The EXIT Interview
Singapore Policy Journal, 1 Harvard Kennedy School of Government, 1 August 2020
What was the compelling reason that made you agree to apply for the post?
I realised that there are structural issues that no matter how much change we try to push on the ground, we may never truly address them or we will hit a wall at some point until policies change to enable or complement the ground efforts. For eg mental healthcare policies that reinforces the disparity between physical and mental illnesses, and therefore perpetuates the stigma. Up until very recently and before social media, I think we would all agree that at this life stage that we are as a society, laws and policies shape social attitudes and behaviours more than groundup responses to social issues.
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.
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.
What is one achievement you are proud of having contributed to in the past 2 years? What is one thing you would have done differently?
Every speech made, every question filed, every motion raised in the past 2 years has been a consultative and collaborative effort with the communities affected so I would not be able to claim credit solely for any.
I wouldn’t point to any issue or speeches to answer this question as an achievement I would be proud of. I think I am most thankful for not saying no to any vulnerable groups who needed their voice heard through the 2 years as long as it is humanly possible for me, even if it means sometimes to do up to 4 speeches for a sitting! The only ones I’ve turned away are usually business groups because I feel their issues should rightly go to the elected MPs to be raised since they are usually not difficult nor uncomfortable topics for the chamber.
I wouldn’t change anything — all the good, the bad and the bloopers! Maybe, instead of staying in chamber to listen to the proceedings when I didn’t have to speak, maybe I could have been more intentional in arranging for 1–1 chats in the tea room with parliamentarian colleagues whom I would like get to know better. Oh, and maybe replace my broken tablet so I didn’t have to hold my Macbook Air for the entire duration!
What makes an effective NMP, both in and out of Parliament? For instance, Anthea, you initiated and supported community initiatives like Welcome in My Backyard and Stronger For All. Mr Ho, you told CNA how you “[work] with an end-to-end model, [where] you also need to engage the agency, you also need to engage the ministry.” How have your experiences outside of Parliament influenced and informed your work within it?
I do think that — whether NMP or elected MP, a lot of the work for advocating policy changes also needs to happen outside of the chamber, especially given the limited time we have in Parliament.
For me, what I do outside of Parliament influenced and informed my work as an NMP in every way! Because I think I was very mindful to make sure that my views on an issue must not be intellectually informed (or worse, my personal opinion) but also that they truly reflect the lived realities of the communities in question. Ultimately, no matter how we are challenging the policies and systems, we are doing that with living humans in mind — not just statistics.
WorkWell Leaders Workgroup (workplace mental health), Hush (mental health and disability), A Good Space (community responses), WIMBY (migrant workers), Stronger for All (, WINGS (women)
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. 🙂
Do you think that a two and a half year term is long enough to be effective? Or should NMPs be in Parliament for its whole duration of 4 to 5 years? Would you agree to serving a second term of two and a half years?
That depends on what it means when you say effective because I would say that the quality of work is not realistically linked to the quantity of time given. So I can’t say what’s the Goldilocks answer is regarding the duration but I would respond with a question instead? What is the value of the NMP scheme in the larger parliamentary system? If we truly want the NMPs to add value to the discourse in the chamber the same way we expect of all other MPs, then on this intent as well clarity and consistency, does it not make sense for all parliamentarians to be aligned in their term? If it’s being seen as “inferior” or less important in the value that it brings to the business of Parliament, then there would not be any need to align their term to that of the rest of Parliament.
Yes I would, because there are still issues to be raised by the different communities — both new and exacerbated ones, because the impact of the Covid-19 crisis has a long tail.
Is it a good idea to have NMPs representing functional groups (sector-specific; eg. arts & culture, academia, civil society) or does that tend to pigeon hole you even though you can speak on other issues? How have you found a balance between speaking for the communities you represent and national issues?
I still think there’s merit in forcing horizontal or what intersectional issues to be discussed in Parliament by design, and that’s I think is the intent of NMPs I feel — why they are selected from the essential sectors of the society.
The pigeon-holing if it happens would be self imposed because no MPs, elected or not, are restricted to only certain issues to raise.
I don’t think there’s any tension between speaking for communities I represented and national issues because they are both interrelated, unless we are discussing foreign policies. How can national issues not affect the communities and vice versa?
Would you consider the NMP scheme as a case of shared responsibilities but unshared Power?
What power? The ability to vote on supply bill etc?
The design of the NMP scheme also determines its value — in terms of resources given and recognition to the NMPs. It’s no secret that we have zero legislative and secretarial resources.
After becoming an NMP, would you consider becoming a candidate for elections for a political party? What do you think of the suggestion of offering a ministerial post to an outstanding NMP as I don’t think our constitution prohibits the creation of a non-elected Minister or office holder?
It’s a question I got asked many times recently — even had more than a few people write in to me to volunteer for my campaigning! I felt grateful. The misfit in me says I’m not sure if partisan politics is for me given that there’s the need to toe party line and be subjected to the whip and all. There’s also always group think. But I had never thought I would be in politics and here I am so I would never pretend I can read the future with certainty, even my own. So I would say never say never in an emerging future that will continue to be full of surprises.
Won’t that be a major revolution — never say never and as an entrepreneur, I’m always for innovations to improve the system and not be shackled to the old (especially a 200 year old system which is not perfect)! More immediate to ask this question that if the NMP scheme is a parliamentary or constitutional innovation towards better governance and a more inclusive society, perhaps we should depart from appointing the same profiles that we have as elected MPs but consider Singaporeans with current lived realities of the challenges 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.
With 10 elected opposition MPs, 2 NCMPs and 9 NMPs, — this will add up to 21non-government MPs. There are 83 elected government MPs. Do you think this proportion of Government and non-government MPs is a good ecosystem for robust and lively debate and exchange of ideas?
I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction. The world we are heading towards is one that will increase in complexity which necessitates for more diverse views to be heard and a truly inclusive governance approach if we wish to maintain unity. The risk of group think is real because being tribal is very primal, and also we have the Whip system too. So I think that we must continue to work towards a more diverse parliament because 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.
Electoral democracy is not without its flaws, its 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!
Based on your time in Parliament, what words of advice would you give to the new batch of incoming NMPs?
Please bring along a pillow for your seat!
Choose courage over comfort, compassion over convenience and curiosity over compliance.
Work is love made visible
It’s the highest form of active citizenry. Greatest honour and privilege — the highest form of love for the country
Beyond you, let others in — communities etc.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~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