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At Arm’s Length – questions about the effectiveness of a MP

pap arm length

By Nic Lim

So the new year kicked off to yet another brou-ha-ha over in Sengkang West.

Would-be residents are unhappy over the onion-like disclosure of what seems to be a commercially operated columbarium under the guise of a temple project. Unhappiness all around. If not for social media, one would be fooled into thinking this is "just another NIMBY* issue"; what a bunch of whiners these future residents are.

Well it isn't but I leave you to go do your own reading up because that isn't the point of my post.

In the old days when or rather should such an issue even be covered by the press, citizens would be lectured on the necessity of personal sacrifice for the greater good of the nation. Insert a couple of pithy quotes from patriotic residents and the issue is forgotten.

Now the trend du jour is to quickly call for a "consultation" or "dialogue session" followed by a couple of action shots covering said meeting and an "all's well" facebook post by the MP (or if they are even lucky, minister) faithfully and dogmatically covered by the mainstream press. While the tone of business conducted may have changed from talk-down to being social media friendly, the principle hasn't changed. In other words, the government knows best.

Reading of yet another issue and trawling various social media platforms, the question I had was - where was the MP (Member of Parliament) in all of this?

Well he was there facilitating the session (I presume) but the intent of his role and of any People Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP) for that matter came to mind.

Are they servant or master?

Elected representative of the people or merely an overpaid rubber stamper?

What's the protocol for government ministries when it comes to developments and projects in each constituency? Do they inform and truly consult with the MP at every step of the way, allowing him or her to look out for potential problems and issues because of his / her understanding of the sensitivities involved? When push comes to shove, who does the MP consider him/herself to represent, the electorate or the government?

I am pretty sure we all (think) know the answer. This is why I and many other Singaporeans already "know" the predictable outcome and recognise the face-saving exercise for what it is whenever a "dialogue session" is mentioned. The MP isn't perceived to be there to truly speak up or even fight for his/her constituents. The MP role is cynically seen to smooth over the waters for the government. That's the reason why Singaporeans have a laissez-faire attitude when it comes to their MP speaking up for them. Only ministers can get things done. Why else does the PAP harp on ministerial potential when it comes to candidates it is desperate to have elected?

Cases-in-point - The Bukit Brown affair, workers' dormitories and the so-called Singapore Conversation.

Maybe your response to this is "I elect that MP because he/she is from the ruling party what. If I want someone to fight the government for me I would have voted opposition."

Well I disagree.

Yes the MP would represent that political party of your choice that resonates with your ideals and aspirations but the moment he/she gets to work the people should be his/her first priority, the political taskmasters second.

We put them in parliament to represent us, not to collect a hefty salary while being absent for most parliamentary sittings, conveniently dodge blame and push accountability to government ministries when things don't work and definitely not to regurgitate what the government wants us to settle for when it's clearly against the wishes of the constituents.

In other words, are we electing MPs or just putting bodies in cushy arm-chairs; glorified seat warmers?

The recent years has exposed us to the many shortcomings of our MPs. I don't mean this as a personal slight but more towards how neutered their effectiveness is.

It is probably due to the GRC system which puts the responsibility and hence authority in a leading MP (likely to be a minister) and the rest merely have to busy themselves with superficial duties like oh I don't know, opening a neighbourhood amenity or being on hand when some super Minister drops by for an official visit. Maybe their duties really only encompasses conducting Meet-the-People sessions and showing up for National Day, nothing more.

Speak up on issues like minimum wage, the rich-poor divide, workplace discrimination etc. are best left to the heavyweights? I don't know.

Do the various ministries and agencies even take into consideration the need for a MP to sign off on whatever they are planning? Are the MPs even empowered to do so? Or maybe there is no need to and such a concept is so alien because for decades the government and every elected representative of the people belong to same political taskmaster.

Implementing such a system would be the sort of bureaucratic red-tape we often sneer at in other countries. We have better things to do since the government can be trusted to always put Singaporeans' interests at heart.

In the last ten years, have they?

At arm's length is a legal and ethical concept that mainly pertains to conflict of interest (I'm paraphrasing hugely), much like "Church and State". Only in this case I'm inclined to ask about the separation between "People and State".

The MPs represent the people and the ministries the government. But is such a delineation even existent today?

Again in recent years we hear of how people are really unhappy and after the last election it was put out that the PAP finally realised how much of an echo chamber they have been operating in.

Has things changed? Yes, slowly and sometimes grudgingly.

How instrumental are MPs in this change process because in any real democracy, any people's representative would be working his/her ass off to make sure voters are happy, concerns really addressed instead of being given some vetted template reply and ensuring that no blind spots exist.

Are our MPs communicating to the government what the people are thinking and feeling or are they paid merely to make sure we are happy with what the government plans and hands out?

*NIMBY - Not in my backyard