'Spotlight on more causes' with all-new slate of NMPs

Observers point out that heritage and disability issues now have champions

The choice of the all-new slate of Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) may reflect a desire to give more communities and causes a chance to be in the spotlight, political watchers and MPs said yesterday.

This is because issues concerning heritage and people with disabilities, for instance, may not have previously had sufficient airtime in the House, said some.

But they now have champions, respectively, in historian Tan Tai Yong and lawyer Chia Yong Yong, who has peroneal muscular dystrophy.

Economic restructuring is another big item of continued importance to Singapore, said the analysts, pointing to the selection of a labour economist, veteran unionist and business association chief.

The new batch of NMPs, whose term begins on Aug 26, was announced on Monday. They were selected, in part, for their ability to add to parliamentary debates on certain issues.

These include ageing, economic restructuring and productivity, sporting excellence, a better living environment, heritage, working mothers' challenges, youth aspirations and entrepreneurism.

But unlike the previous group of NMPs - whose terms ended on Aug 8 - the incoming group does not have representatives who focus on the arts and environmental concerns.

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad was of the view that rotating the groups that previously had NMPs representing their interests "gives different communities a chance to air their views, and puts new areas in the spotlight".

But arts community members, who have had a representative since 2009, said yesterday that they were disappointed by the exclusion this time, and are now mulling over forming an advocacy group.

Former NMP Audrey Wong, who served from 2009 to 2011 and represented the arts, said: "Maybe it means that Parliament feels the arts, in a way, has had its chance, and wants to be fair and give more communities a chance to speak up."

Ms Chia Yong Yong, the first NMP who is a wheelchair user, is a case in point. She is keen to champion issues concerning people with disabilities.

And areas like heritage have also been recent popular talking points.

Said Ms Wong: "There has been a groundswell of public awareness about the need to look after our heritage and manage it in a more sustainable way."

The selection of Professor Tan Tai Yong, a historian who is keen on Singapore's heritage, could be a reaction to this growing interest and a signal that these issues should be addressed, said law don Eugene Tan, who served as NMP from 2012.

He was one of two from the previous batch who sought reappointment but were unsuccessful. The other was businessman R. Dhinakaran.

Sociologist and former NMP Paulin Straughan also felt that the inclusion of a history and heritage expert was timely: "You need to know what happened in the 49 years leading to the 50th year of independence Singapore is celebrating next year."

But other issues, like economic restructuring, remain important enough for NMPs who are experts on the topic to be chosen. There has been an NMP representing the labour unions, and another representing business association, in each Parliament session.

This time was no exception, with National Trades Union Congress vice-president K. Karthikeyan, as well as Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Thomas Chua having been selected.

Incoming NMP and labour economist Randolph Tan said Singapore's current economic restructuring is "the primary concern at this point".

"The future of our society will depend on the way our economy develops," he added.

He, Dr Straughan and Ms Wong said that businesses and labour were crucial to this economic process, and so it made sense to continue to include such representatives on the NMP slate. This is because manpower is a crucial part of economic restructuring. Businesses' concerns also deeply affect Singapore and deserve a voice in the House, they added.

charyong@sph.com.sg