'A baptism of fire': NMPs share their experiences in new book

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong (left) with Ms Anthea Ong at the launch of the new book on Sept 9, 2022. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
ESM Goh Chok Tong (back row, fourth from left) and Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin (front row, second from left) with past and present NMPs at the book's launch. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - When former nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan made his maiden speech in Parliament in 2009 on the National Pledge, he expected some pushback, given how he touched on topics such as race and political participation.

But he did not expect then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew to rise to speak, to "bring this House back to earth".

Recounting the experience in a new book on the NMP scheme, Mr Viswa said he felt his stomach churn as Mr Lee rebutted his speech.

"His words were sharp and unmitigated. I had to remain composed and focus on the substance... You could say it was a baptism of fire," he wrote in an essay.

The book of essays, written by 20 current and former NMPs, was launched on Friday in Parliament House.

The Nominated Member Of Parliament Scheme: Are Unelected Voices Still Necessary In Parliament? was published by World Scientific and edited by Ms Anthea Ong, who was an NMP from 2018 to 2020.

Besides personal reflections and analyses by the NMPs, with contributions from at least one NMP from each of the eight Parliaments since the scheme's inception in 1990, the book also contains anecdotes or little-known facts about their stints.

For instance, when Parliament debated amendments to road traffic laws in 2019, then NMP Lim Sun Sun had initially not planned on speaking.

But an accident she had with a double-decker bus at a discretionary right turn prompted her to take part.

"I ended up using that opportunity to help accelerate the conversion of discretionary right turn junctions to non-discretionary ones," she said in the book.

The NMP scheme, introduced by then First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in November 1989, was meant to evolve a more consensual style of government where alternative views would be heard and constructive dissent accommodated.

On Friday, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh said during the launch that over the 32 years, NMPs have "added colour, depth and breadth to parliamentary debates", including by introducing Private Member's Bills and filing motions.

"I see the NMP scheme as having strengthened our democracy," he said, noting they have made also Parliament more inclusive by representing various sectors.

NMPs are appointed by the President for a term of two and a half years on the recommendation of a special parliamentary committee.

Singaporeans are invited to submit names of citizens to this committee, which will then nominate up to nine suitable candidates to the President for appointment as NMPs.

ESM Goh said NMPs can raise issues without worrying about winning votes.

"NMPs can concentrate on the substance of the debate rather than form and rhetoric," he added.

"They can support and dissent on issues according to their beliefs and conscience."

Being independent and non-partisan is a value that NMPs bring, said Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin, who also spoke at the book's launch.

Mr Tan added that the NMPs come from diverse backgrounds that include the business sector, unions, tertiary institutions, social services, sports, media and the arts.

Every one of them has exemplary accomplishments in their respective fields and a good grasp of issues, which enrich parliamentary debates, he said.

Work on the book started about 15 months ago, said Ms Ong, who told an audience of about 100 current and former NMPs, academics, diplomats and business leaders that the idea for the book came from how she felt like there was not much understanding about the NMP scheme.

"So 97 Singaporeans have been appointed NMPs since 1990. 2,000 speeches have been made, 3,000 questions have been asked by them and yet, the scheme is no closer to being understood by all Singaporeans," she added.

Work on the book started about 15 months ago. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Ms Ong said she and the team behind the book hope it will contribute to Singapore's political history and culture, and that it will help lift the hood on the NMP scheme, so that people can better understand this "uniquely Singapore parliamentary innovation".

"We all sincerely wish for the book to be a catalyst for conversations among Singaporeans to discuss our political future, for deeper political and civic education to be had by students in schools… And for it to inspire new possibilities beyond the certainty of history and binary of ruling and opposition parties."

The 368-page book, which retails for $69.55 for the hardcover version and $39.59 for the paperback one, is available at major bookshops in Singapore.

It also is available for purchase worldwide online, at World Scientific's website.

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