappling with a slew of wicked problems, an avenue for democratic discussion to be more richly infused with academic insights is welcome indeed.’’

Walter Woon took a higher level approach. He cited Athenian democracy, where every citizen was entitled to speak and vote in meetings of the assembly of the city-state. “This was democracy at its purest – each citizen contributing to debate on national policy. In a small way, the NMP scheme is a reminder of the ultimate rationale for democracy, that is, to allow ordinary citizens a say in policy- and law-making.’’

Some said “yes, for now”, until a fully formed parliamentary democracy with two strong parties has been built up, depriving the scheme of  its raison-d’etre of bringing varied views into the House. It isn’t a surprise. Some former NMPs, such as Siew Kum Hong and Kanwaljit Soin, have already gone on record calling for the scheme to be abolished or questioning its usefulness. It’s a pity that they are not included in the book. Editor Anthea Ong said she tried to get at least one NMP from the seven Parliaments. “I merely started with the ones I know, sleuthed out a few, got turned down by some, let go of two and am still crestfallen that the last one could not work out.’’  (Which only makes me wonder who…)

Among the 20 writers, I count two who were most steadfast about the scheme’s increasing obsolescence.   

Said Laurence Lien: “I am of the view that, while making a difference in the short term, the NMP scheme should be abolished in the long term. The scheme was making an impact precisely because of failures in our democratic system — a lack of robust opposition and a lack of alternative platforms for concerned and respected citizens to air perspectives on behalf of fellow countrymen.’’ 

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Braema Mathi thinks the NMP scheme has “outrun its course’’ and must be phased out: “Today, there is growing strength in opposition parties despite them facing damaging reputational blisters. The ruling party is also sharpening its engagement with the people. Civil society is growing strongly, especially as e-networks on social media, despite the restrictive laws. Many amongst the young are politically and socially aware. Opposition MPs are strengthening their interventions in parliamentary debates. People are active on social media. So why then are NMPs still needed, especially if they are diverting attention from opposition political parties and even the ruling party?’’

Simon Tay wasn’t as certain: “In my view, Parliament is struggling to be a real focus point of debate on public life in Singapore. Sometimes it runs behind the curve. Moreover, we now have a fairly credible Opposition, and if you look at debates now you might struggle to find NMPs’ voices. So maybe…there shouldn’t be NMPs anymore. I’m not sure. I am sure that times have changed, and they are struggling to get that visibility and public support.’’

So it was a mix of views that probably reflects the sentiments of the Singapore polity. 

I asked myself whether this question is really a moot point designed to bring in the eyeballs. After all, the NMP scheme was embedded in the Constitution in 2010, about 20 years after it was introduced with a “sunset clause” allowing each Parliament to decide for itself on its necessity. A “no, not necessary’’ answer would require a super-majority in Parliament to unpin the NMP scheme from the political system.

The book was carved into three parts playing on the NMP shorthand – Novel, Merit and Possibilities. I thought it would be easier for readers if it was simply divided into decades, accompanied by a brief account of the political climate and issues of the time. It was irritating to read bits and pieces of the debate on the Population White Paper which took place in 2012 in different essays.  In fact, the role of the NMPs was most prominent in this debate.  As the two political parties stuck to their positions, the NMPs’ speeches and votes became the bellwether for non-partisan sentiment. In the end, four NMPs voted yes, one abstained and three said nay. 

All the writers spoke about having the jitters, especially when they had to deliver their maiden speech. A few lamented the lack of secretarial or research support – a point which puzzled me as it should have been obvious to them from the get-go that they were on their own. Rather than look to parliament or taxpayers for support, they should be turning to the functional groups which put up their names I should think. 

Having each write his or her own essay means the book is tinged with self-interest. A few gave chapter and verse of their sayings and doings during the two or two-and-a-half years in service as NMPs. I grimaced when reading former Labour NMP Thomas Thomas’ essay in which  he dwelt at length about acting independently of the government and the labour movement. Obviously, he felt the burden of  being the NTUC’s sole nominee for NMP, especially when there are already so many PAP labour MPs. 

Nevertheless, you could tell that there was some soul-searching going on as each writer contemplated the value of his or her contribution and whether it met some performance marker.

 Laurence Lien’s essay, in my view, made for sad reading. He was disillusioned by the way he was treated by some members of the Establishment when he voiced certain views. He called it a “negative climate’’ of us-versus-them. Perhaps, he was just being frank, especially when he wrote about feeling “hemmed in’’ and wondering how his speech or vote will affect the way people deal with him or the organisations he represents, like the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre. I daresay the opposition politicians can empathise with him.

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‘To me, I’m neither anti- nor pro-government. I am just pro-Singapore. And because NVPC was a sort of quasi-government entity, it did not seem tenable for me to continue in my role there, even though I was going to leave anyway. I was a bit disappointed, like, why can’t we all be pro-Singapore? Just because we crossed swords sometimes and I started doing a bit more outside Parliament, all that seemed to be misread and perceived as having a political agenda.”

He pointed out the gaps and contradictions in the scheme, right from how NMPs are appointed. There is no selection criteria and most times, the public doesn’t even know who applied for the job. What would disqualify an NMP seeking a second term, for example? 

I had hoped that some of the essays would at least tell of what happened during the interviews or the types of questions asked, but this was only touched upon in a couple of essays. Maybe they had to sign a non-disclosure clause. 

Eugene Tan is among those who talked about the opacity of the process, suggesting that those who want to be NMPs shouldn’t shy away from making their names public. 

It is a recurring topic and deserves some proper answers from the G. The addition of functional groups and “co-ordinators’’ (usually the biggest body in the sector) to come up with names only serves to entrench the view that the NMP scheme is about the elite deciding who else among the elite should sit in the chamber. It also leads to the question of over-representation of business and professional groups, which already know how to make themselves heard or have access to elected MPs. 

Only the Arts functional group has a grassroots method of throwing up representatives. And this was clearly reported by former Arts NMPs Janice Koh and Audrey Wong in their joint essay. What a wonderful approach, I thought, until they reminded me that even nominees thrown up in a somewhat democratic process can be rejected by the selection committee. This happened in 2018. 

There were also some interesting insights and anecdotes. How NMPs were treated by fellow parliamentarians and frontbenchers away from the glare of the spotlight. Little conversations and remarks that were either belittling or encouraging. Phone calls and elbow nudging when a vote is coming up. And of course, earlier NMPs recalled being in the intimidating  presence of first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. 

Viswa Sadasivan devoted his entire essay to the “baptism of fire’’ he had to go through when he had no less a person than the late Mr Lee respond to his maiden speech about the National Pledge.

The essay, however, falls short on explaining exactly what Mr Lee and the 17 PAP backbenchers (who unaccountably had a copy of speech, according to Viswa) had against what he said. You can surmise from the essay that one reason was that the PAP felt he didn’t give the party enough credit in nation building or creating a multi-racial society. But a check with Hansard showed that Mr Lee was rather more blistering than that, telling Viswa that wanting to make everyone in Singapore equal will mean, among other things, removing the special rights of the Malays.

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Like Viswa, Walter Theresia made his involvement in the debate on POFMA in August 2019 the centrepiece of his essay. He gave a blow-by-blow accounting of how he and fellow NMP Anthea Ong came up with the amendment motion which failed to carry. And why he decided to abstain in the end on the final motion. There was a part which brought home the duties of parliamentarians in the scrutiny of legislation. 

‘I have also asked myself whether I could have done more to ensure that POFMA was crafted as good legislation. A lacuna in POFMA soon arose. In an appeal against a POFMA direction, does the Executive or the appellant have the burden of proof in showing whether a statement is false or misleading?11 Different judges of the High Court came to conflicting conclusions on the matter, requiring the Court of Appeal to resolve the matter. 

”I think I, and Parliament, could have done better. If the burden of proof, at least at some stage and in some form, should lie with the appellant, this should have been stated in the legislation and defended in the debate, rather than argued by the Attorney-General during appeals.” 

Interestingly, an earlier NMP Faisah Jamal referred to this point about exercising voting rights in her essay. She wrote about how she and two other NMPs voted “nay’’ in the division called for the vote on the controversial population White Paper in 2012. She was puzzled that the later NMPs abstained from voting despite making their discomfort known in their speeches. Why, given that there was a precedent, she asked.

As someone who has watched the development of the scheme since its inception in 1989, I will only say that the worth of the scheme is only as good as the individual who wears the mantle. Is the NMP capable of giving another viewpoint that has not been canvassed in the House? Is this even possible to do so given the varied backgrounds of the elected MPs who also claim to be sports or nature lovers or coming from any one of the functional groups? How does one reflect a non-partisan position anyway? Through vote abstention so that the NMP is not seen as favoring either side in a particularly contentious issue? 

Lim Sun Sun recalled being disappointed that adjournment motions, which allow an MP to range over a subject at length, are always scheduled at the end of parliamentary meetings when the House is “dishearteningly hollow’’. She said she was consoled by a fellow NMP who said that her speech was for Singapore, and not just for the ears of MPs.

That would be the case if their speeches make it into the mainstream consciousness, via news media. Or if absent MPs actually make it a point to find out what they said. But there is increasing less coverage of adjournment motions (probably because almost every sitting has one!). Do NMPs think it’s good enough that their speeches are recorded in Hansard?  

Kuik Shiao-yin wrote a poignant piece about the under-rated value of speech-making which is really the only tool in an NMP’s arsenal. I agree. If NMPs’ speeches do not resonate or do not capture the imagination of the public, they are just emitting noise. The bar on speech making is a lot higher for NMPs than MPs who have other duties to showcase. In fact, there are more NMPs who are forgettable than memorable. When people say that the scheme has contributed to civic discussion, I daresay they are probably referring to just a few names out of a total of 97. 

I would add that one advantage NMPs have over elected MPs is that, ironically, they need not offer solutions, which is often a demand in partisan politics. It may be enough that they provide a sounding alert about potential problems and act as a barometer of public sentiment.

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Eugene Tan put it this way: “The government will not dwell on such issues until it has decided on policy shifts. It would not want to draw unnecessary attention to its policies that have not fared so well or are not popular with the people. The Opposition is perhaps wary of wading in until it has clear policy proposals and is more interested in critiquing extant policies. Taken in totality, they reflect the different concerns of NMPs and elected MPs — the former trending towards aspirational concerns and the latter on operational/policy matters with political considerations as the subtext.”

Then again, in this day and age, with multiple platforms and channels, do we need NMPs to give that non-partisan point of view? Is it the case that the only views worth hearing are those articulated in Parliament? It cannot be. 

Anthea Ong noted in the book that the decision to embed the scheme into the Constitution in 2010 was accompanied by very few words about its “acceptance’’ by then Leader of the House Wong Kan Seng. In fact, I recall that the debate was focused on the other amendment to raise the  number of Non-Constituency MPs from six to nine. I thought at that time that it was short-sighted of MPs to talk about the propriety of having more NCMPs in Parliament when the scheme would self-destruct anyway if enough opposition MPs were elected. The NMP scheme, however, would be here to stay. Surely, that is the bigger issue? 

The fact that even those who have done the NMP stint query the scheme shows how premature that amendment was. Now, 12 years after, we’re asking those same questions. Ironically, whether the scheme stays or goes would be a partisan decision as it requires a constitutional amendment which NMPs cannot vote on. For the rest of us, it’s just a debating point.

Afternote: I thank all the writers for penning their reflections and leaving something behind for the generations to peruse. I also thank the researchers for the wonderful appendices and “fun” facts and figures which can actually form the basis of a proper study of the scheme.

No, I’m not doing it.

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Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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