Sep 01, 2014

    Being a good MP starts with the little things

    RECENT conversations have made me re-evaluate what makes a good Member of Parliament.

    You see, my peers can be fairly critical of the current slate. They will grudgingly admit that our politicians push the bread-and-butter issues in the House.

    Take a look at any parliament sitting's records, they say. Housing-related questions are staples, and of late, so are those on the Central Provident Fund and manpower crunch.

    These issues are important. But what these friends thirst for is having the debate transcend material needs and deal with loftier ideals.

    They lamented the sitting earlier this month, where the bulk of follow-up questions - the clearest measure of rigorous debate - on changes to the way the National Library Board (NLB) acquires books were from Nominated MPs.

    The debate was sparked by the NLB's removal of three books from the shelves of the children's section without what many felt should have been due process.

    People's Action Party backbencher Baey Yam Keng and Workers' Party's Pritam Singh were the only two elected MPs to press Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim for more details. The other four sets of follow-up questions came from NMPs.

    One friend said: Surely this sad showing is indicative that our MPs, who had the chance to deal with the "big things" - to shape how books are acquired, how information is shared, to define what shareable knowledge is - did not do so?

    I share these friends' sentiments too.

    Four months after the debate on the President's Address in May, the two speeches that easily come to my mind are those of former NMPs Laurence Lien and Janice Koh, urging the Government to trust civil society more and for more space for civil society.

    Those two speeches stuck out because they reached for something greater than what we have today - the next stage of democracy Singapore could evolve into.

    But last week, I met an elected MP in a different setting. I went to interview Tin Pei Ling, whose ward is MacPherson, and she has given me an appreciation of what it means to be the people's representative.

    She showed me that service is often about the nitty-gritty and the mundane. It is dealing with people's rental flat issues, or helping others with traffic fines - because these things have real consequences on their daily lives, whether in terms of maintaining a roof over one's head or having that extra $100 or so for one's living expenses.

    Or, as a friend who harbours political ambitions says, an MP is the bridge between the people and the lawmakers.

    Once upon a time, I would have rolled my eyes at these throwaway phrases. Perhaps I lament the state of politics because I am coming from a place of privilege: In my early 20s, I have a stable job and no real liabilities or worries.

    So I can afford to criticise MPs for not pushing the envelope enough.

    But if I were to walk in others' shoes - I assume our MPs are feeding back the majority of their constituents' concerns - I would probably want, no, demand, that these nitty-gritty and mundane things be seen to. Being able to deal with such matters speaks volumes about a candidate's character.

    Perhaps that is why a candidate's attributes topped the list of factors that voters consider important when choosing MPs, in The Straits Times' recent survey on sentiments midway through the election cycle.

    More than eight in 10 of those polled said a candidate's attributes were important or very important, tying with two other factors, namely the candidate's party and the impact of national policies on the voter.

    When the next general election comes, I will keep an eye out for the man or woman who has a vision of what democracy and our growing civil society can look like.

    But, in equal measure, I hope the person has a heart for the men and women he will see week after week, at Meet-the-People Sessions or block visits. That he has the ears to listen to their problems, even if they are the same complaints in different words. That he has the hands to solve them.

    Because if you cannot do the little things right - and sometimes they are not very little at all - how can you ever achieve the bigger ones?