Constitutional law expert Eugene Tan was one of nine Nominated MPs in the first Parliament in arguably a new normal in Singapore politics. He gained a reputation for being somewhat of a stickler for rules, and ranging far and wide in his parliamentary speeches. With his 21/2-year NMP term ending yesterday, he talks to Robin Chan about the need for non-partisan voices in Parliament as politics becomes more competitive, how his policeman dad got him interested in government, and the need for "arse power" to get through those long Parliament sittings.
One of the things that marked your term as NMP was your frequent calls for quorum - the required number of MPs to be present in the House to vote on a Bill. Why did you do that?
Having been trained as a constitutional lawyer, I think it is important for Parliament to observe the constitutional requirements and procedures. They ensure that our laws passed will not be challenged subsequently on the ground that they were passed unconstitutionally.
Whenever there isn't a quorum, it's something MPs are collectively uncomfortable about, because it means that proceedings cannot continue or are disrupted. This is something which we MPs do not talk about, and each time we fall short, there is the quiet resolve to do better.
I must admit it's with a lot of trepidation that I ask the Speaker whether there is a quorum. From where I'm seated, there are blind spots so I can't be sure if I got my numbers right.
I looked at the Hansard - in 21/2 years, I raised point of order of there being no quorum seven times: twice in 2012, thrice in 2013 and twice in 2014. Each time I didn't feel comfortable about it at all.
What is it a reflection of?
We have this unusual situation where Monday, which is typically when Parliament sits, is also the day when many MPs have their Meet-the-People Sessions. This is something that Parliament needs to take into account. You either end the sitting earlier or maybe have a sitting that is on Tuesday or some other day.People tend to put the blame on the PAP MPs, partly because they are the largest group. But if we do a headcount, all the three groups (People's Action Party, Workers' Party and NMPs) don't come up well when there is no quorum.
I do think Singaporeans are concerned if Parliament is unable to meet its quorum (a quarter of the 99 MPs, including Non-Constituency MPs and NMPs aside from the Speaker).
(But) I don't think MPs are shirking their responsibility. It's just a combination of factors ranging from their own MP engagements to professional commitments to family commitments.
If you do a count, the number of appointment holders (parliamentary secretaries to ministers) comes up to slightly more than a third of the House (87 elected MPs). They would have additional official commitments to attend to - working dinners, official overseas trips, etc. It just shows how demanding it is on our elected representatives.