Sunday, December 03, 2006

NOMINATED MP SCHEME - Danger of sectarian representation

Dec 2, 2006
Danger of sectarian representation
By Tan Cheng Bock, For The Straits Times
WHEN the Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP) scheme was mooted in 1981, it was to meet a call by some Singaporeans for another voice in Parliament, as there was only one opposition member then.

The candidates for the scheme were to be people with no political connections, those who are non-partisan and able to reflect on diverse views without party whip control. The idea was deemed a good one by the majority in the House. However, a few of us had our reservations and I voted against the scheme. I did not budge from my stand at every change of Parliament when the House voted on the continuation of the scheme.

My reasons for speaking against the scheme still hold today. Parliament is a House of elected members, chosen by the people to represent them. So, they have a moral responsibility to speak for those who voted them into the House and are answerable to them if they fail in their duties. This is reflected in the votes cast at each general election. Thus, an elected MP has a responsibility to look after his constituents and, by extension, the nation. This task has become more demanding over the years, in line with the growing needs and expectations of citizens.

As an MP has to fight for his seat in Parliament, he must also be a risk-taker and be prepared for the long haul in the political arena. There is always the possibility of losing in the elections and suffering disappointment publicly. To be re-elected, he must have passion, guts, commitment and stamina - he has to make sacrifices in the area of his work and family duties. In this way, he earns the right to speak for the people.

Singaporeans have elected their MPs to represent them. They must now think carefully whether they want another group of people, not elected by them but appointed by Parliament, to speak for them. If the MPs they have elected are doing the job they have been elected to do well, is there really a need for NMPs to do the same?

I fought six general elections and won each one after hard campaigning. Some of my colleagues fought equally hard and lost. It is a risk we all take.

To have NMPs is to encourage non- risk-takers. To be in the House, they must join the political arena, fight and earn this right. Some NMPs I have spoken to told me that they do not want to be involved in politics, and being a NMP is a good way out. But let me tell them this - parliamentary debates are all political in nature. In fact, we talk only politics in the House, and rightfully so.

We must not have two standards: On the one hand, asking Singaporeans to take risks to go overseas to build our external economic wing; and on the other hand, endorsing a non- risk-taking scheme like the NMP.

One of the reasons I am against the NMP scheme is the question of representation. Who should we bring into the House? An alternative voice for business, academics, professionals, unionists, minorities, clans, the disabled or senior citizens? These are vested interest groups, sending in proxy representatives to speak on their behalf. But this was not the original thinking behind the scheme. Remember?

NMPs are supposed to be non-partisan Singaporeans airing their views on wide-ranging subjects and examining issues without party whip control. They are not intended to be representatives or proxies for interest groups.

There is a parliamentary committee screening those who want to be NMPs. However, over the years, I have seen a trend towards sectarian representation. People lose track of the scheme's original aim over the years. This is due to our leadership renewal process, which put into the House new leaders with vague or no institutional memories. Thus, we have seen in the previous House well-heeled professionals, academics, businessmen and even trade unionists as NMPs. The last Parliament already had several trade unionist MPs and yet there was an NMP from the trade unions. Why the need?

In recent letters to the Forum pages as well as in articles in The Straits Times on NMPs, there were suggestions that NMPs include the disabled, senior citizens, youth, the green conservation groups and even ex-MPs. More lobby groups may soon be asking for representation, such as minority religious and racial groups, clan associations, hawkers and market associations, transport associations, etc.

They, unlike the professionals, academics, well- heeled businessmen and trade unionists, have no such representations in the past, and may start knocking at Parliament's doors. And why should they be denied? If they persist long enough, they might well succeed. Herein lies the danger. What if someone with a hidden and sinister agenda to do the country in finds his way into Parliament, through an organisation which has been approached by Parliament to send in a representative as NMP? For the next two to three years, he will have a platform to air his views - with parliamentary immunity.

More fundamentally, the people behind these special groups (its organisers and beneficiaries) are also part of the electorate which has put the MP in Parliament. What is preventing these groups from giving feedback to an MP? And if the feedback concerns national issues, can the MP not speak up for them in Parliament?

Are there not post-65 MPs who can connect with the youth? Are MPs with trade union backgrounds unfamiliar with workers' issues? Do MPs who are professionals and businessmen not know the pulse of their respective vocations?

Or do we want our MPs to take the easy way out and abdicate these functions to NMPs?

Having served six terms in Parliament, I can testify that my parliamentary colleagues were more than capable of discharging the role played by NMPs thus far. Let us not adulterate the role of MPs by relying on the token representation offered by NMPs.

The British tried non-elected House membership and gave it up a long time ago. It is a waste of taxpayers' money and an affront to the 84 men and women who, w ith immense courage, responded to their political calling.

Maybe it's time to review the NMP scheme after this Parliament.
The writer is a former People's Action Party MP for Ayer Rajah.

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