Last week, Mr Eric Low and Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, the PAP MP-aspirants who lost to Workers’ Party’s Low Thia Khiang and SDA’s Chiam See Tong respectively in the last election, grabbed the limelight for themselves by announcing HDB’s decision to upgrade lifts in Potong Pasir and Hougang.
I had written an article questioning why HDB had informed the losing candidates in opposition wards of the upgrading plans.
A Straits Times forum letter writer, Mr Muhammad Yusuf Osman, said it best when he called for the mandate that the residents gave to the elected MPs to be respected. He asked: “Under what authority did both Mr (Eric) Low and Mr Sitoh (Yih Pin) act as advisers to the grassroots organisations, given that the People’s Association is a government statutory board and should work with the elected MPs of the constituencies?”
In response, HDB and People’s Association replied that “it is the Government’s practice to implement its national programmes for residents through advisers to grassroots organisations who are appointed by the Government to gather feedback from residents.”
They forgot to mention that these “advisers” are always PAP men, whether or not they won the election.
Not many Singaporeans are aware of how much the taxpayer-funded grassroots have been used by the PAP for political gain.
Here’s a quick run down:
The People’s Association (PA), a statutory board under the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, was set up in 1960 to counter the influence of Chinese clan associations and unions on working class Singaporeans.
Like all other stat boards, it receives a yearly grant from the government to run its programmes and cover operational costs. In FY2008, PA received $280 million from taxpayers, and another $23 million in “operating income”. It spent a total of $320 million last year.
However unlike most stat boards, whose chairmen are usually the permanent secretary of the parent ministry or some other senior civil servant, PA’s chairman is none other than the Prime Minister. The deputy chairman and two other board members are PAP ministers, together with a PAP minister of state, two other PAP office holders and a PAP backbencher. Eight out of the 14 board members are PAP MPs. No other public sector board in Singapore has so many “Men in White” on it.
The PA oversees all the official “grassroots organisations”, namely the Citizens’ Consultative Committees (CCC), Community Club Management Committees (CCMC), Residents’ Committees (RC), Neighbourhood Committees (NC) and the Community Development Councils (CDC). PA also runs the National Youth Council (NYC) and the People’s Association Youth Movement (PAYM), which reach out to young people.
The de facto leader of all the CCCs, CCMCs, RCs and NCs in each constituency is known as the “adviser to the grassroots organisations (GROs)”. This adviser is appointed by PA, presumably with the nod of its chairman, the Prime Minister. In PAP constituencies, PA always appoints the elected MP as the adviser. But in opposition wards, PA appoints the PAP candidate who lost in the last election, not the opposition MP.
The same anomaly is repeated in the CDCs. CDCs have a whole panel of advisers, who are by default the GRO advisers. In South West CDC, where all the component constituencies are under the PAP, it is not surprising that all the advisers are PAP MPs. But in South East CDC, there is one grinning adviser who is not an MP — Sitoh Yih Pin, the man who lost to Mr Chiam See Tong (SDA) in Potong Pasir. North East CDC also has a non-MP — Eric Low — sitting as adviser. He lost to Mr Low Thia Khiang (WP) in the last two elections, garnering just 37% of the popular vote in 2006.
Mr Low Thia Khiang and Mr Chiam See Tong are completely excluded from the CDCs.
CDCs, Community Clubs and other GROs often organise events which involve a large number of residents. Most of the time, the guest-of-honour at such events is — you guessed it — the PAP grassroots adviser.
All this effectively denies the opposition MPs access to the whole array of grassroots resources that PAP MPs have easy access to. The opposition MP has to build up his own grassroot network from scratch, while PAP MPs simply inherit the control of the RCs, CCCs and CCMCs.
Most HDB dwellers will be familiar with the notice boards next to the lifts. These are managed by the RCs, which ensure that residents always aware of who their PAP MPs are by featuring their names and photos prominently on the notice boards. But in Hougang and Potong Pasir, instead of the elected MP, residents will see the losing PAP candidate’s face on the notice board every day when they go home.
Around the neighbourhood, they will also see huge banners sponsored by PA or the CCC, featuring the losing PAP candidate wishing residents during festive occasions. The Opposition is given no such banner space in PAP wards.
To round it off, the GROs are often the recruiting ground for the PAP during elections. Many grassroots volunteers are also loyal PAP men and women, who shed their supposed neutrality to don PAP all-whites during the election campaign, serving as supporters, election agents and counting agents for the PAP candidates.
The best thing of all for the PAP is that all these grassroots resources come at zero cost to the party, since it is all paid for by taxpayers — yes including those who voted for the Opposition. Unlike in other countries where political parties — just like the Opposition here — have to fund their own grassroots activities, the PAP can save its funds to be used during the election campaign.
With all these factors stacked against the Opposition, it is indeed commendable that Mr Chiam See Tong and Mr Low Thia Khiang have managed to hold on to their seats for the past 20 years. The residents of Potong Pasir and Hougang have proven that sincerity and pure hard work on the ground will be rewarded.