“We never had any conditions on invitees,” the text message from Workers’ Party chair Sylvia Lim said. “Ground rumours spread by others.” This was her response, 24 August, after I texted her regarding a sentence in the joint statement put out by the Ministry of National Development (MND) and the People’s Association. I had asked her what had been the position before 19 August.
The controversy was over the seizure of 26 plots of land by the People’s Association from the management purview of Aljunied Hougang Town Council (AHTC) with the connivance of the Housing and Development Board which comes under MND.
The sentence in question was this one:
In the statement last night, MND and [the People's Association] gave their side to the dispute.
They said there had been occasions when organisers of grassroots and community events applied to use sites managed by the Aljunied-Hougang town council – run by the WP – and were told that they were expected to invite the WP MP.
‘It was only on Aug 19 that the chairman of Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) stated publicly that the town council would not impose any condition on whom the organisers could invite, when using sites managed by AHTC,’ they wrote.
– Straits Times, 24 August 2011, Curbs lifted on events at PA sites, by Li Xueying & Teo Wan Gek
As explained in a media statement the Workers’ Party released late on 22 August 2011, the HDB informed the AHTC that they had removed 26 sites from the purview of the town council, leasing them to the People’s Association instead. As elected representatives of these two constituencies, the Workers’ Party runs this town council and rightly felt aggrieved. The media statement pointed out that no background nor rationale was given for the decision. However,
A check on the sites, which were part of the common property managed by the former Aljunied Town Council but now leased to PA, showed that many of them are strategically located, being hard courts or amphitheatres highly suitable for organising social activities. We were puzzled about the intention behind the move, which occurred before the new management took over the estate. We are left to conclude that the decision by the HDB to shift management of these common properties from the Town Council to the PA was precipitated by the victory of the Workers’ Party in Aljunied GRC in the General Elections.
– Workers’ Party media statement, 22 August 2011
The effect of this change, said the original statement from the party, was that anyone wanting to use these spaces for activities would now have to apply to the People’s Association for permission, and find themselves saddled with a condition that the organisers must not invite Workers’ Party members of parliament to their events.
First, the HDB as part of the government machinery is abusing its power as land owner of common property in HDB estates to help PA to achieve the political objectives of a) preventing elected MPs from holding activities at the excluded sites which are strategically located and convenient to residents; and b) curtailing the ground presence of the elected MPs, by warning the residents that their applications for events at those sites may not be approved in subsequent years if WP MPs were invited.
Secondly, the PA, a statutory board funded by tax payers’ money and chaired by the Prime Minister, appears to capitalize on its close connection with the government to serve the political interests of the ruling party. The PA is leveraging on HDB to enable PAP candidates who lost at the last elections to re-emerge at community events as “advisors” to PA grassroots organizations. The move to let PA control the sites previously managed by the Town Council would give PAP candidates a ground advantage and permanent presence, in advance preparation for the next elections.
Within less than a day of the Workers’ Party highlighting this blatant act of partisanship, the PAP-Govt complex (which includes the People’s Association) did an about-turn.
In a major about-shift, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the People’s Association have lifted restrictions on who residents can invite to events held on public sites leased by the PA.
However, these activities have to be “non-political” in nature and that they have to be organised by “non-grassroots organisations”.
The liberalising of rules, announced in a joint HDB-PA statement on Tuesday night, is the latest twist in a public debate over the use of open spaces in Aljunied GRC, which is under the Workers’ Party (WP).
– Yahoo! news, 23 August 2011, People’s Association lifts restrictions on sites, by Jeffrey Oon.
What on earth is meant by “non-grassroots organisations”? An answer might be found in the Straits Times’s story of 24 August.
Government grassroots organisations – such as residents’ committees (RCs) and Citizens Consultative Committees (CCCs) – continue to reserve the right to invite only their grassroots advisers, usually the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) candidates in the constituency.
– Straits Times, 24 August 2011, Curbs lifted on events at PA sites, by Li Xueying & Teo Wan Gek
These bodies are all affiliated with the People’s Association, who then impose on themselves the rule that they can have restrictions on who they invite. So does that mean they restrict themselves to inviting politicians from the People’s Action Party (PAP)? If so, does that not prove academic Terence Chong’s point, when he wrote on Facebook, 24 August 2011:
These concessions amount to window-dressing until the “grassroots advisor” role is either abolished or delinked from PAP members. Even now, a PAP member who does not even qualify as [Non-constituency member of parliament] can still be an “advisor” while a NCMP from another party can’t. The [People's Association] is just a political Trojan horse and should be recognised as such.
– Terence Chong on Facebook, 24 August 2011
(Words in [square brackets] are expansions of abbrevations used in original posting.)
Chong’s view is shared by a wide cross-section of Singaporeans. But a critical point that follows from this is that since the People’s Association is a party-political body, then when the Housing and Development Board (HDB) transferred sites to its management, the HDB was favouring one party over another, a direct violation of its neutral, civil service role.
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Article 22A (1) (b) of the constitution says
no appointment to the office of chairman, member or chief executive officer of any statutory board to which this Article applies and no revocation of such appointment shall be made by any appointing authority unless the President, acting in his discretion, concurs therewith.
The HDB is a statutory board constituted by the Housing and Development Act, and the Fifth Schedule to the constitution lists the HDB (along with the Central Provident Fund Board, Jurong Town Corporation and the Monetary Authority of Singapore) as the key statutory boards to which the above Article 22A (1) applies. That being the case, I want the new president to make clear that he will clean out the rot from the HDB at the earliest opportunity.
The People’s Association is also a statutory board, constituted under the People’s Association Act, but it is not one where the president has blocking powers regarding appointments. Section 4(1) of the Act says that the Prime Minister shall be the Chairman and a minister the Deputy Chairman. This makes the political neutrality of this body inherently problematic, especially when the People’s Action Party has, as presidential candidate Tan Jee Say said, lost its moral compass.
Playwright Alfian Sa’at on Facebook went further, pointing out what I too think is obvious:
The collusion between the Housing Development Board and the People’s Association in denying the Workers’ Party the use of public spaces within their own constituency is shocking. Forget all you’ve read about Singapore being ‘corruption-free’. A government that allows the use of taxpayer’s money to protect the interests of a single party is a corrupt government.
– Alfian Sa’at on Facebook, 23 August 2011
The People’s Association therefore needs to be cleaned out too, and the best solution, in my view, is to disband it altogether. It would be no loss to Singapore. What critical need does it serve anyway? As stated in the People’s Association Act, its objectives are:
8. The objects of the Association are —
(a) the organisation and the promotion of group participation in social, cultural, educational and athletic activities for the people of Singapore in order that they may realise that they belong to a multiracial community, the interests of which transcend sectional loyalties;
(b) the establishment of such institutions as may be necessary for the purpose of leadership training in order to instil in leaders a sense of national identity and a spirit of dedicated service to a multiracial community;
(c) the fostering of community bonding and strengthening of social cohesion amongst the people of Singapore;
(d) the performance of such other functions as may be conferred upon the Association by any written law; and
(e) the carrying out of such activities as appear to the Board to be advantageous towards, or necessary or convenient for, the furtherance of the objects of the Association as set out in paragraphs (a) to (d).
It sounds awfully out of date, there are far more faultlines in Singapore society today than just race.
Then, as stated on its website, it runs
- Over 1,800 grassroots organisations
- Community Clubs
- Five Community Development Councils
- National Youth Council
- National Community Leadership Institute
- Outward Bound Singapore
- Water Venture outlets
. . . of which the only one of some social significance may be the Community Development Council which disburses help to the needy. But this function can easily be transferred to Town Councils or a new department under the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports. The rest are activities that should be left entirely to civil society, if at all they serve any purpose.
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The Straits Times gave prominence to the People’s Association’s complaint against the Workers’ Party. I shall reproduce the news article in full:
How WP curbed grassroots events
The People’s Association (PA) yesterday issued a statement detailing examples of grassroots activities in opposition-held Hougang ward and Aljunied GRC being curtailed by the Workers’ Party-run town councils.
It said that in 2001, applications by the PA’s grassroots organisations in Hougang to use common property under the management of the Hougang Town Council were mostly rejected.
The reasons given for rejection? Noise pollution and prohibition of certain activities like washing and cooking in the void decks.
On many occasions, no reasons were given.
In 2004, the Hougang Town Council told the PA’s Hougang constituency office that it had ceased approving permits for functions in front of two Residents’ Committee (RC) centres in Hougang. Again, no reason was given.
So the grassroots organisations stopped making applications to the town council and kept their activities within either the community club or the RC centres.
In 2009, one RC asked the town council for approval to install a closed-circuit television camera outside the RC centre to enhance its security. Until today, the town council has yet to reply.
Most recently, in Aljunied GRC, an application by the Serangoon North Village Seventh Moon Group to the Aljunied- Hougang Town Council last month to use an open space beside Central Plaza and Inner Plaza for three days for Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations was not approved.
This was despite approval having been given for the same occasion on the same spot last year.
– Straits Times, 24 August 2011, How WP curbed grassroots events
This completely misrepresents the central issue. To get a better sense of what the issue is about, each time you see the expression “grassroots” or “RC” in the above text, replace them with “PAP”, because the truth is that’s what they all were. So, if the Workers’ Party did disadvantage the People’s Association in the areas they controlled, they were doing nothing more than replicate the enormous disadvantages imposed on opposition parties (including Chiam See Tong’s Singapore People’s Party while he was the member of parliament for Potong Pasir) by the PAP-Govt complex in other wards.
Even so, the guilt is not equally shared. The side with the greater power is the one we point our fingers to.
It is the PAP that set about politicising the civil service and the People’s Association (if ever it was supposed to be party-neutral in the first place). And the opposition party involved simply has to defend itself. This is part of a wider pattern. The PAP has been a destroyer of institutions. Whenever things didn’t suit itself, it would politicise otherwise neutral arms of the state. Here we see the HDB made to lick boots. Other times, it’s the police and its licensing arm, or the prosecution branch and yes, the judiciary too.
[Update 25 Aug 2011: Low Thia Khiang has issued a long media release rebutting as groundless the claims made by the People's Association about unfairness on the Workers' Party's part, and with great detail incident by incident.]