Singapore should do away with the Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP) scheme, said Progress Singapore Party (PSP) founder and secretary-general Tan Cheng Bock.
In the fifth episode of his podcast—aptly named The Tan Cheng Bock Podcast—the politician cited several reasons he opposed the scheme, chief among them being that NMPs are people who have never run in a general election before and do not have any sort of mandate from the public.
Noting his initial worries when the scheme was introduced about three decades ago, Dr Tan said: “When you go to Parliament to speak, you speak with conviction representing a sector of the population who voted for you. And that is very, very important. Because if you don’t have that responsibility, I think, who is going to believe you? You’ve got no mandate.”
He later said that not having prior experience running for an election means they “can never really understand the needs of the electorate”.
Dr Tan that the reason the government implemented the scheme back in the 1980s was due to the fact that there was no opposition representation in parliament at the time.
Even after former Workers’ Party chief JB Jeyaretnam was elected into the House in 1981 in a by-election, there were so few opposition MPs.
“Now there was a fear that if there are only so few opposition MPs, there will be a lot of views coming from one sector, that is the government’s sector. So the intention was quite good to get people from the outside to come into the House so that they can speak for those people,” said Dr Tan.
However, he added that the number of opposition MPs in the house was not going up, which led the government to expand the NMPs scheme from three seats to six and eventually nine.
Another reason the scheme was expanded was to allow more sectors of the population to be represented in the house, posited Dr Tan.
Too focused on ‘hobby horse’ subjects
However, Dr Tan explained why he objected to the concept of an NMP.
“Now this is where I already warned them in the House that there should be no sector representation, because when there is sector[al] representation, that means they will go to the House and talk on their hobby horse subjects only,” he stressed.
MPs, he said, “should be able to talk on a wide range of subjects”.
Risk of them airing extreme views in parliament
On the concern that NMPs may use the platform of the House to air extreme views, Dr Tan said that while there is a very remote chance of that happening, the danger is ever-present.
“Because these people, they are very good schemers. They can work on the ground, they can be very ‘pally’ with Members of Parliament or some of those very prominent people who when they recommend, the government just accept,” he said.
Dr Tan then said they would either “slow down” at the beginning of their term and only voice these “extreme views” towards the end, adding that “there’s no stopping them” as they are already in the House.
“Even if they were to air their view from the beginning of their term, it’s only two years, but in those two years they can do a lot of damage,” he opined.
In that same vein, Dr Tan stressed that accountability is important, especially given that there is parliamentary immunity.
“We go to Parliament to make legislature to make sure there no racial discontent, no religious quarrel and all that. We take so much trouble to get this in order and here we are opening a door to a possibility of such views being aired in Parliament by nominated MPs,” he warned.
Dr Tan also argued that NMPs are not risk-takers, given that they do not try to run for a seat in Parliament.
This is problematic, he explained, because at the time the scheme was introduced, the government was encouraging Singaporeans to take risks and go abroad to build a “second wing” for the country.
But on the other hand, Parliament lets in people who have not gone through the risk associated with elections.
“I think that sends the wrong signal to Singapore. ‘You ask me to be a risk-taker then you also encourage all these non-risk takers to come in’,” he continued.
Two good NMPs do not make the scheme a success
When asked if, in his time in parliament, he saw NMPs who did justice to the scheme.
Dr Tan cited Professor Walter Woon and Kanwaljit Soin who served from 1992 to 1996.
He acknowledged the successful Private Members’ Bill tabled by Prof Woon to protect parents from abuse and neglect by their children as well as Ms Soin’s advocacy for the protection of families.
Even so, Dr Tan said that a couple of good MPs doesn’t signal success for the scheme. Instead, it should be looked at from a broader perspective where MPs are accountable to the people.
“I think the NMP scheme doesn’t fit into it,” said the veteran politician.
The scheme cannot be ‘tightened’
On whether the scheme could be tightened instead of being dismissed entirely, Dr Tan said there is “no way to do it”.
He pointed to the fact that the scheme started off with criteria that an NMP cannot be a member of a political party but eventually evolved so that several NMPs were actually members of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
“So they are actually compromising. So I’m worried that the scheme, if we don’t put a stop to it, will expand and involve many other sectors of the population which we shouldn’t allow.”
He explained that he cannot reconcile the sector representation approach. As an example, he notes that there are nine to 10 labour MPs in the house presently.
“What is his role? Are you telling me that those sitting labour MPs are not able to articulatete the views of the union and you need somebody nominated by the union to go to the house and speak for the unions?” asked Dr Tan. “I just cannot reconcile.”