The opposition parties seem ruffled by changes to the NCMP scheme. Andrew loh & Khairulanwar Zaini.

The NCMP cat among the opposition pigeons

Andrew Loh / Khairulanwar Zaini

A week after changes to the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme were announced by the Prime Minister, the opposition parties seem unsure of how to react.

Most of the parties, in their public statements, have not categorically stated a clear stand on the issue, preferring to either avoid it altogether or offering contradictory views.

The changes to the scheme will see an increase of a minimum of nine NCMPs in Parliament, up from the current provision for a minimum of three. The Prime Minister explained that these changes, among others, was to “provide adequate voice for diverse views in Parliament, including non-partisan views and views of those who have voted for the opposition." (AsiaOne)

However, to the Workers’ Party secretary-general, Mr Low Thia Khiang, “the role of the opposition party is not merely to reflect the feelings of the people.”

“In order for the opposition party to play the role [to ensure that the political system can function soundly], opposition party must be elected into Parliament so that it has the mandate from the people and can have sufficient resources to build the capability of the party to enable it to play the role,” Mr Low said in Parliament. “Non-Constituency Member is a representative of no constituency!”

This echoes his views reported in the Straits Times in May 2006. Mr Low was said to be “personally against the NCMP concept because he believes the person holding this post does not represent any constituency.”

The party’s treasurer, Mr Eric Tan, seems to agree with Mr Low. “Voters may just think, why vote for them since we are sure to get at least nine in?” the Straits Times reported him as saying on 28 May. “This is wrong as NCMPs do not have full powers and cannot be said to truly represent the people without constituencies,” he said.

His party chairman Ms Sylvia Lim, however, feels that although the NCMP scheme “can never replace having elected opposition MPs, it is overall supportable.” The expanded scheme, she said, “will give greater recognition to the desire of voters who cast votes for opposition candidates in significant numbers, which would otherwise be shut out in a pure first-past-the-post system.” (The Online Citizen’s questions to Ms Lim has thus far drawn no responses.)

Mr Yaw Shin Leong, the WP’s Organising Secretary, would disagree with his chairman, it seems. “Opposition parties and their leaders must beware of such ‘Greeks bearing gifts’ situations,” he said in his personal blog. To him, “the changes made to the NCMP scheme is about ‘modifying the form but retaining the essence.” Would he accept an NCMP seat if it was offered to him? His answer: “Shin Leong will take orders from WP’s Central Executive Council.” But if given a choice, he will “reject such a ‘backdoor’ entry into Parliament,” he added.

With such differing views among WP Central Executive Council (CEC) Members, it would be interesting to see what transpires at its next monthly CEC meeting. At the moment, there does not seem to be any clear stance from the Workers’ Party.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) too, in a hardhitting article on its website failed to categorically state its position on the NCMP scheme. It did however dismiss the changes altogether. “All these changes are purely cosmetic aimed at trying to prettify the ugly face of an election system that is neither free nor fair,” the article says. “The problem with such schemes is that parliamentary seats given by the Government also means that they can be taken away at a whim. Unfortunately this epitomises all that plagues Singapore's politics. The PAP runs the country like a fiefdom and appoints law-makers rather than have them elected.”

On the NCMP scheme itself, all the party would say was, “"There is no need to conduct this wayang exercise with the NCMP and NMP systems. Do the right thing by ensuring that the electoral process is transparent, free and fair."

The party says that if the “PAP is truly desirous of a wider range of views in Parliament, it should implement five simple measures.” These included the abolishment of the GRC system and freeing up the media. There is no mention of the NCMP scheme among the five measures it recommended.

Mr Chiam See Tong, Secretary General of the Singapore People’s Party (SPP), did not address changes to the scheme in his Parliamentary speech. Instead, he called for a fairer playing field for the opposition and suggested a two-men GRC system. (SPP website)

The National Solidarity Party (NSP) issued a press release on 29 May  in response to the Prime Minister’s statement. While describing the changes to the electoral system as “half-hearted”, the party avoided mentioning the NCMP scheme entirely. Instead, it regurgitated a list of changes it would like to see – from reducing GRC size to three-members, to a suggestion that Single-seat Constituencies should form at least one-third of the Parliamentary seats available.

The Online Citizen’s queries to the Reform Party have not received any response. Neither has the party made any public statements about the changes to the political system.

Among netizens, views too seem to be mixed. On one side are those who feel that the changes should be rejected, while on the other, some have defended the opposition parties’ acceptance of the scheme.

Mr Alex Au, who blogs at Yawning Bread, feels that “the legitimacy of ‘winning’ the seat is only as good as the legitimacy of the electoral arrangement, which frankly, is suspect.” Comparing “walkover” MPs, who do not receive “a single vote cast in his favour”, with NCMPs like Ms Lim who “received 58,593 votes from the residents of Aljunied”, Mr Au asks, “Who has more proven support?”

Lucky Tan of Singapore Mind, one of the most popular socio-political blogs, on the other hand, is upset with Ms Lim’s position. “There is no level playing field and there is nothing in the recent tweaks that levels the playing field,” he writes in his blog. “I think while Sylvia clearly expressed some of the differences she had with the ruling party on those system tweaks, she played it too soft....and I think she missed the big elephant in the scheme of things,” he said. “We want to vote you in to change the system, not to support it and perpetuate it.”

The lack of a clear and outright policy among the parties can be read as a deliberately-nuanced position that allows them sufficient wiggle room. By stating in the TV interview that the WP are “not contesting to win NCMP seats”, Ms Lim tacitly acknowledged the possibility of a vote deterrent effect the scheme can have on the opposition.

However, it would seem that their bets are still pragmatically hedged on this scheme as a fallback in the event that their candidates fall short.