To be an NMP… again?

Jan 11, 2016 10.00AM |

by Kwan Jin Yao

A NEW batch of Nominated MPs (NMPs) will soon be selected, with the opening of the 13th Parliament, and ST (Jan 6) reported that “some from the previous batch of nine want to seek a second term”. The paper also spoke to National University of Singapore professor Tan Tai Yong and president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Thomas Chua Kee Seng, both of whom wish to serve again.

But how did this batch of nine NMPs fare? And to what extent will – or should – their performance influence the nomination and selection of the new members?

Now a permanent feature of Parliament, NMPs are appointed to bring in more independent and diverse voices. With the appointment of the first two NMPs – cardiologist Dr Maurice Choo and businessman Leong Chee Whye – in the 7th Parliament in November 1990, there has since been 74 members, 14 of whom were appointed for two terms and three (businessman Tay Beng Chuan, NUS law professor Simon Tay, and then-chief executive of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital Dr Jennifer Lee Gek Choo) serving for three. In particular, two-term NMP Walter Woon, an NUS law professor, was the first MP since 1965 to pass a Private Member’s Bill in 1995. It was the Maintenance of Parents Act.

The odds, however, of serving another term in the 13th Parliament seem low for the previous batch of nine in the 12th Parliament. 12 of the 15 NMPs who were in the 9th Parliament served at least two terms, though it should be noted that the eight appointed in 2001 only served for 17 days, when Parliament was dissolved for the general elections. Still, all eight had served, or went on to serve, at least one more term in Parliament. In comparison, only three of the 35 NMPs who were in the 11th and 12th Parliaments served at least two terms, and none for three.

The nine outgoing NMPs in the 12th Parliament, who began their one-year stint in August 2014, spoke or raised questions an average of 20 times. Speeches here also refer to “cuts” for the Committee of Supply debate or the tabling of motions, while questions include oral or written parliamentary questions or supplementary questions. If multiple questions or clarifications are raised in the same sitting – as published on Hansard – they are counted as one question.

Professor Tan Tai Yong, image from Yale NUS College website.
Professor Tan Tai Yong, image from Yale NUS College website.

Professor Tan, whom ST interviewed, made five speeches and raised seven questions. He is one of the three NMPs with below-average numbers. Banker Mohd. Ismail bin Hussein spoke 10 times (six speeches and four questions), and Singapore Board of Architects president Rita Soh Siow Lan – with the lowest numbers – spoke seven times (five speeches and two questions). The average number of speeches was 7.44, while the number of questions was 12.78.

In their few moments, these NMPs did not necessarily impress too. Because members are selected from a pool of applications by a Special Select Committee, which invites the general public and functional groups to submit names for consideration, there are expectations for both activity and quality of the speeches made or questions raised in Parliament. Ms Soh did make a “cut” about broadening art and craft curriculum during the Ministry of Education Committee of Supply debate, but her two questions concerned “carpark provisions for religious institutions” and a generic one about “[increasing] productivity in our workforce”.

On the other hand, President of the Society of the Physically Disabled Chia Yong Yong, co-founder of social enterprise group Thought Collective Kuik Shiao-Yin, and labour economist Randolph Tan Gee Kwang made strong showings. Representing the social service, youth, and higher education as well as economic sectors respectively, they did not speak the most – 23 times for Ms Chia, 27 for Ms Kuik, and 24 for Mr Tan – yet most of their speeches or questions were characterised by common themes. And given their professions or areas of expertise in these themes, they could therefore add value to the parliamentary debates.

Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin, screenshot from CNA video.
Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin, co-founder of The Thought Collective, screenshot from CNA video.

The trio has, at one point or another, received applause in Parliament – indicated by the clapping of hands or rapping on the sides of seats – for their speeches. During the debate on the Annual Budget Statement in March 2015, Ms Kuik spoke of the importance of rewarding innovation, the potential of the SkillsFuture initiative as a “big game-changer”, and the need to help the children of single mothers. Four months later, during the reading of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill in July 2015, Mr Tan highlighted the notion of fiscal conservatism, expressing concern with “the inexorable shift towards large spending increases”. Besides applause, both speeches also encouraged discourse among Singaporeans when excerpts or broadcast clips were disseminated through news platforms.

In addition to her two speeches during the debate on the Annual Budget Statement and the tribute to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Ms Chia received a special mention from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after she questioned the amount of time spent debating the issue of memorials. “I agree fully with Ms Chia Yong Yong on her very sensible views,” Mr Lee said in April 2015. “It is the ideals and the way we live our lives which is much more important than any physical thing you build.”

Both Mr Chua Kee Seng (who spoke 24 times) and former national sailor Dr Benedict Tan Chi’-Loong (22 times) raised relevant perspectives about small and medium enterprises as well as skills development and the promotion of sports respectively, but did not achieve the same resonance as the earlier trio.

In this vein, the number of speeches or questions should not be the only indicator. Vice-President of the National Trades Union Congress Karthikeyan s/o R. Krishnamurthy spoke 33 times (five were speeches and the other 28 were questions), the most in the outgoing batch of nine, yet his questions – from a “dedicated ambulance for Jurong Island” to “Basic Theory and Practical Driving Tests for Foreign Drivers” – seem haphazard, and do not necessarily add value to broader socio-economic policies.

Whether these details will be considered in the selection process – in itself worthy of scrutiny, especially on matters of the functional groups and eventual representation – is unclear, though evaluating the performance of NMPs in this manner is perhaps even more important than evaluation of the MPs, who contest in elections every five years. Right from the get-go when the Bill to allow NMPs in Parliament was tabled in 1990, members objected to the seemingly undemocratic arrangement, and as a consequence questions will continue to be asked of the competence of NMPs.

And future NMPs should hence expect more challenges to their performance – in addition to their supposed independence and diversity, notwithstanding the different proposal panels to nominate representatives of functional groups – and even greater scrutiny of how active they are in Parliament, as well as the quality of their speeches and questions. No longer will it suffice for NMPs to deliver regurgitative speeches or submit questions with straightforward answers, and they should also, in the future, be called upon to defend their own stints, especially if they seek a return to Parliament.


Featured image TMG File.

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