COMMENT: The NCMP scheme is good for who exactly?

Leon Perera, one of WP’s candidates for Aljunied GRC, seen during a media doorstop at Deyi Secondary School on Nomination Day (30 June). (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
Leon Perera, a Workers' Party NCMP in the 13th Parliament. He is contesting in Aljunied GRC in GE2020. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

by Bertha Henson

The Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme is good for the People’s Action Party (PAP) before a general election (GE).

That’s because it can tell voters that it guarantees opposition voices in Parliament. And this time, the number of NCMPs have gone up from nine to 12. Plus, they have voting rights, like any elected MP.

The NCMP scheme is good for the opposition parties after a general election. That’s because the best “losers’’ can still get into Parliament to speak, as well as raise their profile to get a better shot at an elected seat the next time round.

But I am not sure if the NCMP scheme is good for voters all the time.

When the Prime Minister announced that the number of NCMPs would be raised and that they would have full voting rights during the debate of the Presidential’s Address at the opening of the last Parliament, I wondered why the elected MPs didn’t kick up more of a fuss. PM Lee justified the increased numbers by comparing NCMPs to the MPs elsewhere who made it through a party list in an electoral system of proportional representation. He also said that giving NCMPs the vote would quash the opposition arguments that NCMPs are “second class’’.

Of course they are!

But no, PAP MPs lined up to congratulate the Government for being magnanimous and encouraging a greater diversity of views. Only Dr Fatimah Lateef, who is not standing in this election, said that she wished for “smaller GRCs, more SMCs and no NCMPs’’.

When Constitutional amendments were up for debate later that year, there was nary a peep from PAP MPs on the NCMP scheme. Only Seah Kian Peng said he was uncomfortable with giving NCMPs full voting rights, because they “do not have the mandate of the people’’. But he softened this with “however, since I fought hard for my seat in a GE, I could of course be thought to be biased”. He asked for a review of “the consequences of full voting rights and the danger of allowing NCMPs who may represent special interest to vote on matters of national interests’’.

The opposition MPs pointed out that this could happen to elected MPs too. In any case, the Nominated MP scheme provided for precisely this sort of representation by interest groups. The proposal to review was, of course, a non-starter at this late stage of parliamentary proceedings.

I wondered at how easily the PAP MPs agreed to the changes. (Okay, the whip wasn’t lifted.) Perhaps, during that passage of legislation through Parliament, everyone was focused on changes to the office of elected presidency, which was being debated at the same time. The increased power of the NCMP, therefore, took a back seat.

How different it was in 2010, when the government amended the constitution to increase the number of NCMP seats from six to nine. There was heated debate in the House with PAP MPs asking about the need for even more opposition members who would merely be echoing party views rather than adding more diversity of viewpoints.

Said former PAP MP Alvin Yeo then, “The danger is that in future elections, we may attract candidates who, instead of trying to win a seat in a ‘first past the post’ contest, which involves appealing to a majority of the voters in terms of policies and plans, would set out instead to create sound and fury to garner a large enough minority vote to enter this House as an NCMP. Is this the sort of representative who will take the level of debate or the formulation of policies to a higher plane?’’

PAP MP Chris de Souza didn’t mind having more of them but stressed the distinction between an NCMP and an elected MP: voting rights. Because NCMPs were not allowed to vote on money and Supply Bills, constitutional amendments and no-confidence motions, “this will provide a form of safeguard in that it ensures that the winning team is given the mandate to execute correct policies which benefit the country’’.

“Also, this preserves the barrier of ‘first past the post’ Member of Parliament and distinguishes him or her from an NCMP. So, it is a safeguard.’’

He did not make this point in 2016. Instead he said, “In my view, an increase in the seats of NCMPs to 12 and equipping them with constitutional voting rights provide assurance of more voices in Parliament, more diverse views, and consequently, a greater need to persuade, placed on the government's shoulder.’’

In 2010, then-Nominated MP Calvin Cheng also weighed in, “People who are proposed to be NCMPs are politicians who stood for an election and lost. Sir, they lost. They lost. I do not know how much more emphatic I can be about this. These are politicians who have stood on certain political platforms, for certain political issues and the majority of the electorate have considered these issues, these politicians and have rejected them at the polls. To then allow them into Parliament flies in the face of the logic of a democratic election at best and, at worst, is a slap in the face to the people who have voted against them.’’

He appears to have changed his mind, given this note he put up on his Facebook page yesterday, “Risks can be taken during peaceful, prosperous times, but as a voter, just as I am with my investments during this period, I would be extremely risk-averse. Fortunately, NCMPs now have equal voting rights to elected MPs.

“If they do not get elected, it is my fervent hope that all 12 NCMPs seats will go to the WP, to this bunch of eloquent, moderate young people led by Pritam. They would make excellent Parliamentarians, with full voting rights, but without the extra burden of being town councillors.’’

It is a far more tempered piece than what he had earlier posted on his Facebook page, which he tagged as a public service announcement to alert readers that they can have “the best of both worlds’’.

“NCMPs can now vote on EVERYTHING an elected MP can.

Previously they could not vote on anything that spends new money, no confidence votes, and constitutional amendments.

Now they can vote on all of this.

So what is the biggest difference between NCMPs and elected MPs?

I will say this - Town Council Management.

Elected MPs still have to do all the sai gang in the constituency like making sure our drains are cleared, cut grass, climb stairs to give hampers, go to wedding, go to funeral, climb trees to save cats.

Every ah mah ah soh complaint they have to help write letter to agency to appeal.

Even when you kena parking coupon for parking illegally to go buy Toto.

The PAP is good at this.

They wear short sleeve shirts, and so very good at doing constituency sai gang.

Opposition? Well, WP did not manage the Aljunied town council money well.

But they did speak up a lot in Parliament.

Now they not only can speak, they can vote on EVERYTHING.

Best strategy?

Elected PAP MPs to do the sai gang.

NCMP opposition members with sexy eyes and nice ang mo accents to speak and fight for us in Parliament.’’

This is why I wonder at how elected MPs did not take more umbrage that they have the same powers as NCMPs in Parliament. They have been reduced to estate management duties and petition-writing. I am not denigrating such grassroots work, but I doubt that people vie for seats in Parliament for just those reasons. Anyone could just as well become a town councillor or help out at meet-the-people sessions, which many political activists have done and continue to do. (Please do not say that candidates go through the elections to get the $192,500 yearly MP allowance.)

What is also not well known is that there is a threshold of 15 per cent of the vote which losing candidates must clear to be eligible as NCMPs. This was set in 2010 and was criticised for being too low a bar.

If 12 NCMP seats were available in GE2015, who else and which party would have a seat in Parliament and at what proportion of votes? The WP’s East Coast team polled about 39.2 per cent of the vote. The next best loser would be its comrade Koh Choong Yong who contested Sengkang West SMC (now non-existent) with 37.8 per cent of the vote. Is it conceivable that an NCMP seat could be taken by an opposition party with just 30 per cent of the vote or less? If so, it would be a travesty of justice to appoint them NCMPs, when the PAP is so overwhelmingly supported by the voters.

I support the NCMP scheme as a safety valve for dissenting views, should the PAP sweep all seats. NCMPs should remain “second class’’, because the voters have said so in a first-past-the-post system.

It offends my sense of fairness to have the MP the voters have elected wielding the same authority in Parliament as the candidate the voters rejected.

In fact, I feel sorry for us.

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