Thursday, June 4, 2009

Nominated Ministers

Nominated Ministers – a question of need

My suggestion in Parliament last week to allow the PM to appoint Ministers from outside the pool of MPs has attracted support, criticism and speculation.

Some people speculated I was putting forward the suggestion on someone else's instructions. That is not how things work. No one tells me what to say or vets my speeches. The first time the leaders knew of my speech was when they heard me in Parliament.

Neither is it a radical idea. The power to appoint unelected individuals to Cabinet positions exists in other democratic countries. I cited the United States as an example. The inevitable response to this is that the United States has a different form of government. But I also cited other parliamentary democracies which have that facility, like the United Kingdom and Canada, which my critics avoided dealing with. The fact that these older democracies are able to have this flexibility suggests that they do not consider it inconsistent with democratic principles.

In any event, the type of government is secondary. The question is whether allowing unelected people to enter government dilutes democracy. The instinctive reaction is that it may, but if one examines the substance carefully, it clearly does not. Having a "nominated" Minister does not make the ruling party less accountable to the public. The elected MPs must still work to win the vote and discharge their duties effectively on the ground. Likewise, the PM and his Cabinet must deliver on their national policies. Those fundamental features do not change. Further, it is important to remember that the public technically does not vote directly for the PM or his Ministers. They vote for their individual MPs, and the question of leadership is settled internally by the ruling party. This happens in all Parliamentary democracies. In other words, the public still relies on the judgment of the party leaders to decide who should lead the government. If the team is weak or is picked on grounds other than merit, or if there is no confidence in the judgment of the party leaders, the public will show its feelings at the polls.

What about checks and balances? I am not suggesting that there should not be any or that the PM's discretion should be absolute. The appointment can be made subject to approval by Parliament, or a special committee of Parliament (which includes opposition MPs) - as in the case of NMPs. We can also limit the numbers such that the elected Ministers will always form the majority in Cabinet. These are important details which can be worked out.

Ultimately, the objective is to give the PM a broader pool of talent to choose from. And any sensible PM will know he has to choose carefully if he wants to keep the public on-side. The nominated Ministers will be free of constituency work and will be able to devote all their time and energy to running their ministeries or as Second Ministers, helping to run other ministeries as well. However, they will also know that they must always remain conscious of ground sentiment as their tenure as Ministers will only be as long as the PM wants them or the public wants the party.


  1. Hmm, but aren't permanent secretaries and CEOs of statutory boards already in a position to influence policy from a non-political standpoint? If we have non-elected Ministers, we risk having entire ministries in government with no direct accountability to the people, save the Prime Minister at the very top. In addition, such a move will dilute the authority of stat boards and the PSes, and introduces unnecessary bureaucracy.

  2. Interesting idea.

    But context is everything.

    I struggle though to see how this fits with a parliamentary democracy where the party forming the government has a dominant position and the party Whip system.

    Having an unelected Minister setting policy lacks political accountability in Singapore's context, especially where there is already some sensitivity about policy being drawn up in large part and executed as well by unelected senior Admin service officers and technocrats.

    If the core concern is flow of ideas, that in itself would be an admission that the AOs and NMPs fall short in assisting the cabinet in this area. Why is it not a better idea to just rope in ad hoc subject-matter experts as required?

    If the core concern is the dearth of talent to choose ministerial appointees from, then the solution should be to review the incentives to attract top talent into the process.

    At the end of the day, Singapore is a country, a fledgling nation and a strengthening participatory democracy rolled into one, whose leaders are and must remain accountable to the electorate.

    Sure, safeguards can be built into the implementation, but that does not change a fundamentally unsound idea, that is at best, non-analogous to Singapore's situation.

  3. Chee Ken and Harveen,

    Thanks for the input. No one has still explained why Singapore is different from other parliamentary democracies which allow for appointed Ministers.

    The issue of accountability is an important one, but it should not be generalised.

    What is the current system (indeed, the system of all parliamentary democracies)? The vast majority of Singaporeans do not vote for any particular Minister. Nor does the electorate decide who becomes a Minister. However, while a Minister is accountable to the residents in his constituency in respect of local matters, he is accountable to everyone in respect of his handling of his ministry. With respect to the latter, he must answer to Parliament, including Opposition Members, NCMPS and NMPs. His performance ultimately impacts on the government. A nominated Minister would be in no different position with respect to the handling of his ministry. The only real difference is that he does not need to deal with local issues. That will nonetheless remain the province of elected persons, so no one should therefore feel that they are not being represented in Parliament.

    In the circumstances, appointing Ministers does not make the political system any less accountable.

    I also do not understand how this will increase bureacracy. Nor do I equate the role of an appointed Minister with that of a Perm Sec. First, a Perm Sec is not accountable to the public in the way a Minister is. He does not answer to Parliament. Ultimately, it is the Minister who is the face of the ministry and who answers for it. Second, relying on a Perm Sec defeats the purpose of the proposal. A Perm Sec would be someone who would have spent his working life in the civil service. But I am suggesting that the government be able to cast its net wider and get talent in from elsewhere.

    Finally, the issue of need. I am not suggesting that the current Cabinet lacks talent. Far from it. But the question is whether we can design a system which is more robust and capable of meeting our country's future needs. It should also be noted that having a Nominated Minister is not a soft option for the PM. First, his judgment is on the line, and an unpopular choice would affect his own standing. Likewise, if his appointee fails to perform. Second, such an appointment may be seen as a tacit admission that his elected party members lack certain skills. The PM would therefore have to use the option judiciously and in the interests of the country.

  4. While it is right to say accountability can be retained in having Nominated Ministers (NMs), it is also right to say that accountability could very well take a beating in such a system. The NMs, being unelected, are not directly accountable to the electorate. They are accountable instead to the PM and the party in power. This two-layer accountability is, in theory at least, weaker than that found in our present model.

    A related issue is that of popular confidence. A minister's effectiveness does not rely solely on his personal ability, but also on the level of public trust he enjoys. A NM would possibly begin work without the level of trust enjoyed by Ministers elected into Parliament by their Constituents. One false step could spell a premature end to his career as Minister.

    The notion that other parliamentary democracies have NMs, while a fair point, does not help explain why we too should have NMs.

    Nonetheless, the idea does have its merits, and hence certainly deserves a public airing.

  5. Interesting idea, but if the PM has to appoint an outsider to run his ministry, are we to assume that there is a shortage of capable talents among your peers in parliament ? I don't see the point in this because in the end, we will still get a bunch of yes men acting on the whim and fancies of the head honcho.

    Not possible ?
    Just check out the recent confession by the MM regarding Chinese education. He was wrong for 40 years. While I have no problems accepting the fact that he made a mistake, I am super pissed at ALL the ministers who headed the ministry of education. This was not a new problem and parents had been clamoring for change especially thru the last 15 years. Right now, we even have a DPM who, when he handed over the ministry of edu, proudly declared that everything was "ship shape". Perhaps he should be replaced with an outsider.

    "Having a "nominated" Minister does not make the ruling party less accountable to the public." - but it certainly makes the "minister" less accountable to the public.

    "The appointment can be made subject to approval by Parliament, or a special committee of Parliament (which includes opposition MPs) - as in the case of NMPs. We can also limit the numbers such that the elected Ministers will always form the majority in Cabinet. These are important details which can be worked out."

    Please do not get too creative with our system of government. As it is, there are already too many committees doing nothing but creating more levels of administration and charging it to the people to "cover" cost.

    The chinese have a saying, don't draw legs on a snake. I would like to add that our drawing of a snake has already become a centiped. Don't make it worse.