Saturday, June 13, 2009

Nominated ministers: Good or bad idea?

June 13, 2009

By Jeremy Au Yong & Zakir Hussain

MP Hri Kumar Nair floated the idea of having nominated ministers last month. His suggestion, though not new, has sparked some debate. Insight analyses the issue and looks at some parliamentary democracies with these non-elected ministers

MP HRI Kumar Nair regularly talks about politics with a group of helpers and grassroots leaders in his constituency.

Several months back, the difficulty of getting good people to run for office was their topic of discussion.

It prompted Mr Nair to propose in Parliament an approach not uncommon in several countries with a Parliament based on the Westminster model, like Singapore's.

These parliamentary democracies have ministers who are appointed from outside the pool of elected Members of Parliament.

Said the MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC: 'We could have people with the talent and organisation for running ministries, but without a similar talent for grassroots work. So far we've managed to get people who are good at both but, going forward, can we say this will be the case?'

Legally speaking, nominated ministers are possible in Singapore. This is because the Constitution, as it stands, allows any MP - elected, nominated or even non- constituency - to be made a minister.

If the Government so chooses, it can bring in a minister by first making him a Nominated MP.

Speaking in Parliament in 1990 when NMPs were first introduced, then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said he felt it would be to Singapore's benefit to give a future government room to appoint ministers.

'I would rather that a government has the flexibility to appoint the right person to be the minister for finance, than to compel that government to select from whoever is available in the House,' he said.

He hastened to add that the Government had no intention of appointing a Cabinet minister from among NMPs then.

Five years later, responding to a dialogue participant, then Acting Environment Minister Teo Chee Hean dismissed the suggestion, saying nominated ministers would not be accountable to the electorate.

The issue was to surface again in 2006 when Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Inderjit Singh spoke about roping in the private sector to help craft legislation. He proposed having a non-elected minister involved in the highest levels of decision-making.

Mr Nair's recent comments have reignited debate on the issue.

Given the difficulty of attracting talent to politics, is it time to reconsider the issue? What are some benefits and pitfalls of such a system? How do other countries implement such a system? Could it be done here? Should it be done here?

The case for

MOST people who support the idea of nominated ministers do not view it as a complete replacement of elected ministers. Nominated ministers would serve only in specific ministries.

One example from Mr Nair is that of having a nominated foreign minister.

A foreign minister is expected to travel widely to advance Singapore's interests, but such frequent travel leads to constituents saying they do not get to see enough of their Minister-MP.

'There's a tension there, and it's undermining our own cause to not allow for a nominated minister,' Mr Nair tells Insight.

Mr Singh, standing by the suggestion he made in 2006, notes that India has them, and they usually turn out well.

'Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came through the Rajya Sabha and he turned out to be one of the best prime ministers they've had,' he says.

India has a bicameral system in which the federal Upper House, the Rajya Sabha, comprises representatives sent by state Parliaments.

Mr Singh argues that having some nominated ministers will allow those who are keen to help in policymaking but not to participate in politics to help Singapore.

'We are using many of these people in one committee or another at the moment. They are serious people, with reputations to uphold, and will be responsible,' he says.

As for accountability, Mr Nair notes that the prime minister will have to justify their selection. 'Any sensible PM will know he has to choose carefully if he wants to keep the public on his side.'

Associate Professor Hussin Mutalib of the National University of Singapore's political science department notes that a nominated minister scheme would allow some ministers to be appointed with relative ease and speed.

'There's no need to wait for the long, if not arduous, process of recruiting and persuading the talented to contest in a general election, and then put them through a series of tests before promoting them as full ministers,' he notes.

But he warns that the scheme is not without its share of drawbacks.

The case against

FOR opponents of the scheme, their objections centre on the legitimacy and accountability of such ministers, as well as the scheme's impact on the concept of democracy here.

Prof Hussin, for instance, warns: 'Not only will this disenchant even more Singaporeans and deepen our parochial political culture, the scheme might dent Singapore's international standing as a modern global city.'

Law professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University is unequivocally opposed to the idea. Mincing no words, he says: 'It sacrifices authority, accountability and legitimacy at the altar of pragmatism.'

A minister not standing for elections, he says, 'would be perceived as not having earned the right to hold that substantive public office'.

He rebuts suggestions that having that person account to the prime minister would be sufficient, saying that this would deviate from the essence of a parliamentary democracy in which the government is accountable to Parliament.

He also rejects the argument that the scheme would solve the problem of attracting talent. To provide for nominated ministers without understanding why Singaporeans do not want to join politics in the first place is to simply paper over the cracks.

'What would be the next band-aid after nominated ministers?' he asks.

NMP Siew Kum Hong notes that to insulate a minister from politics is to ignore the political aspects of the position: 'A minister's role is political. They are not just administrators; they are leaders.'

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.

For example, Mr Tim Geithner, the US Treasury Secretary, the equivalent of Singapore's finance minister, was a New York central banker until he was invited to join the Obama administration in January.

In a presidential system, the buck stops with the president, who is directly elected and directly accountable to the people.

In Singapore's system, the Cabinet is accountable to Parliament, which in turn is accountable to the people.

Comparisons with parliamentary systems with upper and lower Houses are also problematic.

In bicameral systems like those in Canada, India and Malaysia, nominated ministers have a 'veneer of legitimacy' because, as senators, they are legislators as well, notes Dr Tan.

Clearly, the nominated minister idea is a contentious one, even without going into the more practical aspects like how to determine their salaries and whether or not civil servants should answer to them.

What some see as a weakness, others see as a strength, and vice-versa. For instance, where some might see an efficient way to draw talent into the Cabinet, others see an eroding of democracy.

Prof Hussin put it best when he referred to the idea as a double-edged sword, saying: 'What might appear to be its greatest assets could also be its greatest liabilities.'

[May 15 2011 update. PAP lost Aljunied in the elections and with it, George Yeo. Interestingly, the Foreign Minister role was mentioned in the article. Was there already signs that Aljunied could be lost? Anyway, at this point the question is moot. PAP is not pursuing the avenue, and there are lots of issues still to be resolved.]

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