Former NMP Anthea Ong Shares Her Experiences In New Book
In her new book, former parliamentarian Anthea Ong explores the relevance of the NMP scheme, a uniquely Singaporean concept
September 23, 2022
Hands down, former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong is the ideal candidate to bring together the voices of 20 NMPs, past and present, in the first book dedicated to the NMP scheme. Ong, after all, is particularly known for speaking up at every single Parliament sitting from 2018 to 2020. She has also made her mark for championing multiple social issues fiercely.
As well as being a trailblazer, Anthea Ong holds multiple roles. She is also a mental health advocate, social entrepreneur, impact investor, life and leadership coach, strategy consultant, yoga and wellness facilitator. She is also the founder of initiatives such as Hush TeaBar, WorkWell Leaders, and A Good Space.
A collection of essays, The Nominated Member of Parliament Scheme: Are Unelected Voices Still Necessary in Parliament? presents the perspectives and reflections of at least one NMP from each of the scheme’s eight Parliaments. It intends to capture the significance of the NMP scheme and its place in Singapore’s parliamentary evolution. The book will be launched tomorrow (9 Sep).
Former NMP Anthea Ong Shares Her Experiences In New Book
Idea for NMP book sparked during meditation session
The idea for the book first came to her during a daily meditation session last June — one year after she completed her NMP term. Only then did she realise that the experience had been “phenomenal and monumental”, and that she wanted to find a way to pull together insights from this most “special group of people”.
As a result, she sought out World Scientific as a publisher and the likes of ex-NMPs former Attorney-General Walter Woon and Kuik Shiao-Yin to contribute.
“It’s no secret that I’m a geek. I’m a big fan of investigative work and data analysis,” says Ong, a self-described mad hatter who is articulate, warm and vivacious.
For Ong, the book needed to appeal to the general reader and that it should be written conversationally and not appear dry or academic. She hopes it can be used as a resource in schools, tertiary institutions, civil society and the like.
According to her, the book was motivated by the lack of knowledge and confusion surrounding Singapore’s parliamentary system, including the role of the NMP.
In the lead-up to the 2020 General Elections, Ong met strangers who mistakenly thought she was a member of the ruling party and asked to join her in campaigning as volunteers. Even her neighbour asked why she didn’t join the opposition party, citing the need for stronger opposition in Singapore.
As she served her term, uncles and aunties in her Marine Crescent HDB estate would approach her on municipal issues, such as removing a chunk of debris in front of a housing block, for instance.
“It was very clear that no one understood that I was neither an opposition or government member of parliament. After 30 years, a very educated citizenry still does not know much about the NMP scheme,” she says.
Nominated Members of Parliament are not token figures
She hopes that by sharing their personal experiences, the electorate will also appreciate the unique role an NMP plays and that they are not token figures.
As opposed to elected MPs, NMPs can advocate for sensitive and controversial issues that Ong says are considered “unvotable, unsayable, or aspirational” such as migrant workers, LGBTQ or sex workers. Ong herself has relentlessly advocated for mental health to be put on the national agenda, so it can be destigmatised and prioritised.
In her maiden speech, she made history by getting the entire Parliament to do a mindfulness breathing exercise with her. That experience reminded everyone present about the importance of self-care and their responsibility as parliamentarians because “everything we do affects society out there”.
As part of her first Budget speech in 2019, she called for mental health education in schools to be made mandatory and later engaged directly with the Education Minister himself and the Ministry of Education team to make an impassioned case for it.
Ong has also spoken about difficult issues and has even been the target of hate messages for advocating for migrant worker issues (at the time considered “public enemy No. 1”), which she says can be most disheartening.
In April 2019, she was among three NMPs to suggest amendments to the fake news bill amid public concerns that it could limit free speech and lead to self-censorship.
It is a “sacred duty” to utilise parliamentary processes and mechanisms to hold the government accountable and honour parliamentary democracy, she says.
“It was clear that the government was concerned with the amendment motion. Perhaps, it is because they can explain away when it comes from the Opposition as politicising the issue, but not the NMPs since we have no agenda to get votes. So as NMPs, we might hold some weight because of our non-partisan role.”
Hopes of attracting more convicted and passionate Singaporeans
People might be surprised to know that back in 2011, Ong was asked if she wanted to be nominated as an NMP candidate, but turned it down, preferring to drive change ground-up. It was only later that she realised how politics and policies were instrumental in shaping structural change.
In the process of working on the book, Ong happily used the opportunity to initiate the first NMP alumni group chat on WhatsApp, which now has about 25 members.
Additionally, she and past NMPs have discussed formalising the alumni group so that NMPs can come together to do good, whether by leading charitable causes, encouraging dialogue, or mentoring future NMPs.
“Without an institutional structure, we can feel a bit lost when we first join,” she explains.
As Singapore matures as a society and democracy, Ong believes the government knows that it can no longer rely on “strongman tactics” and needs to provide room for more dissenting and diverse voices to come forward.
Aside from state-directed initiatives, there should also be more opportunities for citizen participation, as well as for civic-minded and capable private sector leaders to get involved.
In an increasingly divisive world, Ong hopes the book will show that the NMP scheme is more than just binary discourse and will attract more convicted and passionate Singaporeans.
“Look at the partisan ills happening in the United States, the supposed bastion of democracy. When it comes to issues, it’s not just two ends of the spectrum, nor are there just us or them, or just the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party… This would be paralysing and polarising,” she says.
Excerpts from The Nominated Member of Parliament Scheme: Are Unelected Voices Still Necessary in Parliament?
Although more than 90 NMPs have served in Parliament to date since the scheme became permanent in July 2010, its political relevance and contributions are still up for debate three decades on.
“There was an Advisory Council for how to make Singapore more disabled- friendly, which I served on with Dr Tony Tan. Some of the things we asked for didn’t happen, like making the MRT accessible to the disabled… but politics always reflect the times, and I think we did make some good recommendations.
Another significant one was a National Review Committee — coming up with a 10-year plan for national health policy which I think we did a good job with.
In hindsight, I think some of these might have been more useful than making speeches in Parliament. In making speeches, you share your thoughts and principles, your views on where Singapore could be going and what the challenges are. But practical things, like making Singapore more wheelchair-accessible… you need to talk, yes, but you need to do as well.”
“I think [being an NMP] has made me listen to people’s problems a lot more and differently. You know sometimes it’s just like “Oh, okay, okay,” but now I tend to dive a bit deeper and try to understand further, so that I can try to offer solutions or do something more meaningful in Parliament. When you listen, you do it to try and help. For me now, it’s always like: What can I do? What can I ask in Parliament?
Overall, I would say that I have matured for sure. At the start of my term, my aim was to do my job as an NMP properly, and if I want to do this, it means I have to step up for certain things. It’s not about sitting there in the Chamber and just listening; it’s a lot of work.”
National Youth Council member and Associate Consultant (Orthodontics) at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Shahira Abdullah is one of nine incumbents who started their two-and-a-half-year term in early 2021.
“When my fellow NMP Viswa Sadasivan tabled a motion on the National Pledge, a lot of people signed up to speak on the Motion because it was something that was so deeply emotional. I remember I was really very nervous because I think it was one of the first times I actually spoke in the House. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was also present, and he was kind of sitting opposite me.
And I’m like, wow, you know, one of the very first things I’m going to say in this highest law-making body, which is going to be transmitted everywhere, is going to be said right in front of the Minister Mentor. You really do feel that weight of responsibility because you realise this forum is truly massive — it really is national, and you have to be responsible for what you’re saying.”
The Nominated Member of Parliament Scheme: Are Unelected Voices Still Necessary in Parliament? can be purchased at major bookstores.