Role for NMPs in deliberative democracy

Enlarged opposition representation in Parliament, vigorous online debate, and growing public engagement are cited by some as reasons why Nominated Members of Parliament have outlived their usefulness. However, these are indeed the very reasons why they ought to remain. Injecting alternative voices in Parliament, a rationale for the scheme aired by then First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1989, assumes even greater importance in this milieu - especially when account must be taken of partisanship and political wrangling during parliamentary debates. Parliament, as the highest assembly of deliberation in the land, would be out of step with the times if the debate in the House lacked the variety, vitality and verve that might be evident elsewhere.

While elected Members of Parliament can be counted upon to speak forthrightly and incisively on a wide range of issues relating to different sections of society, their party connections will inevitably colour public perceptions of their predisposition. There is merit in hearing neutral voices address the key issues of the day with the candour and utterly different perspectives expected of NMPs.

There is widespread agreement that NMPs have helped to raise the quality of parliamentary debates over the years. Former NMP Walter Woon, a law professor, initiated a Private Member's Bill that led to the passing of the Maintenance of Parents Act in 1995. And constitutional expert Thio Li-ann, together with fellow NMP Loo Choon Yong, filed a motion in 2008 to make a by-election compulsory when the minority member or half or more members of a Group Representation Constituency depart midway during their term. That proved unsuccessful but it has not deterred other NMPs from speaking against and saying "nay" to government initiatives they have reservations about, like last year's controversial White Paper on Population.

What would be less useful is for NMPs to just advance sectoral interests, pet causes or minority supplications. Citing the need for more women's or workers' advocates in the House as justification for nominations of particular NMPs would be to marginalise the interests of such significant groups, who deserve the attention of all MPs.

Instead of a clutch of nine unelected lobbyists in the House, there is a greater need for neutral voices who can espouse the larger public interest unflinchingly.

Devoid of the influence of political affiliations, their role is to speak up with Singapore's interests at heart.

Within a diversified polity, there should be an entrenched place for the non-partisan but independent-minded who can rise above constituencies of opinion and put the nation above all else.