Friday, May 29, 2009

Of the People

Yesterday in Parliament, Mr Yaacob Ibrahim, the Minister for Environment and Water Resources, in rising to answer the MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, Mr Inderjit Singh, referred to the MP by name and not as the Member for Ang Mo Kio GRC. In the British Parliamentary system, the system that Singapore's Parliamentary system is based on, each member in the House is addressed by the constituency he/she represents, in recognition of the fact that that is how they got into Parliament in the first place. When government ministers refer to fellow Parliamentarians by name instead of the constituents that is represented by that MP, are they forgetting the people? Do they remember them only during the Elections when the people's votes count? Mr Inderjit Singh was speaking on behalf of the people's towns, specifically the running and upkeep of these people's properties and possessions. True, some of these properties belong to the government, but isn't the government, to quote Abraham Lincoln, of the people?

When this happens, and this is not the first time MPs are calling each other in Parliament by first names, we know that Parliamentary democracy has taken a step back. All MPs in Parliament should be referred to the Member for the constituency he/she represents. They speak on behalf of his/her constituency. That is the primary role of an MP. They speak at the national level on laws and policies as a consequence of their understanding of the needs and issues of the people they serve. This is not new. Somebody some time ago raised this point and I am just raising it by way of reminder.

Nevertheless, Singapore Parliament is set for changes. So much so that the Constitution needs amending to accomodate the changes.

Chief among the changes announced is the institutionalising of Opposition seats in Parliament. 9 guaranteed seats will be set aside for non-ruling party MPs and/or NMPs. These 9 can be duly elected MPs or all 9 of them can be nominated MPs, should the party other than the ruling party lose all seats contested in a General Election. This may be a good thing, or it may not. If all 9 are NMPs, then they have no constituency to speak for. For all you know, they can speak on their pet subjects (e.g. the Arts and other civil society groups, etc.), which may not have anything to do with the bread and butter issues of the electorate. Funny, I thought there are government ministers, who are paid very handsomely in Singapore, and his Ministry who already looks after the Arts. In Singapore, that's MICA - the Ministry of Information and the Arts. It should be doing that instead of paying yet another person (the NCMP) to raise issues on the Arts.

So why do we need 'specialised' NMPs anyway? And what if the Opposition parties sweep all 9 seats, and then some? No more voices for the civil society and special interest groups? Is this a further tactic by the ruling party to limit the number of Opposition Members in Parliament? So is the latest suggested innovation in Parliamentary democracy necessarily a good thing? Of course, whether this works depends on the people's need for such 'specialist' NMPs, and their actual performance and effectiveness in Parliament. Yes, today, we have a few strong NMP voices in Parliament. They lend their voices to certain subjects. They speak frankly, but my sense is that they are not taken very seriously because when it comes down to it, they cannot vote on the things that matters. They are just toothless tigers, roaring aloud, yearning to be heard. In practice, their effectiveness is limited. One can talk, but when you are in no position to execute, to put action to words, it isn't must use, is it. MPs that are elected by the people are those who truly matter in Parliament.

The problem in Singapore is that, even with upwards of 70 MPs, we still see the need for NCMPs, and 9 at that. What a waste of money and resources. What a failure of the government of the people, by the people and for the people.

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