Revamp the role of MPs to attract potential ministers

The Straits Times did an Insight piece about PAP MP Hri Kumar’s controversial proposal of having nominated (non-elected) ministers. They quoted some comments I made on my previous blog post:

For administrative aspects, there are already people like the permanent secretaries heading the various ministries, he notes.

The view is shared by IT consultant Gerald Giam, a founding member of the socio-political blog The Online Citizen.

He writes on his blog that ministers need to have the common touch; they need to be people who can empathise with ordinary Singaporeans.

‘If we open the doors to this segment of society to lead us, we will be fishing from the wrong pond. We will, in the long run, attract the wrong sort of people to lead our country – people with a different set of values and motivations,’ he says.

Mr Giam, Mr Siew and Dr Tan all say that a parallel cannot be drawn between Singapore’s parliamentary system and the presidential system in the United States, where the Cabinet is made up of people who are appointed, not elected.

Some friends have expressed to me publicly and privately that they in principle support the idea of non-elected ministers because some ministries (e.g., finance) need “technocratic minds”. However, I still maintain my disagreement with the idea.

I think that technocratic minds are important to all ministries. Even the Community Development ministry requires technocrats to draft effective social policies. But that’s what the well-paid civil servants are there for. They are the technocratic minds who are free from having to manage constituents and municipal problems. They make their recommendations to the ministers, who need to weigh not just the technical aspects, but how it will affect those on the ground.

But without the sound “grounding” that is supposed to be provided by an elected MP-Minister, you’ll have an entire ministry full of technocrats making decisions by analysing  statistics. This is dangerous as it could lead to groupthink and an ivory tower syndrome. (Some say it already has.)

Having said that, I think the PAP government has in effect broadened the role of MPs to such an extent that it’s no wonder that some in the party, including Hri Kumar and Inderjit Singh, are proposing the idea of non-elected ministers.

I am referring to the role of MPs as town councillors. Town councils were set up in 1989, ostensibly to devolve estate management from the HDB to local authorities.

Our MPs are expected to play both national as well as a municipal roles. They have to be MPs in the national Parliament, debating complex national issues like reforming the CPF system, then go back to their constituencies to manage the construction of a new covered walkway linking two blocks of flats. All this on top of their day jobs, which they are allowed to keep.

This, I feel, is one reason why the quality of debate in the House is so poor. None of the MPs really has time to do thorough research and consult their constituents before debating bills in Parliament. You can tell when they tend to quote the Straits Times exclusively when trying to justify their points. As a result, we end up with nice sounding motherhood statements and platitudes, instead of sharp criticisms and counter proposals to bills. Many bills are passed without any debate at all!

In fact, almost all of our laws stem from Government Bills proposed by ministers, not Private Members’ Bills proposed by backbenchers. If I’m not mistaken, there have been only two private member’s bills proposed in the history of independent Singapore, and both of them were raised by Nominated MPs.

This does not serve either our national interest nor the interests of ordinary Singaporeans well, because government endorsed bills will just get pushed through with little quality debate, and we all have to live with the consequences.


I propose that the system be changed in the following ways:

Firstly, elected MPs should be required to be full time MPs. They should not be allowed to keep another job that distracts them from their primary responsibility to their constituents and their nation. Our MPs allowances are already one of the highest in the world. I don’t see why anyone with a genuine desire to serve the people needs more than $200,000 a year to get by. Most professional jobs prohibit their staff from taking on additional jobs outside the company. Why not this important job of an MP?

The PAP would argue that this would make it difficult to attract talent. That’s rubbish. It would make it difficult to attract the wrong talent — the types that can be bought by the highest bidder.

Secondly, MPs should not have to double-up and play the role of town councillors. Town councillors should be elected separately by their constituents, and be directly accountable to them. This is not a radical idea at all. Almost all democratic countries, including India, have directly elected town councillors or city councillors. The MPs can still function as advisors to the town councils, but the buck for most municipal problems should stop at the elected town councillors who can be voted out if they do not perform well.

MPs should be judged primarily by their performance in Parliament, including the bills they propose, and less by their ability to manage municipal issues.

I am not suggesting that MPs stop their Meet-the-People sessions. On the contrary, I think they should step up their engagement with the ground, but it should be for the purpose of getting first hand knowledge of how policies affect the ordinary citizen, and to push for their resident’s interests at a national level.

The appeal letters to ministries and statutory boards should be done by community organisers (another missing piece of the political puzzle in Singapore), social service organisations and real grassroots leaders. In turn the ministries and stat boards should take these appeal letters seriously, even if they don’t come from MPs.

These changes could make it more attractive for sincere and capable individuals with an ear to the ground and an eye for the big picture to step forward to serve as MPs. These MPs will be the ideal types to form the pool of ministers that the Prime Minister can select for his Cabinet.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

6 thoughts on “Revamp the role of MPs to attract potential ministers”

  1. Here is a British view on why it is desirable for MPs to be part-timers

    For Parliamentary democracy to work, a robust executive – strong government – must be balanced by a healthy legislature – by a flourishing House of Commons. That the Commons has been sick for many years is incontestable. The tragedy of the expenses scandal is that the patient, in consequence, is likely to receive a bigger dose of the medicine that’s causing the illness – namely, professional politics.

    Not so long ago, MPs were elected representatives, paid little by the taxpayer but free to work outside the Commons. MPs drew on their expertise of business or the shop floor. The chamber was a forum in which the clash of different interests was resolved for the public good.

    However, the representation of interests came to be seen as outmoded at best and corrupt at worst. Restrictions on MPs outside earnings were imposed. Relatively swiftly, they became largely dependent on the taxpayer – and therefore, increasingly, professional politicians rather than elected representatives: a “political class” different to and therefore separate from those who elected them. Consequently, MPs got smaller. The media got bigger. Powers leaked away to Europe, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the quangos.

    A few weeks ago, this journey reached its logical destination. In an act of class revenge, Gordon Brown pushed through Parliament a measure compelling the remaining MPs who work outside the Commons to declare how often they do so.

    The result will be a further injection of state power and patronage – the medicine that’s sickening the patient. The spirit of the age is against citizen MPs, and few working business people, lawyers, doctors or (dare I say) journalists will long be able to fend off local rivals who pledge to be in the Commons for every hour of the working day. Parliamentary elections threaten to become dutch auctions of self-abasement.

    In the short term, a few older MPs with knowledge of the outside world will hang on. But some of their younger colleagues will quietly leave, telling friends that the loss of earnings is the last straw that broke the camel’s back – on top of vanished privacy and declining status. And, in the medium term, much future talent will avoid the Commons altogether.

    Most of the rest will get in quick, scramble to the top, and get out quicker. The Commons’ institutional memory will weaken. With a number of exceptions, MPs will become cowed and toiling drudges. Fringe eccentrics and exhibitionists will provide the necessary colour, coming and going like celebrity TV contestants – briefly exalted and just as swiftly toppled.

    Forceful Ministers and effective Select Committee Chairmen are likely to be scarce in such a shallow pool. And the reputation of the Commons will continue its downward spiral. Such is the Pandora’s Box that the national media elites have helped to open – one which, needless to say, they won’t be able to close. In making this case, I’ve little personal interest, since my earnings outside Parliament are minimal.

  2. Secondly, MPs should not have to double-up and play the role of town councillors. Town councillors should be elected separately by their constituents, and be directly accountable to them.

    I don’t see why they cannot double up? If your first suggestion is implemented, then they are pretty free to be more involved in municipal issues.

    You seem to imply that MPs are presently burdened with multiple responsibilities, such that these act as barriers of entry for potential MPs and ministers. Your suggestions will lower these barriers, and so attract better MPs who in turn provide a better pool of potential ministers.

    But in the first place, is it true that “good people” are not running for office because MPs might be overburdened?

  3. eternalhap – True. I admit I was making both suggestions independent of each other. I think most MPs are overworked, but not because their MP work is so burdensome, but because they work full-time in high flying corporate jobs by day, and moonlight as MPs by night and weekends.

  4. Very much agree that handling towns should be passed on to others while MPs should focus on truly representing the views of their constituents in Parliament.

Comments are closed.