Evaluating two decades of the Nominated MP scheme. TOC Editorial.

Stand up and be counted

Evaluating two decades of the Nominated MP scheme

The concept of nominated MPs (NMP), or non-elected MPs as it was known back then, was first proposed in 1989 by then Trade and Industry Minister Lee Hsien Loong to provide some sort of balance to the ruling People Action Party’s (PAP) virtual monopoly on Parliament.  At the outset, Mr Lee made it clear that NMPs should be “non-partisan”: their job was to represent the views of different segments of society.

Despite what Mr Lee said, the NMP scheme was initially perceived as being very much a political ploy by the PAP.  The opposition at that time objected to what seemed like a rather undemocratic device, in which the ruling party would have carte blanche to vet and select (Presidential approval was virtually titular) NMPs with largely the same powers as normal ones.  Others thought that it offered a route into Cabinet for PAP politicians defeated in elections or for those who did not want the hassle of contesting in one.  Many also argued that NMPs were a token response to calls for greater diversity of views in Parliament that would undercut support for opposition parties and the need for an opposition in the first place.

Two decades on though, it is possible to say that the NMP scheme has been a moderate success, at least when judged by the hopes and fears current at the time of its inception.  It has not been used as a backdoor into the Cabinet, yet – largely since the PAP has been successful in getting its recruits elected, and also because the party probably understands that having a NMP as a minister would be politically unacceptable.

Past NMPs have also not turned out to be the PAP yes-men that some had initially feared.  They seem to have been rather effective in their job of questioning the government: in the 1998 Budget sitting, for example, nearly a quarter of the questions fielded were from NMPs, which is more than double the proportion of the house represented by NMPs. 

The current batch of NMPs seems to be continuing that record; in fact, at times the most pertinent questions were those raised by NMP, such as during the recent Budget debate when NMP Siew Kum Hong notably led the opposition to the Jobs Credit Scheme.  There was also the singular achievement of an NMP, Professor Walter Woon, getting a private member’s bill into legislation in 1995, which was the first time ever (or since) that a bill was moved by a NMP.

Moreover, fears that the NMP scheme might undermine support for the opposition appear overdone.  The opposition has probably been as popular in the past few years as at any other time in the last two decades; in any case, there seems to be considerably more people nowadays who think that the country needs to have a stronger opposition to keep the PAP in check.  The role of NMPs in questioning policy might even have helped to convince some of the importance of checks and balances on the government.

Even so, the overall impact of the NMP scheme has not been that substantial.  The PAP may have widened the latitude for debate, but it retains a tight grip on power, and questioning by its own backbenchers (not to mention NMPs) is still mostly circumscribed.  NMPs have not gotten very far with trying to call the government to account over the reserves or similar key issues.

Furthermore, NMPs, being non-elected, ultimately suffer from a legitimacy deficit as well as the blemish of having been deemed as “safe” by the ruling party.  The public’s verdict on this is clear: its response to the call for nominations has been tepid at best – 37 were nominated in 2004, up from about 10 in 1992, but that is not exactly a ringing endorsement.  Still, NMPs currently represent the best means of abetting the opposition parties in holding the government to account.  Hopefully, some of them might incline towards getting elected in their own right after their stint is over.