Of manic Monday and MPs' no-show

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.

Do you think there have ever been Bills passed without a quorum?

The only way is to look back at the video footage. But we should take it on faith that they are properly passed.

You have said NMPs may one day be irrelevant. How do you see the NMP scheme evolving as our politics becomes more competitive?

I'm biased, right, so I would say that there is still a place and a very important role for NMPs. I believe that my cohort of NMPs has demonstrated the value of non-partisan voices in the political new normal.

In a more competitive Parliament when you have more opposition MPs, we are likely to see views becoming more polarised, or if they're not polarised, then they take on a partisan flavour.

But it is important for Parliament as the highest legislative body in Singapore to actually have the opportunity for different views to be expressed, particularly views which are not bound by party line or party positions.So the NMP scheme may evolve to one in which we may have an Upper Chamber - something which was contemplated in 1966 shortly after Singapore became independent.

It is important to remember that Parliament must also not just be an institution to which people are elected to serve, but that the parliamentary proceedings and the debates continue to be relevant to the population at large. That's where non-partisan voices can play a part in offering alternative perspectives.

One way to look at how useful non-partisan voices have been would be to take the Hansard, the parliamentary records, and redact all the portions that were contributions by NMPs and you can see straightaway that the quality of discussions, debate, would be very vastly different.

And, after all, there are only nine of us out of a total of 99 MPs and there are severe limitations as to what we can do in terms of our legislative power.

How did you end up getting interested in politics?

My dad. I still recall my dad (Mr Tan Kai, 71, a retired police officer) taking me to my first election rally in 1980 when I was 10. Mr Lee Kuan Yew spoke and I vaguely recall as he left the stage people swarmed up to him and I shook his hand as well.

At home, my father would talk about the issues of the day, and then of course the school environment, whether it was Raffles Institution and then later on in Hwa Chong (Junior College), there were like-minded people and we kept up these discussions on various issues.

That's why it's important for parents and schools to make the effort to keep students aware of what's happening around them politically. We're not talking about taking sides, but to be aware of what's happening around you.

So now I do the same to my son (who is 11 years old).Do you think there's a lack of awareness among our young?

I think so. When I speak to some of them, sometimes I'm actually quite stunned by their lack of, or simplistic understanding of, what are some of the significant issues that we are facing - whether it's the flavour of the day or long-term issues.

In some respects, life has been fairly comfortable, so most people feel that they don't have to be so involved or informed. We have a government that has had more successes than failures so sometimes we are lulled into a false sense of security, that good and effective governance is our entitlement, or something which comes about just like that.

That's why I'm always very concerned about what I call "political false prophets" - those who make false promises, saying that we can do all this and that and we will still be doing okay, but not saying how we will get there.

We all can be more discerning and appreciate what's within the realm of possibility.

It's also important for Parliament to explain some of the key concerns in a way that's accessible to the ordinary Singaporean.

So what did your dad think of your entering politics?

He has been very supportive. (But) I don't really look at myself as being in politics because I don't have a constituency. I speak only for myself. I'm only accountable to myself. I don't have a constituency that I need to nurture.

In a recent light-hearted Straits Times piece on Parliament, I gave you the "Range Far and Wide" award because you seem to have spoken on just about everything. Why did you do so? And do you think that having legal training and being in academia have helped you do this?

I would say so. But I also add that it takes effort. I know people have commented on my speaking on a whole spectrum of issues.

But I firmly believe that NMPs cannot be one-issue NMPs. If I were to speak only on higher education because that's my functional group, then I don't think I need to be in Parliament for 21/2 years.

Given the selection criteria of NMPs, NMPs should be able to speak on a whole variety of issues.

I do spend a fair bit of time preparing for sittings doing research and thinking through the issues. (But) I do not jump in for the sake of jumping in. More often than not, it is really when I believe that I have something meaningful to say.

Given your interest, have you ever considered joining a political party?

(Laughs) When I accepted the NMP appointment, that's probably some indication that I don't think competitive politics is for me. I won't say that competitive politics is not for me, but at this stage there is nothing compelling for me to become a politician.

Were you ever approached by any political party?

No. So I've no idea what the tea tastes like (meaning being recruited by the PAP).

It's also still possible to contribute to public discourse and serve the community even when one is not in politics.

Being an NMP, I have that privilege of having a platform on which I can speak on issues that I care and feel strongly about.

When my term ends, that platform is no longer there, but there will be other opportunities to serve.

You have put your name down to be considered for a second term. Do you feel that you have unfinished business?

No, not really, because I didn't have any agenda when I first entered Parliament as an NMP. All I knew was I would do my best, I would try to be the voice for the voiceless, that I would speak without fear or favour, and that I would try to add to the quality of debates in Parliament.

I feel that I can still contribute and that was the primary reason for seeking re-appointment.

I have found the role of an NMP to be very fulfilling and it would be a privilege to be able to see through the rest of this Parliament's term.

What do you make of blogger Roy Ngerng putting his name in to be an NMP?

It speaks well of our parliamentary system that someone like Roy believes that Parliament can be a platform on which he can put forth his views and perhaps even seek to change the thinking of policymakers.

If people feel that Parliament is irrelevant, then people wouldn't waste their time, and would seek other platforms instead.

Parliament sittings can get pretty long. How do you make sure you pay attention?

Yeah, you need a lot of "arse power" to be able to sit there, as well as a fair amount of focus and determination.

Maybe my background as an academic helps. More importantly, I have an interest in many of the issues. I try to speak on Bills that I have something to contribute towards in the discussion.


This article was first published on August 9, 2014.
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