Perspectives about the NMP System

This was her written responses to an email interview from Straits Times. A tiny bit of this stream of consciousness was part of the article From NCMPs to Leader of the Opposition — how Parliament has evolved, 30 July 2020.

𝐇𝐚𝐯𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐛𝐞𝐞𝐧 𝐚 𝐍𝐌𝐏, 𝐰𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐰𝐨𝐮𝐥𝐝 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐬𝐚𝐲 𝐢𝐬 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐬𝐢𝐠𝐧𝐢𝐟𝐢𝐜𝐚𝐧𝐜𝐞 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐫𝐨𝐥𝐞 𝐢𝐧 𝐩𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐚𝐥𝐭𝐞𝐫𝐧𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐯𝐞 𝐩𝐞𝐫𝐬𝐩𝐞𝐜𝐭𝐢𝐯𝐞𝐬 𝐢𝐧 𝐏𝐚𝐫𝐥𝐢𝐚𝐦𝐞𝐧𝐭?

"I see the NMP system as part of the evolutionary process of our parliamentary system. We all know that the intent of the NMP system is for nonpartisan Singaporeans representing key sectors of our society to "contribute to good governance supported by more constructive dissent and alternative views." (quoting Goh Chok Tong). This is the 'why' and 'what' on the role of the NMP - which I think is significant especially given a super majority parliament in a democratic nation.

However, the 'how' in realising the intent does depend on many factors - including both the application and selection process, and just as important, the individual appointed. NMPs represent sectors of the country that cut across our society that may otherwise not be on the radar of the elected MPs who, by virtue of our electoral system, naturally tend to focus on the municipal needs of their voters. A good example is the role of the Arts NMP - this very important sector absolutely needs a dedicated independent voice to present alternative perspectives to the Government.

I take my role in presenting alternative perspectives in Parliament very seriously. Especially given that I represent the civil society and people sector - which is an immensely diverse one and the Government, no matter how well-meaning and efficient, can never respond adequately to every single group, every Singaporean - particularly in the 3M I hold close to my heart: mental health, marginalised communities and migrant workers."

𝐖𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐰𝐨𝐮𝐥𝐝 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐬𝐚𝐲 𝐭𝐨 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐜𝐨𝐦𝐦𝐨𝐧 𝐜𝐫𝐢𝐭𝐢𝐜𝐢𝐬𝐦 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐍𝐌𝐏 𝐬𝐜𝐡𝐞𝐦𝐞, 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐍𝐌𝐏𝐬 𝐚𝐫𝐞 𝐮𝐧𝐞𝐥𝐞𝐜𝐭𝐞𝐝 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐦𝐚𝐲 𝐧𝐨𝐭 𝐫𝐞𝐩𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐞𝐧𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐯𝐢𝐞𝐰𝐬 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐞𝐥𝐞𝐜𝐭𝐨𝐫𝐚𝐭𝐞?

"I used to hold this binary view of the NMP scheme too which was why I turned down an invitation quite a few years back to be put forth as a candidate for the sector. However, I have since changed my mind obviously which is why I said yes to the invitation in 2018!

What changed for me?

First, I checked my own herd instinct and binary view.

Second, as the GRC system became larger in the number of seats, I began to see that we can no longer tell if every candidate 'elected' in that GRC is equally weighted in direct representation of the votes by his/her constituency. In other words, there may be some candidates in the GRC who if contested singly may not be necessarily elected by the residents but they will still play a role in Parliament.

Third, I researched and saw semblance of a similar scheme like this in other parliamentary system - the bicameral system of 'House of Lords' in UK and 'Dewan Negara or Senate' in Malaysia (and also in other commonwealth countries), as well as the party list system in the likes of Philippines. The individuals in these systems are not elected either.

Fourth, as an entrepreneur, I am all for innovations for a better future and not shackled to history (including a 200 year old system which is not perfect either!). So I decided to see the NMP system as a parliamentary innovation that we should and must do right by its intent and refine the design constantly to realise the desired outcomes. If this is an innovation towards better governance and a more inclusive society, perhaps we should depart from appointing persons with similar profiles as elected MPs as NMPs but consider those with current lived realities of the challenges they face in the system (not just when they were born, lol) to be part of the solution? For e.g, an artist, a community worker, etc.

Last but not least, the growing ills of bipartisanship around the world is obvious for all to see. If we truly wish to keep this important block of nonpartisanship as a check to divisive bipartisan politics that could arise, then we must strengthen this NMP block in our parliamentary system too through commensurate recognition and resources. We are taking the first step towards recognising the elected Opposition in parliament for the first time in our history. So I'm hopeful that one day, the same may be accorded to the NMP system.

One last important point, electoral democracy is not without its flaws since it's always majoritarian by default. There are always going to be issues affecting minority segments of our society that are not necessarily supported by the majority. This means issues like sex workers, migrant workers and LGBTQ+ may not be raised by elected member, on both sides of the bench because they need votes. NMPs can bring these issues without fear of losing votes, this is why I raised these issues in my term. So in this case, being non-elected has its advantages!"

𝐀𝐫𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞 𝐞𝐱𝐚𝐦𝐩𝐥𝐞𝐬 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐲𝐨𝐮'𝐝 𝐥𝐢𝐤𝐞 𝐭𝐨 𝐡𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐥𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭, 𝐨𝐟 𝐬𝐮𝐛𝐬𝐭𝐚𝐧𝐭𝐢𝐯𝐞 𝐩𝐨𝐥𝐢𝐜𝐲 𝐜𝐡𝐚𝐧𝐠𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐚𝐫𝐨𝐬𝐞 𝐟𝐫𝐨𝐦 𝐍𝐌𝐏𝐬' 𝐩𝐫𝐨𝐩𝐨𝐬𝐚𝐥𝐬?

"I am sure there have been many beyond the obvious one by Walter Woon re: Maintenance of Parents' Act, even if these policy changes may not be openly attributed to NMPs when they are made. I want to believe that Kanwaljit Soin's rejected bill for Family Violence resulted in a series of substantive changes that led to POHA. I'd like to think that Shiao-yin Kuik speaking up for the youth contributed to the government setting up SG Youth Action. And that many of the issues raised by the Arts MPs through the years have ensured that we do not sideline this sector in our funding and engagement with independent artists. If I may also add that MOH finally agreeing to do a whole-of-government review of our mental healthcare policies in the Unity Budget and again at Fortitude Budget after two years of raising the gaps and challenges from the ground is, in my humble opinion, maybe substantive.

One important thing to note: if we judge the substantiveness of NMP proposals based on private members' bills tabled, it's unrealistic and unfair because this is almost impossible to pull off as backbenchers, elected or not. It's no secret that NMPs have zero legislative or secretarial resources.

I also think that - whether NMP or elected MP, a lot of the work for advocating policy changes happen outside of the chamber. I can't speak for others but can share my own experience. For example, after my maiden speech and several PQs on workplace mental health, MOM reached out and I have been working with them on this issue at different levels towards positive change. Same with MOH, MOE and MCCY, also on mental health. And also with MOM too on the migrant workers. I do have to add though that some ministries are more engaging than others.

Having shared all of the above, I'd like to state for the record that I am NOT saying that the NMP system is sufficient to provide the alternative views in the hallowed chamber, 𝐟𝐚𝐫 𝐟𝐫𝐨𝐦 𝐢𝐭! What happens in Parliament affects Singapore and all Singaporeans so we must have all voices represented, including those unpopular ones which elected representatives may not choose to speak up for.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament (2018–2020).

(A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.

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