'No one tells me what to say'

Backbencher Hri Kumar Nair has taken aim at several government policies, including those relating to national service and permanent residents, the PSLE and certificates of entitlement. After Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew announced changes to the COE system last month, Mr Nair posted a blunt critique on Facebook, describing the move to differentiate cars by engine capacity and power output as "meaningless" as it would disadvantage more efficient cars. Mr Nair, a senior counsel at Drew and Napier and one of five MPs representing Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, tells Robin Chan he has no inhibitions about speaking his mind and has never been rapped by a minister for doing so. He also debunks any suggestion that he is merely playing the part of "loyal opposition" assigned to him by the ruling party.


This story was first published on Oct 5, 2013, in The Straits Times.

Q: You have spoken up against many government policies. Why?

I wouldn't see it as being critical of government. I think what I say reflects my own honest views and the feedback of the people I talk to.

The national service tax (he proposed a tax on permanent residents who do not serve NS) was a response to unhappiness that some PR parents are gaming the system by having their sons renounce their PR just before they became eligible to enlist. And I think there is some merit to that complaint.

My philosophy is not to just complain, but I try and say: "Look, this is the issue and I have a proposal." My proposal may not be the best and I certainly don't know all the answers, but I at least have a proposal so that I can start the discussion. Better that than just saying there is a problem and someone else has to think about and solve it.

Q: The more cynical people say the PAP MPs who are more vocal and critical, like yourself, are there to play a role, to show that there are diverse views within the party.
I think that is one of the bigger misconceptions about the PAP. When I give a speech in Parliament, or when I write a blog, no one tells me what to write and no one vets what I write.

That surprises people because they think there is this great machinery that controls what you think, what you say and what you do. There is not.

We are pretty much given the freedom to express our own views, so long as they are honest and fair, and we have to defend them.

To say that I am saying it because someone told me to say it, or because I have a particular role to play, is completely misplaced. It just never happens.

I've got a young daughter, she goes to P1 next year. So a lot of these issues are very real for me - PSLE, P1 admissions. It is useful for MPs to reflect on their own feelings, because we go through it as well. We are not sitting in ivory towers, we don't have different rules that apply to us.

When I write a blog or post, I can control my intentions and execution but I cannot control people's perception of what I intend.

So while I may intend to say something, there is a perception that I am doing it because I am the mouthpiece. And I am not sure I can do anything to change perceptions. So long as I continue to be honest and I am consistent, people will see me for what I am and that is all I can ask for.

Q: So when you come up with something quite controversial, what is the reaction from the party leaders?
What you want to know is if I have been scolded or told off. No, I have never been! I have not felt in any way inhibited.

If I did feel inhibited then I wouldn't continue doing it, and of course I have done a few of these. But for example, let's look at the new committee for recognising NS. I've been told that one of the reasons they did that is because of the issues I, as well as others, have raised. So, as a result of feedback, they put this committee together. So that is work in progress.

I raised PSLE some time ago - I am not the first one to raise it - and the debate has been going on and many have expressed their views. And because there has been a generation of views, now we have made a move on PSLE.

Debates like this help. If it encourages other people to speak up, it helps, because if people make reasonable arguments, then the Government will listen, as they have shown with PSLE.

Q: More recently, when Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy associate dean Donald Low wrote an article recommending that the Government shift from prioritising growth to well-being, you wrote to The Straits Times Forum page to rebut it.
That one, a friend suggested that I should respond. And I did so in my own words. I just felt that this issue of growth versus equity was not a debate grounded in any reality. I wanted to express a different point of view.

Again, people have criticised me for it on the Net, but I am okay, I am happy to be criticised. As long as I express a view which I honestly hold, I am not afraid of criticism. I am not afraid of being wrong either. It is part of the process.

When I came into politics, I had certain views and a number of those views have changed over time.

Q: You had your daughter after you entered politics in 2006. Has that changed things for you?

It took us some time to have a child. We had been trying for some time. When my daughter came it was a real blessing.

I blame myself because we started late. I run a team of lawyers at my firm and every chance I get, I encourage them to get married early, have kids early.

Q: How do you relax?

Well, I am a Manchester United fan. I used to relax watching football, now I get very tense. I have supported them since the mid-70s. I am not a fair weather fan.

When I do have time, I tend to read up on or watch the American political scene. I am intrigued by it. While they are very different from us, I can see us sort of heading that way. I can see how the media, both online and mainstream, try to shape the news, and reflect the bias of those who control it.

The opposition parties here don't really have their own platform. They are there to criticise, or as they say, to be the co-driver. But they do not promote any particular policies, or ideology.

That is convenient because the minute you do, you will face criticisms from people who disagree with you. It is far easier to blow with the wind - criticise what is unpopular and keep quiet on difficult issues.

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