Book Launch — The NMP Scheme: Are Unelected Voices Still Necessary in Parliament?

My speech at the book launch at Parliament auditorium, 9 September 2022

Thanks Ava for the very kind introduction! And please keep that the Fire in you burning on becoming President one day. For those who may not know, Ava made us proud by donning Ukrainian President Zelensky at the recent Shangri-la Dialogue with her self-designed t-shirt that has since raised $26,000 in NFT tokens for the humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. All this as a 16 year old girl who’s creative and unstoppable!

Thank you also to our young delightful debater Prisha for so bravely replaying the robust debate all by yourself from last year’s finals of the inter school debate on the NMP scheme, holding the fort on your own as your team mates fell away. I’m willing to bet that you must be the youngest Singaporean who knows the NMP scheme so well, and with such passion. You could be Speaker Prisha given how you are able to see both sides of the argument, be sure to get some tips from Speaker Tan since you are sitting next to him!

Good morning ESM Goh Chok Tong, Speaker Tan Chuan Jin, Your Excellencies and dear friends from the academic, business and people & civic sectors, thank you all for being here. What a joy to see so many familiar faces and I’m excited to meet the new ones!

Before I continue, and since I’m always wearing my hat for mental health and wellbeing, could I please invite you all to take 3 deep breaths with me? If you are called to it, you may close your eyes or just lower and soften your gaze — and take 3 deep breaths at your own pace…………..Thank you for giving us this 30-second mental pause which helps us come together in a more mindful, heartfull way for this special occasion.

Very few of us know that tomorrow, the 10th of September, will be exactly 32 years since the Nominated Member of Parliament scheme was first legally introduced in the Singapore Parliament. It is why we have chosen today for the book launch to mark the day when a uniquely Singapore parliamentary innovation was born 3 decades ago in 1990.

Why?

So why the book?

“Why hasn’t there been one?’’ was my first thought when I was feeling this immense gratitude for the privilege of being an NMP one morning last year, after meditation .

In 2020, following the call for general elections, different strangers wrote to me kindly offering to volunteer for my “campaign” running for PAP. I was both flattered and flabbergasted.

Later, a well-spoken neighbour in my block urged me to join the Workers’ Party because he wanted me to stay in Parliament. Yes, he knew I was an NMP and not an Opposition MP, but still he tried…

97 Singaporeans have been appointed NMPs since 1990, 2000 speeches have been made and 3000 questions have been asked by them yet the scheme is no closer to being understood by all Singaporeans.

In several of the civic discussions I had following GE2020, I also became increasingly impatient with the constantly binary discourse about the NMP scheme that changes nothing for Singapore and Singaporeans.

There is the view that NMPs have been effective in adding value and diversity to the debates in Parliament, yet no sincere nor commensurate effort has been made to strengthen the institution.

And yet we continue to hear the same old cry that it is not democratic but the ground has been slow in organising itself or showing the need for this “democracy” and diversity of parliamentary voices at the ballot box, though GE2020 may be changing that.

It’s what makes the NMP scheme such a curious case: why doesn’t it just fit nicely into our convenient models of this or that, us or them, black or white, or in our case, blue or white? Who are these NMPs: how do we place them, how come we can’t place them?

What?

We were a young Parliament at 25 years when the NMP scheme was introduced by then-First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong on 29 November 1989 to (I quote) “… encourage participation, to build consensus, to accommodate alternative viewpoints and dissent” (unquote). At that time, there were only two opposition MPs in Parliament.

The Bill provoked a two-day debate that was robust and often testy. It also went to a Select Committee. I cannot tell you how riveting a read it is on Hansard which I humbly think should be mandatory reading for all incoming NMPs. I share snippets of this exchange in the Prologue of the book so you don’t have to read the whole Hansard. But if you want to feel the energy of this intense conception, I promise it’ll be well worth your time. You can’t be disappointed when you have a heated exchange featuring Arthur Beng, Aline Wong, Tan Cheng Bock, Abdullah Tarmugi, Chiam See Tong…

Have NMPs achieved the intent of raising alternative and dissenting views that elected MPs — on both sides of the House — could not or did not? Has the presence of these nominated members kept voters away from the Opposition? Has GE2020 changed the shape of Parliament to come? Are unelected voices still necessary in Parliament?

So the book began to form:

It must be accessible to and enjoyable for the mainstream reader, not for the politically informed. The NMP story must be told by this special group of Singaporeans who have served as nominated members in the hallowed chamber across 32 years from their personal lenses, as their stories. It must be introspective, instructive and inclusive.

These considerations guided me at some level on which NMPs to invite as contributors, and how the book could be organised using the acronym NMP — N for Novel, M for Merits and P for Possibilities. Being inclusive means we were intentional on diversity of gender/age/race/sector, issues, views and their contributions in Parliament. In this book, we also have at least one NMP from each of the eight Parliaments since the scheme was introduced.

Besides each essay being a blend of personal reflection of their experience and commentary of their views of the scheme from the inside, we also included an Editor’s Cut of a Q&A following each essay — yes, like a Director’s Cut after a movie, so the reader gets up close and personal with each NMP.

We also had fun researching and analysing the different facts and figures on the NMP scheme, including comparisons between MPs and NMPs in speaking up in Parliament and which NMPs spoke up so much they were outliers within their own cohorts! Check out Appendix D!

Needless to say, the final 20 contributors are neither exhaustive nor definitive of the contributions of NMPs over the years; I merely started with the ones I know, sleuthed out a few, turned down by some, let go of two, and still crestfallen that the last one could not work out. My proudest sleuth work was tracking down Professor Maurice Choo, the first NMP appointed in 1990, along with the late Leong Chee Whye. The book would certainly be less meaningful without you raising the curtain with the first chapter, Maurice — thank you for saying yes to me so readily in the midst of the Covid crisis effort that you were leading for your hospital.

How?

Many have warned me that doing an edited volume is way more challenging than writing my own which I did for the first time 4 years ago. It was indeed a monumental task chasing and coordinating between these top leaders and accomplished academics with no white space on their calendars, and then for me, a mad hatter with a sumptuous spread before her in life, to find the space and energy to edit each essay with care because I feel the heart behind each word written.

Maurice went through every speech he made 32 years ago for his essay. Chandra’s NMP story is inextricably tied to the memory of his late wife, Gowry. Walter Woon is so generous with the details of the Maintenance of Parents’ Bill that is his, and also an NMP, legacy. Viswa’s baptism of fire in that famous exchange with the late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is honest and humbling. Thana telling her story of her parents trying to make ends meet when she was little played a big role in her championing for workers’ rights. Laurence writes with his heart and does not shy away from sharing honestly about the ups and downs of his NMP experience. Shiao-Yin earnestly urges us to come from love and kindness as parliamentarians. Walter Theseira shares candidly about his struggles at different points of the POFMA amendment motion that we both tabled. Faizah tells her story of being alone in the wilderness of Parliament championing for trees and all things green but always having her daughters with her. All of them gave a part of themselves in their essays.

Acknowledgements

It’s been a unique honour for me to work with them, each one an outstanding Singaporean who loves their country and truly wants to make a difference to the people who call Singapore home. So thank you all, fellow NMPs, for your trust, confidence and collaboration!

It was a long shot then but we are very grateful to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for so generously agreeing in-principle to provide a foreword last June when I asked before we even started writing. His agreeing to endorse this book from the start emboldened our conviction to stay the course. His foreword, when it came, was succinct and on point!

A big thank you to you ESM Goh for agreeing immediately to launch this book for us when I asked in March this year, especially as you had earlier asked me to let you enjoy your retirement! But dear Mr Goh, your presence is deeply significant for us, given that you ‘mid-wifed’ the NMP scheme exactly 32 years ago, despite a challenging birth. Or did you in fact ‘birth’ it?

And Speaker, thank you so much for letting us ‘come home’ to Parliament to launch this book. Your team in Parliament has been most professional yet so helpful and personal. More than a few of the contributors highlighted this in the book too. I joke that many of the guests here today may have said yes to our invitation because of this august venue, before the book!

Indeed, the auditorium today is a microcosm of the diversity and inclusion that is Singapore. Other than former NMPs, MPs and political watchers, we have CEOs, community leaders and changemakers from different sectors. We even have Baby Rayyan in the house — current NMP Shahira’s newborn who is all of 3 months old! Special thank you to all our ambassador friends for being here as well as our changemaker migrant brothers and sisters, Rubel, Tas and Bhing. Thank you all for coming.

Two people I miss most today are Rayner Tan and Sophie Chew. I couldn’t have done this at all without these two dear friends who are both coincidentally the latest Fulbright scholars and currently overseas. They are truly my angels for this project in every way, especially when I was physically knocked back by a gut bacteria last year.

Big thanks to the team at World Scientific too, especially Sze-Anne for working so hard for this launch and dealing with a different playbook because of the editor and the venue.

In receiving such an inordinate amount of goodwill and honour, I cannot but pledge the royalties from this book to support charitable causes. We also took the opportunity to start an NMP alumni group and are exploring a charity version of the book later with the publisher to support vulnerable communities and civic engagement. More will surely come out of this alumni group, so stay tuned as the wheels get moving!

Our Dream

Sometimes we have to create what we want to be a part of. Whether or not the scheme becomes irrelevant as Laurence and Braema think it should be in their essays, we hope the book contributes in some small way to our political history and culture, much like a time capsule.

We also hope that it provides a resource of sorts for Singaporeans who are keen to serve this way to get a glimpse of what it might look like, and newly-minted NMPs who are often thrown into the deep end without the benefit of party machinery or institutional support to feel less lost and alone.

Most of all, we sincerely wish for the book to be a catalyst for conversations amongst Singaporeans to discuss our political future, for deeper political and civic education to be had by students in schools, and for it to inspire new possibilities beyond the certainty of history and binary of ruling and opposition parties. The world that Ava, Prisha and Baby Rayyan are growing up in is not one where we can rely on model answers but one where we dare to challenge status quos that do not serve us any more, to ask the right questions that will allow us to learn from an emerging future, not a comfortable past. One where loving Singapore and being Singaporean no longer means being agreeable and compliant all the time nor being brazenly antagonistic from sometimes outdated premises but about the empathy, maturity and love that we bring to listen to those who are different to us, to feel safe to disagree yet brave enough to be transformed by the other when we understand.

As we evolve as a society with increasing contestations and ambiguities, Are Unelected Voices Still Necessary in Parliament? Or perhaps like me turning this question on its head as I wrote in the final chapter, we might like to ask instead, Are Elected MPs Enough? (PAUSE)

It’s not the answer that enlightens, but the question. Asking questions is the first way to begin change. May this book invite more curiosity and conversations of political and civic possibilities for a kinder, braver and happier Singapore!

Thank you all once again for coming to show your love and support for this first NMP book. We would love to hear about your experience with the book and hope to see you again as the book tours around Singapore in the coming months through dialogues and discussions with different communities.

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Anthea Ong is Editor of the book “The Nominated Member of Parliament Scheme: Are Unelected Voices Still Necessary?”. She also contributed a chapter to the book as one of the 20 NMPs from 1990–2022 who come together to share their experience in office. The Nominated Member of Parliament Scheme: Are Unelected Voices Still Necessary in Parliament is now available at all major bookstores and also online at https://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/12895#t=aboutBook

Anthea Ong served as an NMP from 2018–2020 in the 13th Parliament. As a self-described ‘full-time human being, part-time everything else’, she is a mental health advocate, social entrepreneur and impact investor, life and leadership coach, strategy consultant, yoga and wellness facilitator and author, amongst many other roles. She is never seen without headgear to match her multiple hats.

She enjoys bringing disparate groups of people together, especially where this highlights our common humanity amidst our differences. As such, she divides her time, energy and love across many different communities, and has founded or co-founded several initiatives in her main focus areas of migrant rights, mental health, environmentalism, and social impact, including SG Mental Health Matters, WorkWell Leaders, A Good Space Co-operative, Hush TeaBar, and Welcome in My Backyard. She also serves on several boards and committees in these fields, including the Tripartite Oversight Committee for Workplace Safety & Health. Prior to devoting herself to civil society and social impact work full-time, she spent over 25 years in the corporate world as a C-suite leader.

Sought after as a human-centred leadership speaker, Anthea has also published numerous commentaries and contributed to anthologies such as My Life, My Story by National Library Board and the recently-published Social Context, Policies and Changes in Singapore. Her wood-cover memoir, 50 Shades of Love, was shortlisted for the Best Illustrated Non-Fiction Title in the 2019 Singapore Book Awards. A podcast series, Shades of Love, followed in 2021. She is a passionate student of life and continues to be amazed by each new chapter in her journey of becoming.

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