The Big Read: 30 years of NMP scheme — are non-partisan, unelected voices still needed in Parliament?
SINGAPORE — Back in 1992, at the start of the annual Speak Mandarin Campaign, then-information and the arts minister George Yeo described the rising use of English among Singaporean Chinese as a worrying trend.
- There is general consensus that NMPs have contributed to Parliament debates over the years
- But with greater opposition presence and the rise of social media, there are some, including former NMPs themselves, who believe that the scheme is no longer relevant
- Despite its detractors, the NMP scheme is here to stay, with Parliament voting to make it a permanent feature in 2010, and a new batch of nine NMPs unveiled last week set to take their seats in the House next month.
- To ensure that the scheme remains attuned to the demands of the time, former NMPs and political analysts said that improvements must be made
- They called for changes to allow for greater transparency in the scheme’s selection process and ensure the candidates selected are truly representative of Singapore
SINGAPORE — Back in 1992, at the start of the annual Speak Mandarin Campaign, then-information and the arts minister George Yeo described the rising use of English among Singaporean Chinese as a worrying trend.
This prompted Mr Walter Woon, a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) at the time, to respond that the right values were not imparted to individuals based on the language they spoke.
And for that, he received shit — literally — in his mail.
“Someone sent me excrement in an envelope because they disagreed with my views,” said Professor Woon, who currently teaches law at the National University of Singapore (NUS), in an email interview with TODAY.
Prof Woon, who served as an NMP from 1992 to 1996, described his stint in Parliament as a “positive experience but not an enjoyable one”, as he was criticised by the Chinese press for his comments and was even a victim of mild harassment.
Best remembered for introducing a Private Member’s Bill in 1994, which was eventually passed by Parliament as the Maintenance of Parents Act, Prof Woon said that the legislation — where parents can sue their children for financial support — would not have seen the light of day if it had been raised by an opposition MP.
Hence, some 30 years since the first batch of NMPs was appointed in September 1990, Prof Woon still believes that it remains relevant in Singapore despite the myriad of changes to the political landscape in the past decades.
In November 1989, then-Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told Parliament that the aim of the NMP scheme was to offer “Singaporeans more opportunities for political participation and to evolve a more consensual style of government where alternative views are heard and constructive dissent accommodated”.
“We can improve the present system simply by Parliament itself, that is, we, the elected representatives, nominating a number of politically non-partisan Singaporeans who can contribute to good government as MPs,” added Mr Goh, who then went on to become Singapore’s Prime Minister from 1990 to 2004 before retiring from politics last year.
When the NMP scheme was being debated in Parliament, there was only one elected MP from the opposition camp — Mr Chiam See Tong from the Singapore Democratic Party — and two Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) from the Workers’ Party (WP).
But the political scene has evolved quite significantly since then. With 10 elected opposition MPs and two NCMPs currently in Parliament after last year’s General Election (GE), the relevance of having NMPs to present alternative viewpoints has come under scrutiny yet again.
“The question is whether NMPs can raise their game. If they don’t raise their game, they become mere pedestrians,” said Associate Professor Eugene Tan, who teaches constitutional law at the Singapore Management University (SMU) and is also a former NMP from 2012 to 2014.
But there are others, including former NMPs themselves, who believe that the scheme has become less useful and should be scrapped altogether.
“I no longer think that the NMP scheme is justifiable; the problem it seeks to address is now gone, we now see robust debate and diverse views in Parliament, and so there is no longer any need for unelected voices in an elected legislature, especially given the issues with the NMP scheme,” said Mr Siew Kum Hong, who was an NMP from 2007 to 2009.
“So I would actually advocate for either the NMP scheme to be eliminated, or at least suspended so long as we have at least 10 opposition MPs in Parliament,” added Mr Siew, who is chief operating officer at Airbnb China.
Despite its detractors, the NMP scheme is here to stay, with Parliament voting to make it a permanent feature in 2010, and a new batch of nine NMPs unveiled last week set to take their seats in the House next month.
In an email reply to TODAY, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin said: “The NMP scheme — including its rationale, merits, the eligibility criteria, and mechanics of selecting candidates for nomination — has been thoroughly debated before in Parliament and is a matter of public record.”
He added: “To uphold transparency and accountability to our citizens, Parliament will continue to be the appropriate forum for the Government and all Members of Parliament (MPs) to debate such aspects of the NMP scheme as and when the need arises.”
Still, to ensure that the scheme remains attuned to the demands of the time, former NMPs and political analysts said that improvements must be made, particularly in allowing for greater transparency in its selection process and ensuring the candidates selected are truly representative of Singapore.
MAINTAINING THE NON-PARTISAN LINE
While Singapore politics has evolved over the years, the raison d’être for the NMP scheme remains the same: To allow non-partisan figures to present alternative views and constructive dissent in Parliament.
This is a role that many of those nominated to enter Parliament have been able to fulfill, former NMPs and political analysts told TODAY.
In May 2009, during a parliamentary debate on whether to make the scheme permanent, instead of having the House decide whether to appoint NMPs within six months after every election, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that NMPs had “made effective contributions and raised the quality of debate in Parliament” by representing “non-partisan alternative views”.
“Sometimes, if I may say so, they may have outshone even the opposition MPs,” he added.
Senior research fellow Woo Jun Jie at NUS' Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy believes that NMPs can continue to add value to parliamentary debates even with the presence of more opposition MPs.
“First, they raise issues that may not have been brought up by elected MPs, particularly as they pertain to vulnerable groups. This helps ensure greater parliamentary representation,” said Dr Woo.
“Second, they provide an additional set of voices in parliamentary debates. While elected MPs are necessarily driven by their party values and interests, NMPs can provide non-partisan views. This helps introduce greater diversity in parliamentary debates and reduces the risk of groupthink.”
Some former NMPs shared Dr Woo’s view, noting that an NMP is in a unique position by virtue of not being elected — although this is also the main bugbear of the scheme for detractors — which allows him or her to offer views that may not always be well received on the ground.
Prof Woon, who also served as an ambassador overseas and was Singapore’s Attorney-General from 2008 to 2010, said: “There is always the problem of populism. Some policies are too controversial for any elected MP to touch them — political suicide is not something politicians relish.
“This is where NMPs come in. They can say the political unsayable, because they don't have to worry about re-election.”
Some causes that may be difficult for elected MPs to take on — either due to a lack of public interest, or sharply divided views in society — could be equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, or environmental challenges.
Still, Singapore University of Social Sciences economist Walter Theseira, who was an NMP from 2018 to last year, believes that there will be bipartisan support to abolish the NMP scheme if the day comes where the PAP and the opposition hold almost an equal number of seats in Parliament.
The reason? Unelected NMPs would then be casting the deciding votes on certain Bills, Assoc Prof Theseira pointed out.
NMPs are allowed to vote on all matters before Parliament except constitutional amendments, motions to remove the President; motions of no-confidence in the Government; and supply and money Bills.
Even though Singapore’s Parliament is still one-party-dominant, the inroads the opposition have made — coupled with the setting up of the office of the Leader of the Opposition — have got some seeing the start of the end of the NMP scheme, at least in its current form.
It is not just the opposition presence that has changed, noted Dr Kanwaljit Soin, who was NMP from 1992 to 1996.
She felt that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has also become more progressive and has brought in a more diverse slate of MPs into Parliament.
When Dr Soin started her stint in 1992, there were only two women MPs then — Dr Aline Wong and Ms Foo Yee Shoon — and she was the first female minority MP in Parliament.
“Maybe the NMP system was suitable at that time. But now it needs to be modified,” said the orthopaedic surgeon.
One way to do this is to look at what issues there are in Singapore that are not represented by either side of the House, and then let NMPs take over such topics, suggested Dr Soin.
As for Mr Siew, even though he was a former NMP, he had always felt the scheme was an “imperfect solution to a real problem”— the supermajority of the PAP in Parliament.
“While NMPs do not have the same rights and privileges as elected MPs, their mere presence in Parliament undercuts the foundational premise of an elected legislature,” he told TODAY in an email interview.
Despite holding this view back in 2006, he still put himself forward to be an NMP due to the lack of opposition representation then. There were only two opposition MPs at that time — Mr Chiam, who was representing the Singapore Democratic Alliance, and Mr Low Thia Khiang, the then WP chief.
With 10 opposition MPs in Parliament now, Mr Siew believes that the scheme is no longer relevant.
Whether the scheme will still be around or not, the political function of having non-partisan voices will remain important even if there is parity in the number of parliamentary seats between the ruling party and the opposition, said Assoc Prof Theseira.
But he believes that whether this exists in the form of an NMP scheme or a totally new scheme that exists outside Parliament is something that is not yet resolved.
“As the opposition takes up seats, I think the current form makes less and less sense… The alternative viewpoints, the critical views and the questioning the government, that's all probably better done by opposition," said Assoc Prof Theseira.
“Then the question is how you make use of these people who might be able to give views that neither the opposition nor the government will put in.”
For Dr Tan Cheng Bock, he believes that there are other platforms outside Parliament that could allow for such issues to be fleshed out.
The former PAP MP was well-known for speaking out against the NMP scheme when it was first tabled in Parliament more than three decades ago, and had stated in public interviews that he voted against it as a PAP MP even though the party whip was not lifted.
His stand has not changed, said Dr Tan, now the secretary-general of the Progress Singapore Party.
Dr Tan questioned the very idea of whether it is even possible to find a truly non-partisan individual in Singapore and said the scheme was a non-starter from the very beginning.
His opposition to the NMP scheme is due to his belief that it could lead to polarisation along sectoral lines, provide a “backdoor entry” into Parliament for opportunistic individuals, and decrease elected MPs’ responsibilities.
Fundamentally, Dr Tan disagrees with the fact that NMPs are non-elected individuals with no constituents to be accountable to, but yet have the power to make decisions in the House.
Still, even critics of the NMP scheme such as Dr Tan acknowledged that some NMPs had made a difference in Parliament.
Dr Tan cited Prof Woon’s Private Member’s Bill as an important contribution, but said that such individual cases are not enough to justify the scheme as a whole.
Dr Soin also introduced a Family Violence Bill during her term but that did not pass.
When Parliament debated over whether to repeal Section 377A — the law that criminalises sex between men in Singapore — it was Mr Siew and another NMP, Prof Thio Li-ann, that led the arguments on opposing sides.
More recently in 2019, when Parliament was debating the fake news Bill — which was passed eventually and became known as the Protection Against Falsehoods and Manipulation Act — Assoc Prof Theseira and two other NMPs, Ms Anthea Ong and Ms Irene Quay, notably proposed amendments to it.
Mr Tan, the Speaker of Parliament, said: “Over the years, the NMPs in every Parliament have credibly and constructively performed their function, enriching parliamentary debates with their unique flavour of non-partisan perspectives as drawn from their domain expertise, community involvement and ground experiences.”
ENSURING FAIR REPRESENTATION
NMP nominations are considered by an eight-member Special Select Committee, which puts forward nominees for appointment by the President.
The committee, which picked the latest batch of NMPs, was chaired by the Speaker of Parliament and consisted of seven other MPs: Six from the ruling PAP and one opposition member.
Apart from Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin, the others from the ruling party were all political officeholders: Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Maliki Osman and Minister of State for Education and Manpower Gan Siow Huang.
The WP’s Aljunied Group Representation Constituency MP Leon Perera also sat on the committee.
While members of the public can put up their own names for consideration, there is also the practice of getting “functional groups” to propose their own nominees, something which did not exist when the scheme was first launched.
It was not until 1997 that the first three functional groups — business and industry, the professions, and the labour movement — were invited to put forward their NMP candidates.
Three others — social and community service organisations, tertiary education institutions, and media, arts and sports organisations — were introduced in 2002. The seventh, the civic and people sector, was added in 2011.
While not calling for a review of the groupings, SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan pointed out that one issue with this practice is how NMPs tend to stick to topics of interest for the functional group they represent.
He believes that NMPs should be more willing to get out of their comfort zone and speak even on issues they think they lack expertise in, as elected MPs are also generalists and may not have specialised knowledge.
This is how NMPs can ensure that they stay relevant, he added.
“You can’t talk about the arts in every seating for 2.5 years. After a while you sound like a broken record,” said Assoc Prof Tan.
Although there is a provision for these seven functional groups to be represented, there is no guarantee that there will be an NMP from each of them every time Parliament gets a new batch of NMPs.
For example, no arts NMP was chosen this time — a decision that attracted some flak from the community — although there were arts NMPs in the two previous terms, Mr Terence Ho and Mr Kok Heng Leun.
Ms Ong, the former NMP, told TODAY that having such functional groups could be a practical way of sourcing candidates from various sectors but this has also led the public to associate NMPs with sectoral representation.
This method of classification may also not be as relevant today as social issues are more complex and interconnected across various sectors.
For example, a labour NMP advocating on behalf of low-wage workers is also crossing into the domain of social service organisations, said Ms Ong, who is the founder of Hush TeaBar and other social service organisations.
Others have criticised how these categories even came about. Several observers interviewed wondered why there is a need for a labour NMP, when there are already trade unionists serving as elected MPs in Parliament.
Dr Soin questioned why there isn’t an NMP representing, for example, the elderly or the LGBT community in Parliament.
“That becomes a problem, why did we choose these seven functional groups? … Who decided? It’s quite arbitrary. We need to bring in people who are aware that issues they represent are not discussed in Parliament,” she said.
Mr Siew felt that these functional groups serve to legitimise some of the NMPs as it creates a “veneer of representativeness”.
“But the choice of functional groups and the corresponding coordinators are determined by the Government and not by the people, and also the identification of candidates from each functional group is highly opaque which puts into question whether they are truly ‘representative’,” he said.
‘OPAQUE’ SELECTION PROCESS
Perhaps the biggest criticism of the NMP scheme is the lack of transparency in the nominees’ selection process.
Observers pointed out that the lack of openness begins from the time when each functional group selects their nominee and submits the name to the Special Select Committee, right to when the latter deliberates over which names to submit for the President’s approval.
The “opaque” process has led some to criticise the NMP scheme as another platform for the ruling party to bring in more people who are supportive of the Government’s agenda.
This is especially so, given that there is only one opposition member in the current Special Select Committee and the chances of being outvoted is always there, Dr Soin pointed out.
One way to get around this is to have the committee made up of independent individuals who are highly regarded in society, she suggested.
Dr Tan Cheng Bock noted that there is a danger that people with non-altruistic reasons might want to put themselves forward and peddle their self-interest, something which he had also warned about three decades ago in Parliament.
In his response to TODAY, Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin reiterated that the committee would take into account whether the nominees can reflect “as wide a range of independent and non-partisan views as possible”.
“All Special Select Committee members, who come from both sides of the House, will scrutinise all candidates carefully to ensure that they fulfil this requirement,” he added.
Mr Tan also pointed out that NMPs have not always voted in support of the Government.
“It is precisely because NMPs are not subject to any party lines that they are free to speak their minds, self-determine their votes on applicable parliamentary business items, or push the envelope on any issue they are passionate about,” he said.
Among all functional groups, the arts community has had the most organised nomination process as they would have a town hall where arts practitioners would come together to elect one or more nominees.
The same process was followed this time round, though the town hall was held virtually, but none of the names submitted was chosen by the Special Select Committee.
A collective of environmental groups tried to follow a similar process this time and they voted for Dr Andie Ang, a primatologist, though she was not selected in the end as well.
However, the selection process among other functional groups, which have an overall coordinator each, is different.
Ms Ong shared that she was asked by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre to take up the NMP role to represent the civic and people sector. At that time, the People’s Association, which was the coordinator for that sector, submitted four names, including hers, to the Special Select Committee.
She said that she did not know whether PA made its own recommendations when submitting the names to the committee.
Newly-minted NMP Mark Chay, a former Olympic swimmer, told TODAY that he received a call from Sport Singapore (SportSG) chief executive officer Lim Teck Yin at the end of last year and was asked whether he was keen to take up the NMP role.
Mr Chay deliberated over two days, sought the advice of previous sports NMPs including Paralympian swimmer Yip Pin Xiu, and decided to have his name put up for nomination.
Mr Chay said he had been extremely busy trying to rally the sports and fitness industry, which has taken a hit due to social-distancing requirements amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hence, he was approached by SportSG as he would be able to offer a first-hand perspective of how the sector had been affected by the unprecedented crisis.
Given that the rules and processes in each functional group could differ from one to another, Assoc Prof Eugene Tan said it would be helpful if the Special Select Committee could outline certain principles that these groups should not deviate from, without being too prescriptive.
Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, from Nanyang Technological University's School of Social Sciences, said that the committee should put in more effort to explain to Singaporeans the reasons why the final slate was chosen, “rather than a vague statement about how all of them are qualified”.
“What makes this person distinguished in his or her field? … (For) most of these NMPs, 95 per cent of all Singaporeans have never heard of them,” he said.
Assoc Prof Tan also suggested that the names of all individuals who had offered themselves for consideration should also be publicised, so the public can have a sense of comparison as to why the final slate was chosen.
He had raised this issue before while he was an NMP and Dr Ng Eng Hen, who was the Leader of the House then, said that revealing applicants’ names may cause those who are not appointed “discomfort or embarrassment” and may deter good applicants from participating in the scheme.
This was also echoed by Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin in his responses to TODAY. He added: ““As successful individuals and leaders in their chosen field or profession, candidates are easily recognisable within their community.”
However, Assoc Prof Tan said: “If these people cannot take the likelihood of being rejected, then they shouldn’t even apply in the first place”.
Still, Assoc Prof Theseira felt that publicising the names of all who submitted might discourage archetypal NMPs from serving — people who have no taste for politics and the sacrifices that come with it, especially having to give up their privacy, but are willing to contribute in Parliament in other ways.
He also noted that there is a fundamental tension between the need for transparency and the principle on which the scheme is set up.
A more open nomination process may give rise to mini-elections being held within each functional group, which goes against the non-electoral intent of the scheme.
TODAY’s queries to several past and present Special Select Committee members on the NMP selection criteria went unanswered. Former PAP MP Ellen Lee responded but said she was bound by the Official Secrets Act and could not provide the answers.
TO STAY RELEVANT, NMPS MUST SPEAK ‘WITHOUT FEAR OR FAVOUR’
Besides greater opposition presence in Parliament, the availability of social media platforms to champion minority causes is another development that has brought the relevance of the NMP scheme into question.
However, Ms Ong noted that the social media space has become quite driven by populism, and there is no assurance whether the viewpoints articulated are truly voices from the ground.
“I’m not really sure how it (social media) can be truly democratic and diversified when we now know of bad actors, human trolls and internet brigades and fake accounts,” she said.
As the Government continues to see the benefit of having NMPs bring alternative viewpoints to Parliament, some former NMPs said the focus now should be on improving the scheme.
A more transparent selection process aside, Ms Ong said that the number of NMPs could be increased, with a permanent allocation for arts and environmental NMPs.
NMPs could also be provided with secretarial and legislative support that are accorded to elected lawmakers to enable the former to perform their parliamentary duty more effectively.
Dr Soin suggested increasing the length of an NMP term, as the current 2.5 years is too short for one to truly be effective.
Those interviewed pointed out that tweaking the NMP scheme is just one part of improving Singapore’s political system as a whole.
Establishing the position of the Leader of the Opposition — which is now held by WP chief Pritam Singh — is an example of how the system has been strengthened, said Dr Soin.
“In Singapore, we ought to have a discussion of how we can strengthen our political system further… Don’t just continue with the same old formula without looking at how we are really helping the system, or are we doing it for the sake of form?” she said.
Ultimately, the success — and continued relevance — of the NMP scheme boils down to what individual NMPs can bring to Parliament, said SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan.
“The question is whether NMPs will speak without fear or favour. That is really the litmus test,” he said.
And when NMPs do that, they have to be prepared for the brickbats that may come their way, Prof Woon said.
“They just have to be prepared for the storm to come. Anyone who wants to be popular should not take the job,” he added.
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