Deciding On MP `Material’

by Bertha Henson

Way back in late 80s, when I was a rookie reporter in a past life, a colleague and I set about piecing together an article about the People’s Action Party’s soon-to-be unveiled candidates for the 1988 general election. It was a tough job because it was a big slate of about 20 (the George Yeo batch) and we went about verifying each name one by one. The PAP wasn’t saying anything so it was a tough job nailing each man and woman in white. It took us two months. Although convinced that we got it right, our editors sat on the piece, worrying that its (premature) publication would land us in hot soup. They sat on it for so long that we were “scooped’’ by our rivals in the Chinese newspapers. Then it was published, late by journalistic standards. My colleague and I were none too happy of course but we were assured that caution, especially during such an explosive time, should be the order of the day.

Some reasons for the hesitation:

  1. We could have got a name wrong.
  2. The name could be right, but if he or she was “dropped’’ at the last minute, then it would be such a loss of face for the person wouldn’t it?
  3. Do we want to upset the PAP by tipping its hand so early and without its sanction?

 We were too young to argue too much with our bosses but we did: the names can’t be much of a secret if the grassroots leaders and their colleagues were spilling the beans and we have pictures of the candidates in leading roles at community functions.

Fast forward and you now have the PAP itself announcing its candidates or “potential’’ candidates early. It is doing so, it said, in response to complaints that their charges are being “parachuted’’ for the fight only at the last minute. Best that they be given some grassroots exposure and publicity.

The PAP could have sent them to the ground quietly if the idea was to only expose them to grassroots work. This means that when it comes to unveiling them, it could say that they have experience under their belt and not just degrees to their name.  For the candidates, it means time to build a corps of party workers and to lead them – rather than be led by them.

By going public, you can bet that people would be dissecting their resumes and the Internet would be doing a CSI on them. (One “candidate’’ must be regretting his remark lamenting how he didn’t “score” in Primary Five maths, made in an interview two years ago.) Well, the five so far have probably braced themselves – for bouquets from those who know them, and brickbats from those who don’t.

Here are their names:

  1.  Ms Chan Hui Yuh, 37, a director at construction company Infra Waterproofing
  2. Mr Kahar Hassan, 45, a deputy director (infrastructure) with rail operator SMRT.
  3. Mr Chong Kee Hiong, 48, chief executive of OUE Hospitality REIT Management
  4. Saktiandi Supaat, 40, head of foreign exchange research at Maybank,
  5. Amrin Amin,35, corporate lawyer at Watson, Farley & Williams Asia Practice

Good for them, I say.

If you have an ideological position, don’t be coy about identifying with the political party you are with. The spotlight will be shining on you and even if you are “dropped’’ at the end of the day, it would have been an experience to remember. Can add it to your resume! And please continue your work at the grassroots level.

And if you decide to say “no’’ to being nominated because it’s got too hot in the kitchen for you and the family even before the hustings, then it’s good for the rest of us, because you clearly aren’t cut out for political life. And please continue your work at the grassroots level.

While the PAP is letting them loose on the ground to test their mettle for MPship, another call is being made for names to be put up as Nominated MPs. Of the nine NMPs, six will not be seeking second terms. (NMP Eugene Tan has confirmed that he is carrying on, by the way).

Former PAP stalwart and presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock has weighed in on his FB page, reiterating his opposition to the scheme. He was the only PAP MP who said no to the scheme which was first mooted in 1990 to give people a wide representation in Parliament or quell demand for opposing voices, depending on your point of view. I reported on the debate and I must say Doc stuck to his position:

 “Parliamentarians must earn the right to speak in the House. To earn this right, he or she must get elected in a general or by-election. Being elected by his constituents, he is responsible and accountable to his constituents for whatever he says in the house. On the other hand, an NMP, not being elected, is not responsible or accountable to anyone. Also, by participating in an election, the MP takes the risk of losing and not being elected. This is not so in the case of the NMP. So Parliament, being the highest legislative body in the land, must not be seen to promote non-risk taking, which is not in line with government’s call to its citizens.’’

I supported his position then, with a column on how elected MPs shouldn’t be given such short shrift. That it was important that a representative in Parliament be in touch with public sentiments by dealing with them at ground level. I still say it is bad to have MPs and Nominated MPs sitting cheek by jowl in Parliament because it is an indictment on elected MPs who, presumably, aren’t able to represent the whole spectrum of the people. There was a sop thrown to the dissenting PAP MPs then (Dr Tan wasn’t the only vocal one although he was the only one who said “nay’’) – that it was for MPs to decide every term on whether they would let NMPs into the House. But this “sop’’ has been taken away. The NMP scheme is now carved in stone.

In his FB post, Dr Tan noted the changes in the scheme which was intended for non-partisan and independent voices but has since evolved into “a path that should never have happened – specifically by allowing sectorial or functional group representation”.

“So you have NMPs representing trade unions, tertiary institutions, professional bodies, businesses, arts and theatres, social services and sports. These are civil society groups with vested interests. Can they be truly non partisan?’’

Remember that the NMP scheme didn’t have a good start with just two NMPs in the pioneer batch. Now, the full quota of nine is being filled every time with even more applications to the Parliamentary Select Committee to look over now that “sectors’’ are invited to submit names.

But Dr Tan has a point about sectoral representation, although one can quibble with his definition of “non-partisan’’ as groups which have vested interests. It is terribly odd for the labour movement to be considered a “sector’’ in need of representation when you have so many labour MPs including their chief who sits in the Prime Minister’s Office. It is also terribly odd for the People’s Association to lead a “sector’’ when every PAP MP has links with it or for the National Council of Social Service to be only body representing social service.

Dr Tan also said: “At the same time, there are many other groups representing clan associations, religious organisations, minority races, new citizens and people of different sexual orientation, all wanting their voices heard in Parliament. Naturally, they are unhappy that they are not allowed representation in Parliament under the NMP scheme.’’

He noted that they can lobby sitting MPs to reflect their concerns, but he didn’t say that they, too, could try and get into the House through the “independent’’ route, not as a sector representative.

I still think the NMP scheme is a slap in the face of elected MPs, but I cannot deny that some NMPs have been able to raise issues that MPs, chary of going against the party line, would not. The likes of Prof Walter Woon, Viswa Sadasivan and Siew Kum Hong come to mind as sharp debaters with strong points of view. And given what PAP Hri Kumar Nair and WP’s Sylvia Lim said recently about their party Whips – it only justifies further the need to have NMPs.

I recall a Straits Times columnist who called for the NMP scheme to be made more transparent a few years ago. So far, we only know of who succeeded, not who applied. It is time for the House to lift the veil on the scheme and share details of how it came to the conclusion that such and such a person should be allowed into Parliament. It is even more critical that it does so for the coming batch because they would be in the House at a critical juncture of our national life: when the G makes a bigger “left’’ turn in the run-up to what looks to be a very interesting and controversial general election.

If someone wants to be nominated as a Nominated MP, announce it. The sectors can do so on their behalf and those who brave the independent route can’t possibly be so shy as to shun the spotlight which will be trained on them if they eventually succeed in being nominated.

Thing is, the NMP scheme is pretty much a fact of political life, despite Dr Tan’s misgivings. More people have grown comfortable with the idea of having them in the House, although some will still label them as “co-opted’’ MPs.

But do we need to “kick’’ the sectors into having representation by having such a structure? Is it not time to do away with it and have all go through the independent route? Also, must the sectors be represented if they already are, by sitting MPs? Surely some of them are strong enough as a force to make their views known such that the House would be forced to take them into account? (Note: most of the sectors’ constituent groups are “establishment’’ types like the universities in the “academic’’ sector.)

How many “independents’’ usually apply? About 30 or 40? Can past and current sector representatives say hand on heart that they are not beholden to the sector to protect its interest in the highest forum in the land? Can they say that they would subordinate sector interests for the national interest? Or is this even a point for discussion since NMPs are supposed to add diversity to the House?

Questions like the above would be moot (or least rendered less relevant)  if everyone went through the same route.

My bottomline: It’s going to be too hard to get rid of the NMP system but it is not so hard to refine the “application’’ structure or do away with sectoral representation altogether. It is definitely not hard for Parliament to give more details of what goes on behind closed doors when it weighs the worth of a nominated candidate.

The people are the ones who put MPs into Parliament and when MPs give themselves the power to decide who should sit with them, the people should get a look at how it’s done even when, and especially because, the people have no say.

That’s reasonable, no?

*Bertha Henson blogs at Bertha Harian

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