The Big Read in short: After 3 decades, NMP scheme still up for debate
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at the debate surrounding the relevance of the Nominated Member of Parliament scheme, which continues until today, some 30 years after the inception of the scheme. This is a shortened version of the full feature.
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at the debate surrounding the relevance of the Nominated Member of Parliament scheme, which continues until today, some 30 years after the inception of the scheme. This is a shortened version of the full feature, which can be found here.
- 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.
Professor Woon, who served as an NMP from 1992 to 1996 and is now teaching law at the National University of Singapore (NUS), described his stint in Parliament as a “positive experience but not an enjoyable one”.
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 in an email interview with TODAY 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, over 30 years since the first batch of NMPs were 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”.
At that time, 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.
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 observers told TODAY.
Some former NMPs noted 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.
“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," said Prof Woon, who also served as an ambassador overseas and was Singapore’s Attorney-General from 2008 to 2010.
"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.
Mr Siew Kum Hong, who was an NMP from 2007 to 2009, told TODAY that he thinks the NMP scheme is no longer justifiable as there are now more robust and diverse views in Parliament.
“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,” said Mr Siew, who is chief operating officer at Airbnb China.
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. 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,” said Assoc Prof Theseira.
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.
Now the secretary-general of the Progress Singapore Party, Dr Tan told TODAY that 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, he disagrees with the fact that NMPs are non-elected individuals and who have no constituents to be accountable to, yet have the power to make decisions in the House.
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 from the WP.
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 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.
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.
Some have criticised how these categories came about, questioning the need for a labour NMP, when there are already trade unionists serving as elected MPs in Parliament.
Dr Kanwaljit Soin, who was NMP from 1992 to 1996, questioned why there isn’t a representative for the elderly or the LGBT community.
“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,” said the orthopaedic surgeon.
‘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.
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 response to queries from TODAY, Speaker of Parliament 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.
Given that the rules and processes in each functional group could differ from one to another, Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan, who was a former NMP, 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.
He 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.
TO STAY RELEVANT, NMPS MUST SPEAK ‘WITHOUT FEAR OR FAVOUR’
As the Government continues to see the benefit of having NMPs to bring alternative viewpoints to Parliament, former NMPs said the focus now should be on improving the scheme. But they pointed out that tweaking the NMP scheme is just one part of improving Singapore’s political system as a whole.
“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?” said Dr Soin.
Ultimately, the success — and continued relevance — of the NMP scheme boils down to what individual NMPs can bring to Parliament, said Assoc Prof Eugene 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.