The role of Community Development Councils (CDCs) in Singapore has come under the spotlight recently, following Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng’s speech at the swearing in of the district mayors, where he said that “CDCs should not compete with grassroots organisations in organising constituency events”.
As a CDC volunteer for the past 5 years, I know this is not the first time this issue has been raised. Grassroots organisations (GROs) are understandably unhappy with their larger and richer cousins who have the resources and manpower to organise large scale community events, sometimes “outshining” the GROs in the process.
There have been calls from some quarters that CDCs should concentrate solely on providing social and employment assistance, and leave the “community bonding” job to GROs.
I disagree with this view for two main reasons.
Firstly, CDCs have proven very successful in engaging youths. Although GROs have their Youth Executive Committees, the general perception among youths is that GROs are run by people their parents age or older. However, many more youths are joining CDC youth committees and participating in events organised by these committees. If CDCs were to revert to only providing social and employment assistance, a successful avenue for engage our youths will be lost.
Secondly, CDCs provide a less political platform for civic-minded Singaporeans to participate in community compared to GROs. Despite the People’s Association’s recent assertion (Straits Times Forum, June 21) that grassroots leaders participate in political activities in their “personal capacity”, most Singaporeans know that many grassroots leaders have clear political leanings towards the PAP. Many grassroots leaders are PAP members who not only participate in election campaigning but also serve as election agents to PAP candidates. Of course, they are free to do so in their personal capacity, but in no other supposedly non-political organisation in Singapore does one find such a high concentration of PAP members and supporters. As a result, many politically-neutral but socially-conscious Singaporeans are unwilling to join GROs, because they do not wish to be seen to be so closely associated with the ruling party.
Having said that, there are several changes things that should be made to ensure that CDCs are more apolitical. Firstly, there needs to be more effort made to recruit CDC members from organisations other than GROs. Currently, many CDC members and councilors are also grassroots leaders. This is usually because many were invited to join the CDCs through networks established through their grassroots work. However, to avoid the misimpression that that all CDC volunteers are grassroots leaders, CDC committees should actively encourage other Singaporeans interested in community work to join the CDC committees. Singaporeans with a passion for community service can be found in abundance at voluntary welfare organisations, ethnic self-help groups, religious organisations and civil society organisations, to name a few.
At the political level, the Government should keep politics separate from CDCs. Currently, all CDC mayors and advisers are PAP MPs or members. The Opposition MPs in Potong Pasir and Hougang constituencies are excluded from the CDCs that their constituencies are part of (i.e., Southeast CDC and Northeast CDC respectively). Instead, the losing PAP candidates in those wards represent that ward at the CDC. This situation is untenable in the long-term because should future elections result in more wards being won by the Opposition, the sphere of influence of the CDCs will shrink, and the Opposition may start setting up their own CDCs to rival the current “PAP” CDCs.
The disbursement of social assistance should also be kept separate from partisan politics. I was disturbed to learn that during the 1997 election campaign, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said that only the wards which voted for the PAP would get Edusave merit bursaries and scholarships, and their elderly parents would be taken care of by the CDCs. Many Singaporeans will perceive this tactic to be unethical as it involves our children and elderly parents. CDCs have a moral responsibility to disburse social assistance purely on a needs-basis rather than political leanings.
CDCs play an important role not only in providing social assistance, but also in strengthening community ties and involvement. However, it is important not to allow partisan politics get in the way of the good work that CDCs are doing.