Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s defence of the People’s Association (PA) practice of appointing candidates from the ruling party as grassroots advisers for the respective organisations comes after weeks of debate – in traditional media and on cyberspace – on the PA, its corresponding objectives and functions. Commentators have lamented the one-sided representation on the PA’s Board of Management, questioned the neutrality and partisan nature of the PA’s position, and raised doubts about its continued relevance; all these following a less-than-impressive forum letter by one of its directors.
“Besides connecting people to people, grassroots advisers are required to help the Government connect with people and help promote government policies and programmes … Opposition MPs cannot be expected to do this and thus cannot become advisers to [grassroots organisations]”.
Miss Ooi Hui Mei, Director, Corporate And Marketing Communications, People’s Association
But what is truly interesting is the fact that these concerns are far from new (though the presence of more Opposition Members of Parliament (MP) following this year’s General Elections might have altered the dynamics). Greater insights into the constituencies and their committees – from the Community Development Councils to the Citizen’s Consultative Committee – have yielded more questions from Singaporeans.
“The People’s Association is a Government statutory board. It is not part of the PAP. The PAP MPs draw a very, very clear line between our PA activities, as well as our PAP branch activities … If we put the Opposition Members as the Advisors of the grassroots organisations, we can be sure that the grassroots organisations will be politicised”.
Mr. Chan Soo Sen, Former Member of Parliament, Joo Chiat Constituency
Questions Of The Past Remain Questions Of The Present
The contention put forth that MPs from the People’s Action Party (PAP) have the ability to distinguish between their grassroots commitments and political loyalties is flawed on two levels: first, constituents would not consciously separate their politician’s supposedly-distinct responsibilities; second, to assume that Opposition members will politicise the PA organisations (if it is – presently – not) is to apply a double standard. PA’s claims of independence from the PAP are questionable, if not ludicrous.
Perceptions of longstanding political bias towards the PAP would only hurt the PA in the long-run: already citizens are quick to point out that the organisation is funded by taxpayers, and that the people’s mandate – reflected at the polling booths – should be respected at every level. Given that the Opposition MPs are part of the government, they should be granted the authority to implement various socio-economic policies in their neighbourhoods, and equipped with the tools to engage on-the-ground residents.
Let us be realistic: the PA mechanism is here to stay in for a long time; the fact is that many of its activities and institutions – in the fields of education, culture, sports et cetera – have been so intimately and intricately woven into our social and community structure, that disbanding it would bring about huge ramifications. For instance, community centres have evolved to be important hub-bubs of courses and interactions that its disappearance would be costly for Singaporeans. Therefore, moving forward from these exchanges, stakeholders should be looking at constructive ways to work around these rigid constraints, and simultaneously introduce recommendations and amendments.
What Then Are The Recommendations?
“Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan noted that the Opposition has their own platforms to reach out to residents, while Choa Chu Kang GRC MP Alvin Yeo said that there is nothing to stop Opposition MPs from setting up their own community organisations”.
Miss Ng Jing Yng, TODAY Article, “PA’s Stance On Grassroots Advisers Under Spotlight”
First and foremost, appointed Opposition MPs who have won the mandate of their constituency should not be denied of their rightful advisory roles on the CCC and the Community Centre Management Committee (CCMC). If they or their party were to establish their own agencies to facilitate the different roles, the residents would only be at the losing end because of the bureaucracy and overlaps in the responsibilities of the two separate organs. While some form of competition in programmes offered can be positive, micro-management will lead to unnecessary rifts and divisions within the areas.
Besides involving Nominated MPs (NMP) and Non-Constituency MPs (NCMP), on a second point, defeated and interested candidates can be invited to give their opinions on agenda items that are relevant and applicable. In such a way, they can remain important assets to the community as independents, and even galvanise volunteerism amongst the activities or events. Their campaign supporters would provide tremendous manpower and resources, and at the same time not risk alienating enthusiastic individuals who were previously hesitant to contribute because of the perceived partisanship of the PA.
“With the Elected President meant to be above the politics of the country, it would make sense for the PA, whose mission is ‘to build and to bridge communities in achieving one people, one Singapore’, to come under the President’s Office”.
Mr. Isaac Koh Zhao Jin, TODAY Voices, “President’s Office Should Oversee The People’s Association”
The idea to have the President’s Office oversee the PA is highly plausible and well-intentioned; though the composition of the Board would have to be reworked, and some might find it uncomfortable to entrust the Head of State with such an undertaking. However, if managed appropriately, and the President is prepared adequately for the tasks involved, it would be a great way to bring about the apolitical nature of the organisation.
Hedging Our Bets On The Opposition MPs
Can – and would – the aforementioned issues be raised by the Opposition MPs during Parliament sittings? I do hope so. While remaining cognisant of the good works done by the PA over the decades – historically, providing a two-way communication between elected representatives and their people, and facilitating a multitude of government services – these antiquated contributions must progress with the times and political climate. The suggestions highlighted above can alleviate the tensions at the moment, but long-term improvements can only be instituted from the chambers of Parliament.
Let us keep our fingers crossed; change will – and must – come.