A video of former ruling party politician Tan Cheng Bock rejecting the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) scheme in the House is going viral online, in the wake of the 2020 general election.
Dr Tan had served as a People’s Action Party (PAP) parliamentarian for 26 years, from 1980 to his retirement in 2006. During his tenure as Member of Parliament, Dr Tan set himself apart from his fellow ruling party colleagues by boldly speaking up for his convictions.
Dr Tan’s courage was perhaps best demonstrated when he voted against his own party despite the Whip not having been lifted regarding the NMP scheme, on the grounds that MPs had to be elected by the people and be accountable to an electorate for their views. He received a warning for his action.
A video of the political stalwart’s rejection of the NMP scheme is now going viral even though he made his speech nearly thirty years ago, in 1992, and even though the video itself was published eight years ago. In the video, Dr Tan can be heard asserting:
“My own feelings on this fundamental democratic principle of only having elected members of parliament in this House is too strong to be compromised. I cannot support this motion.”
In 2019, Dr Tan came out of a 13-year political retirement and started an opposition party since he believed the PAP had lost its way. Dr Tan led a team contesting West Coast GRC in the 2020 general election and lost by a whisker to the ruling party team, with 48.31 per cent of the vote.
Although Dr Tan’s team was not elected, they were able to nominate two members to join Parliament under the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme that entitles the best-performing losing opposition candidates to join the House. Dr Tan’s Progress Singapore Party (PSP) appointed Hazel Poa and Leong Mun Wai to take up the NCMP seats.
The NCMP scheme was the subject of controversy during the election, after the PAP’s Indranee Rajah urged voters to “make their vote count” by voting for the PAP since the opposition can still be represented in Parliament through the NCMP seats. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong seconded Ms Indranee’s views, on the campaign trail.
The PAP politicians’ reasoning drew outrage from both members of the public and opposition parties. The 10 opposition parties which contested the election did so to ensure that the PAP cannot pass bills in Parliament without checks. At least 32 opposition candidates need to be elected to Parliament to deny the PAP the ability to pass bills without checks with a two-thirds majority.
The WP came out strongly against the NCMP scheme in the wake of Ms Indranee’s comments. The party chief, Pritam Singh, questioned the PAP’s “magnanimity” in highlighting the NCMP scheme, asking: “Why is the PAP so magnanimous in offering additional NCMP seats? I hope this is something every voter reflects on.”
His question came on the heels of former WP NCMP Dennis Tan’s comment that the NCMP scheme is a “poisoned chalice”. Citing former party leader’s vivid description of NCMPs as “duckweed that floats on water”, Mr Tan said that the NCMP scheme is designed by the PAP to prevent the opposition from building roots in the community. He said:
“This is exactly the poisoned chalice of PAP-style democracy — the NCMP system. As a former NCMP, I appeal to all voters not to be deceived by PAP’s intention for NCMPs when you go to the ballot box. Please elect sufficient opposition constituency MPs.”
Another former WP NCMP, Mr Leon Perera, added: “Such NCMPs could be allowed to ventilate their views. But those views could simply be ignored and the Government could just do what it had planned to do anyway. What Singapore needs is responsible opposition MPs whose voices carry the weight of the people’s full mandate.”
WP Chairman Sylvia Lim urged voters to ask whether opposition MPs are in Parliament just to “provide debating practice” for PAP ministers. She said: “If you want Parliament to be an effective check on the Government, then surely there must be some political pressure and element of political competition.”
She added: “What I think is that the PAP does not want any opposition party to have a physical base from which to operate and possibly expand.”
The PAP’s Chan Chun Sing hit back and said that the WP should let other political parties occupy NCMP seats since it is so critical about the scheme. Members of the public responding to his comment called his views arrogant.
Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who is not contesting in these elections, dubbed the NCMP scheme a “winning hand for Singapore’s democracy” and said that the scheme prevents “unintended” election outcomes.
The former PM, who co-created the NCMP scheme, warned that if voters “vote for the opposition to ensure checks-and-balances in Parliament, even though they still want the ruling party to form the government, then an unintended election outcome is entirely possible”.
Opposition parties have criticised such comments as a scare tactic to get voters to elect the PAP and asked what the point of the election was if the PAP thinks 12 seats are sufficient for opposition representation.
Dr Tan was among the opposition politicians who spoke out against the PAP’s comments about the NCMP scheme. Calling the scheme a “ploy” to entice voters from the opposition, Dr Tan said: “I know they (PAP) changed the rules and all the NCMPs actually behave like MPs in the House. But there’s one element missing – there’s no ground for him.
“For us to be able to be a good opposition, we must always have some home or ground … I look at it as a ploy … to entice you to all vote the PAP, because they guarantee you have 12 NCMPs.”
The veteran politician said that he would not take up an NCMP seat if he lost the election and qualified for one but said that would not deny fellow party members if an opportunity arises. He said: “I won’t take but if my men want to take I’ll let them take, because I have been to Parliament. I enjoyed Parliament being a proper elected MP. If the new ones feel that they want to have a feel of what Parliament is like, I won’t stop them.
“I’m already 80 years old and I always say I want people to get into the House to really experience what it’s like in the House. All the questions being asked and the answers by the ministers … it’s an experience they must go through. I will leave it to them.”
Referring to his famous speech on the NMP scheme, Dr Tan added: “I opposed the NMP scheme very, very strongly and I stated my case in Parliament, objected to it and voted against it. That has been my stand.
“For the NCMP (scheme), I’m not against it but that’s my own take. It’s not just being able to talk in Parliament but I always believe that you must have a base.”