NMPs play key role in S'pore's parliament, but the scheme must evolve for the future: ex-NMP Anthea Ong

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | November 26, 2022, 12:00 PM

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The Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP) scheme was introduced in 1990 so alternative, nonpartisan views could be heard.

For social entrepreneur and former NMP Anthea Ong, when looking back on whether the scheme has served its purpose over the past three decades, the question to bear in mind is “Are Elected MPs Enough?”

That’s the title of her chapter from a new book which features the thoughts and experiences of 20 contributors' who are either current or former NMPs.

An excerpt from Ong's chapter is reproduced here.

The book, “The Nominated Member of Parliament Scheme: Are Unelected Voices Still Necessary in Parliament?” is edited by Ong and published by World Scientific. You can get a copy here at 20 per cent off with the promo code “WSMSNMP20”.

By Anthea Ong

“The Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) scheme is a parliamentary innovation in a unicameral system that is uniquely Singapore...,” was how I began my earnest sharing on a wintry morning in London at the UK Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s 68th Westminster Seminar on Effective Parliaments on Nov. 25, 2019. Representing Singapore with Member of Parliament (MP) Murali Pillai, I found myself as an NMP (and my choice of that Prussian blue cheongsam) the subject of much curiosity for my fellow parliamentarians from all over the Commonwealth.

Through the week of many questions and conversations, I was shamelessly self-justifying and zealously defending the merits of this feat of electoral engineering, peculiar to the political context of my country with its supermajority Parliament and single-party dominance since independence.

Yet it was only eight years before, following the 2011 “watershed” General Election, that I had promptly turned down a nomination invitation from a civic sector luminary.

I was not suitably convinced then of the usefulness of the NMP scheme in an electoral democracy. Nor was I persuaded that being an NMP could be more impactful for the communities that I care about than being a social entrepreneur solving problems directly with people on the ground.

Notably, in those eight years, nothing about the NMP scheme changed, nor did the parliamentary supermajority held by the People’s Action Party (PAP). Unfortunately, neither did the mounting challenges facing mental health, marginalised communities (including migrant workers) and Mother Earth (I call these the “3Ms” of my heart) that we were and are still grappling with as a society.

So my mind changed when the second invitation came from the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) in early 2018. I stepped forward, no longer asking whether unelected voices should be in Parliament but determined to serve the “3Ms” and curious to find out if elected MPs are indeed enough in a supermajority Parliament amidst rising inequality.

Of “hobby horses” and “unvotables” in a majoritarian democracy

I sometimes forget that this supermajority Parliament we have had since independence came as a result of the “extra parliamentary struggle” boycott of elections by the Barisan Sosialis in 1968.

It prompted a slew of parliamentary innovations, including the Group Representation Constituency (GRC), Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) and NMP schemes.

During the heated 1989 debate on the NMP scheme, amongst other reasons, then-PAP MP Dr Tan Cheng Bock argued against the scheme on grounds of NMPs “peddling self-interest”, quoting then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew by his use of “hobby horse”.

Dr Tan also added that “...we must beware of the eager-beavers who are supporting this scheme because they want to get into this House to serve their own ends and not the interest of Singaporeans”.

I must say I am happy to have proved him right 29 years later — about the “horse” part, not the “beaver” (“eager” would have seen me say yes the first time round)!

“How are you able to speak about mental health in just about every bill?”, asked a fellow NMP earnestly midway through our term.

Indeed, I was relentless in surfacing my “hobby horse” of mental health during the two years to underscore the widespread impact that policies have on the mental health of the population.

“Hobby horses” are necessary if elected MPs are not talking about them because they are not seen as majority issues. Flagging mental health as a national priority and the urgent need for a national coordinating body in 2019 was unintentionally prescient given the devastating impact of the Covid-19 crisis on mental health since 2020.

The first-past-the-post electoral system means our Parliament is based on majoritarian representation, not proportional.

We may have built-in constitutional safeguards for racial and religious minorities with the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, but not for all other minority groups, e.g., persons with disabilities, single mothers, migrant workers, the LGBTQ+ community, sex workers and so on, to ensure that bills passed do not discriminate against them.

These minorities — some more than other — are what I call “unvotables”, as speaking up for them may put elected MPs, including Opposition MPs, in political peril with the majority of voters.

For instance, the government has defended its stance on not repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code, an inherited colonial law that criminalises consensual sex between men, on grounds of majoritarianism, despite the “antiquated law” being challenged repeatedly by eminent legal experts like former NMP Professor Walter Woon, Professor Tommy Koh and former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong. In October 2007, former NMP Siew Kum Hong bravely tabled the parliamentary petition to repeal Section 377A in response to the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill; although a heated debate expectedly ensued, the law was retained.

Being purposeful with my “hobby horses” and “unvotables” gave me clarity in strategy and courage to show up in the Chamber without fear or favour (most of the time anyway) during my term.

NMPs like Dr Kanwaljit Soin (“women and ageing issues”), Braema Mathiaparanam (“human rights”), Faizah Jamal (“environment”), Laurence Lien (“social recession”), Associate Professor Eugene Tan (“constitutionality”) and Janice Koh (“arts and censorship”), to name just a few, were similarly resolute and perspicuous over why and what they were in Parliament for.

I am not saying that elected MPs cannot or did not raise these important issues; a good number have.

However, I am not convinced they would/could do it with the same focus, consistency and fervour, given that (a) their foremost priority as town council chairs would understandably be the wide-ranging municipal needs of their residents; (b) they may not have the lived experience or proximity to such issues to appreciate their wider implications across the population; and (c) they may not believe representing these invisible issues and “unvotables” would endear them to the majority of their constituents for the votes they need.

Scrutinising a supermajority government: Are elected MPs enough?

In the 1989 debate on the NMP scheme, then-MP and now Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K. Shanmugam, argued that the scheme will “make the Government more responsive” because “trenchant criticism” or votes against the government by NMPs who are “honourable and decent’’ cannot be “explained away easily”, unlike that from the Opposition which can be explained away on partisan grounds. The government is also secure in the knowledge that its MPs are subjected to the Whip, no matter the scrutiny. He further argued that trenchant views from NMPs could signal to the people that the government “has not been able to carry the day”.

This might be why the good Minister penned a commentary for CNA headlined “NMPs agree with major points of the Falsehoods Bill” on May 3, 2019, in response to the Amendment Motion for the controversial Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA) filed by myself, Associate Professor Walter Theseira and Irene Quay.

I would argue that the headline should have more accurately stated that “NMPs did not agree with the Falsehoods Bill on three major points”, but I understand the optics of having NMPs on the side of the proposed Bill. There was widespread public outcry on the Bill; our Amendment Motion received much media attention.

“It must be remembered that the function of Parliament is not only to pass good laws but to stop bad laws”, said Winston Churchill.

As a first-term parliamentarian, I was naively hopeful that the government would concede to some, even if not all, of the amendments proposed, especially given the good faith meetings and negotiations we had with the Minister and the Ministry staff prior to the debate on May 7, 2019.

This, to my mind, would demonstrate a well-functioning parliamentary democracy at work — that the government is open to alternative views expressed in a civil manner through existing parliamentary mechanisms — but it was not to be. Instead, I was soon pugnaciously updating my speech in real time as it hit me that some Ministers and PAP MPs were taking turns to gun down our Amendment Motion, perhaps to demonstrate that the government was “able to carry the day”.

Choosing to abstain was my way of agreeing with the intent of the Bill but disagreeing over the exclusion of the three major points we raised for the law to be fair and just. Truth be told, I almost pressed the “no” button on my seat at the call for division, as I was rather indignant from the seemingly co-ordinated offensive.

Thankfully, I refrained in that split second because doing so would perpetuate a parliamentary culture that is partisan, binary and blunt — that context, reasoning and nuances have no place in debates and law-making, despite the complexities that we are dealing with as a society.

The POFMA experience solidified for me that the government takes scrutiny by NMPs rather seriously; the absence of a partisan agenda apparently makes any disagreements or alternative views by NMPs more weighty in the public’s eyes. A senior political office-holder even remarked that our objections to the POFMA Bill could make Singaporeans think that “there must be something wrong with the law”.

I also became braver in speaking up after that baptism of fire.

I also strongly believe that how parliamentarians debate on controversial and sensitive issues in the Chamber, beyond merely what is said, is role-modelling to the people, especially youths, how we must engage with each other as fellow citizens on the same.

“Inconvenient” I may have been in the Chamber with my “hobby horses”, “unvotables” and “unsayables”, but several ministries have been sincere in taking up engagements with me beyond the Chamber and turning talk into action; a few have continued till today. The fear of what might happen is usually greater than reality, or it might be that I am still oblivious to the “cost” of speaking up!

Notwithstanding that we must continue to strive towards a balanced Parliament, the truth remains that we do not have one now. As long as the Whip system remains, I would argue that there would not be enough scrutiny of the government by a majority of government MPs.

Neither could the growing number of Opposition MPs in a supermajority Parliament practically give voice to all “unvotables” if they need the majority on their side. For example, will the Opposition raise the repeal of Section 377A?

Elected MPs are therefore not enough in a parliamentary supermajority, but are they enough for a balanced Parliament when in a majoritarian democracy, majority interests and dominant narratives are (understandably) always foremost in the minds of elected politicians?

Ask not if NMPs are still relevant but whether our parliamentary system is

The NMP scheme today, save for being made a permanent feature and the introduction of the seven functional groups, has stayed much the same in mechanics as recommended by the Select Committee back in 1990 despite the changing contexts of our society.

Notwithstanding the opacity of the selection process and performance measurements, the arguments against the NMP scheme on the grounds of it being undemocratic are a tad too convenient and binary — as are the arguments for the scheme based on the merits of NMPs.

Now that I have been one, I would submit that the question to ask is not whether the scheme is still relevant more than three decades on, or if NMPs will be necessary with more Opposition MPs in the House. Instead, we should be curious about the possibilities for this electoral engineering “experiment” in the context of Singaporean society today.

Albert Camus famously said that “democracy is not the law of the majority but the protection of the minority”. Issues that fall outside majority support such as arts, sports, migrant workers, the LGBTQ+ community, civic and people sectors should be given voice by design, but who should decide which groups and sectors should be represented? Could we exercise participatory democracy and let the public decide what minority and/or national issues are important to them?

Some open mandate is better than no mandate. If the public is asked to vote for Singaporean of the Year — which is positioned not as a popularity exercise but in recognition of the human ideals we aspire towards — can we ask for votes to shortlist NMP candidates for the eventual slate? Or maybe we could institutionalise the same town hall process of representation and accountability that the arts community has employed over the years to mandate their representative?

Or perhaps, going even further, should we have district elections for non-partisan candidates to be Mayors who will also be in Parliament as NMPs?

I have more questions than answers but that curiosity, I humbly think, is exactly what we need for the system we are in to see itself. We need a national conversation on what a future-ready Parliament looks like and how the NMP scheme needs to evolve accordingly.

We cannot become what we want if we remain what we were 32 years ago.

On Nov. 29, 2022, there will be a public discussion on the topic “What kind of Parliament is future-ready for Singapore?” with former NMPs Anthea Ong, Braema Mathi, Shiao-Yin Kuik, and Associate Professor Walter Theseira.

The event is open to the public, and registration via this form is encouraged.

Venue: The Pod, National Library Building (100 Victoria Street, S188064)

Date: Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022

Time: 6pm to 7:30pm

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Top image via Parliament of Singapore on Facebook