Singapore’s parliamentary system has evolved over the years and one of its most significant changes took place in 1990, when the Nominated Members of Parliament were introduced. It was aimed at bringing in more independent voices into government, given that we have a large majority led by one party. NMPs are recommended by a committee and appointed by the President, coming from all walks of life. The various business communities are also invited to submit names for consideration. During their 2.5 years of appointment, they are free to partake in debates and vote on all issues except constitutional amendments, public funding, votes of no confidence in the government and removing the President from office.
We spoke with NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin on a broad variety of issues from the media to the criticism as well as advantages of the NMP system, as well as on how her company, The Thought Collective, started out. Here is the transcript of our conversation, which has been edited for length.
On accepting the NMP role:
“I never thought I’d enter Parliament; it wasn’t something that was my cup of tea. I wanted to turn it down because I wasn’t interested in the level of public scrutiny involved. I’m on Facebook as much as anyone else and you can see how much is being talked about people in Parliament. It doesn’t matter which side of the house you’re on. Once you’re in there, it’s a free-for-all. But that reaction made me reflect that if all of us reacted in the same way then that’s a sad state of affairs. And I realised if that was the only reason why I wasn’t going to accept it, it was even more important for me to say yes.”
On what the Select Committee told her during the interview:
“I remember the interview I had and there’s a big panel interviewing you. There was a minister on the panel and he made a really good point. He said, “when you’re in Parliament, your job is not to tell us what you think. It’s about what is the opinion that Parliament needs to hear.” You’re speaking on behalf of someone. It was something I did not see in the same way as he put it at first.”
On why NMPs are important in government:
“I think there’s a lot of people in the private and civic sector who don’t want to run for elections and the NMP position is is a great way for anyone to put their name up there. Whether you get past the interviews is another thing but you can put your name up there and when you’re in there you can speak up for the people, but you have to put in the legwork. It’s a controversial position for some, because we aren’t elected and the question is, what are you doing there since you were not elected by the people? There are some issues that will never get heard, never get addressed otherwise. Look at media policy for example. Many of us don’t know anything about it. But you have Ganesh [Rajaram] who’s an NMP and he can talk about stuff that none of us ever knew. That’s why you need that diversity.”
On the non-mainstream media’s reporting on government:
“One problem is that there are a lot of websites today just riffing off stuff online or what’s being reported and not asking for a comment or engaging the people they are quoting or reporting on.”
On members of Parliament not speaking up during sessions:
“When you sit in the parliamentary chamber, you suddenly realise how important it is, whatever you say. There are cameras everywhere, everything you say is on public record. And you see how what you say or do in that chamber then gets rippled out through the media or the online community. Anyone who sits in that chamber has a great responsibility to speak up and not just about your own personal point of view or agenda but to represent the people who would never sit in the House, to get their say. I don’t know why some don’t speak up more, I can’t speak for them. But I wouldn’t speak on every single bill either.
On her controversial speech regarding the Contempt of Court bill:
“So one of the more controversial bills I spoke up on was the Contempt of Court bill, and actually there was a lot of anger coming out from some young people about what they felt the bill was going to be about. Even if I didn’t necessarily share their point of view, I felt if no one in the House was going to say it in the same way as they said it, no one’s going to represent their anger. I guess I have to. So that’s why I spoke on where that anger stemmed from and to urge them not to just dismiss them as a bunch of angry young people who don’t know anything.
On NMPs submitting bills:
“NMPs can submit bills as well, but it’s on their own dime and time. We don’t have an office behind us to do research, the legal framework, and all the other administrative tasks needed for a bill to proceed. Not every NMP is equipped with the skills needed to do so, which is why there have not been many bills submitted by NMPs. Perhaps if the government would establish a staffed office to help us do that, it would encourage NMPs to be even more participative in putting up bills for consideration.”
On ministers and their public relations performance:
“I’m sure there are some who have a bit of genuine disconnect and there are some who honestly have a communications issue. I have friends who have worked with certain high-ranking civil servants and they would say this person is actually great and really caring but just really bad at communicating that. And they would watch the person speak and despair. I have had a lot of editors and communications people who have offered to help. Maybe some things need to change about how communications need to be carried out better.”
(Writer’s Note: Incidentally, Epigram Books recently published a satirical small format hardcover titled Mee Siam Mai Hum: Some of the Darndest Things Our Politicians Say, a humorous look at some of the gaffes that have occurred over the years.)
On who is her constituency:
“I was nominated in to reflect a youth point of view and youth interest, which is to say everything, because young people are interested in everything. But they are also not interested in many things. It’s a stereotype that my constituents don’t have much of an opinion about many important issues. But if you look online and you look at how they speak there is interest. Perhaps not in the majority but a minority are very clued in and are very interested in stuff and they have very deep emotions about them. While I may not agree with them on every issue, if I’m supposed to represent young people, I have to present those points.”
On liberals versus conservatives:
“There’s a school of thought that looks at how conservatives and liberals think and liberals think of how do we make things more equal while conservatives think of how we make things fairer, more equitable. And fair is not equal. That’s the difficult conversation to have. If you look at statistics, Singapore is predominantly conservative in thinking. Whichever government is in power, how do you bridge that gap in thinking? Even if you had a more liberal government in place, you would still have to figure that out. I think a lot of Singaporeans want things to be fair rather than equal. Over time, culture [and demographics] shifts, but how it shifts is impossible to tell.
On the family unit:
“I think the government has recognised for a long time that there are different family units out there. The difficulty is what kind of family units does the government believe leads to a sustainable society. Right now, the bet is being hedged on traditional family units. It’s supported by a largely conservative electorate and currently that’s the way it stands. The government also consistently says that it’s pragmatic in its leaning and it doesn’t stem from a religious ideology. They accept what works. If society tips in certain ways, that will change.
On social safety nets:
“The idea of a social safety net, I guess that’s the ideal state that everyone’s trying to achieve, right? The hard truth for every government out there is that it’s close to impossible to deliver that but it doesn’t mean we should not want it. I think that’s where the government is at the moment. I’m sitting on a committee called SG Cares and that’s all about taking a real look at how can government work together with society to fix something that’s impossible for any one player to do. I’m very interested at looking at how we can help fill the gaps in a way that’s fair for everyone.”
On engaging with the public:
“I guess, from the ground, one of the things we can do is to open a space for conversation and see who is willing to come to the table to talk. Not everyone will want to come, but I think there are more people in leadership who wants to have that conversation than we think. But it’s a question of who makes the first move in a certain sense. On both sides, there is a bit of wariness as to what’s your agenda. It takes a lot of trust. There are a lot of focus groups but if the public doesn’t turn up, you’re also throwing away an opportunity. So we have to figure out how to keep creating these opportunities on the ground.”
On how she started a social/civic business:
“It started with my friend who had an interesting proposition. He saw there was a social gap where kids were graduating out of the education system and it didn’t matter if they were an ‘A’ or ‘F’ student, but they came out quite centred on their own success or failure, which kind of loses the plot of what education is all about. Education should be about what is society’s success or failure. He was teaching General Paper in school and he thought that was a great intervention point. We decided to set up an experimental tuition group to just have fun with this subject and see if we could Trojan Horse it – it was General Paper tuition but it was a new kind of civic education. People don’t pay for civic or character education but people pay for academic tuition. That’s how it began.
On growing the business:
“It was only at the 10th year mark that we hit major financial and organisational issues and we had to sit down and think what it was we’re trying to accomplish. There was a real risk that we could lose everything. At the 10th year mark we took stock and realised we had a SME and we didn’t plan it. There’s a great story about what entrepreneurship feels like and an entrepreneur is someone who’s standing on a lion and everyone around that person is saying, ‘wow, you’re doing great, how did you do it’, but the person is just thinking, ‘how do I keep myself from being eaten up by the lion’. We had about 120 staff and we were still playing computer games.”
On making Singapore stronger:
“The most authentic reason we had for still being in the game and that was we cared about making Singapore stronger. It sounds goofy to say it – it doesn’t sound like a great business plan. Tt’s the sort of thing you might say to get a scholarship and go into public service – but it’s not something most private sector companies consider. But we are a private sector enterprise though we sit in this zone that links all three [private, public and civic/social sectors]. We cared about helping Singapore become socially stronger and we believe that it’s rooted in helping Singapore become more emotionally honest. A lot of what we do is centred around that, from the curriculum we teach to the training we do. It all stems from there.