Half billion taxpayer dollars go to People’s Association each year

I am sure there are denialists just as there are creationists zombie-ing among us. But I dare say for most Singaporeans, it is as clear as day that the People’s Association is and has always been, an affiliate of the People’s Action Party, in effect if not in name.

The currently trending story about former PAP stalwart and independent presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock having his invitation to a tea party withdrawn throws a spotlight once again on (a) the issue of the politicisation of the People’s Association, and (b) the question of what purpose it serves — even for the PAP.


First, let me recap what’s been in the press about the dis-invitation. The People’s Association planned a Chinese New Year party for former and current grassroots leaders on Saturday 8 February 2014. As a former member of parliament for Ayer Rajah and ‘grassroots adviser’ in the locality, Tan Cheng Bock (pictured above) received an invitation to this party on 27 December last year.

However, on 8 January 2014, Lim Swee Say, Minister without Portfolio in the Prime Minister’s Office and Deputy Chairman of the People’s Association (PM Lee Hsien Loong is Chairman) called him to withdraw the invitation.

There was a change in ‘policy’ to invite only those ex-advisers to grassroots organisations, from the immediate past GE (2011). I did not fit into this category as l stood down in 2006.

— Tan Cheng Bock, on his Facebook wall, 7 February 2014

Lim’s reason, the Straits Times reported, was that there had been a mistake in that the invitations had gone out based on a old list. The list had been revised a few months prior.

This time, instead of inviting all former grassroots advisers “repeatedly for 20, 30 years or more”, the PA limited the guest list to only those who retired in the 2011 election, he said.

— Straits Times, 8 February 2014, PA withdraws Istana party invite to Tan Cheng Bock

Today newspaper tried to check if this explanation was applied evenhandedly, but

The PA did not respond to media queries on the number of affected invitees

— Today, 8 February 2014,Cheng Bock invited to Istana party ‘by mistake’

Tan wrote in his Facebook post that at previous such gatherings, he had been “overwhelmed” by the warm reception he received.

Last year l had to be helped to get back into my car because the crowd kept me from moving forward.

— Tan Cheng Bock, on his Facebook wall, 7 February 2014

He may be cheekily alluding to his popularity among the PAP and People’s Association rank and file. If that’s the case, it can’t be going down well with the princes in the party. Tan Cheng Bock had the temerity to enter the presidential election in 2011 against Tony Tan, the PAP’s all-but-explicitly-anointed candidate. Even worse, he came within a whisker of defeating Tony Tan.

In the 1990s, writer Catherine Lim discerned an “affective divide” between PAP leaders and the people. More recently, many anecdotal reports (e.g. of half-hearted campaigning by party rank-and-file especially when elite “talent” is parachuted into their wards) now suggest that this affective divide is eating into the party itself. In this light, Tan Cheng Bock being unable to reach his car due to the sheer number of greeters is quite believable.

However, this essay isn’t about the PAP; it is about the People’s Association, however blur the boundary is between the two. If the affective divide is opening up within the party, then it must surely be even more palpable between the little folk of the People’s Association and the PAP leaders since, in theory, the People’s Association is supposed to be apolitical. Yet, while this theory of being at arm’s length from each other plays a useful part in permitting a lukewarm relationship between the Association folk and the party leadership, it is not a convincing description of the reality as seen by many others.

Charge sheet

Right at the top of the charge sheet is the fact that the People’s Association never asks elected members of parliament from opposition parties to be grassroots advisers for any locality. The government’s reply is that since the People’s Association is (technically) an arm of the government, it can’t have advisers that hold views different from the government. A losing PAP election candidate would be more “in sync” than a winning opposition member.  This argument is really nonsense; a distinction can and should be made between the office-bearers of a community club and its adviser.  Office-bearers, with their executive authority, may indeed be constrained to act within the boundaries set by the government, but advisers should be chosen for the external views they can contribute, especially if they are representative of the grassroots (as the name implies). In this respect, surely a winning opposition member is more representative than a losing PAP candidate prone to the same party groupthink.

pic_201402-04Also on the charge sheet is that the events organised by the People’s Association at the behest of the government often have a somewhat partisan flavour. Look at its annual report. Photograph after photograph features a PAP member of parliament at the centre of things, smiling as he or she “connects” with the “people”. We aren’t fooled. The jamborees are simply there to raise the profile and manage the image of a PAP minister or member of parliament.

The mass mobilisation arm

Even historically, it is hard to make the case that the Association was ever meant to be independent.

Founded in 1960, it was a time when socialism and communism were ascendant. Parties embodying these ideologies, when they came to power, were determined to remake their countries, many of them ex-colonies of European powers, by instilling a new political consciousness and a historically unprecedented conception of nationhood. The instrument for such an agenda was the mass movement, a political tool earlier used by both leftists (e.g. unions) and fascists (e.g. Hitler Youth). This should not surprise, since both these political ideologies sought to refashion social order and political norms. The mass movement is a content-neutral technique designed to mobilise citizens for whatever political objectives given to it.

A mass movement’s very reason for existence is undeniably political. And to the degree that the mission is laid out by a political party, a mass movement generally has a hand-in-glove relationship with the party that fostered it. Newly victorious communist parties post-1945, relied heavily on such means: Young Communist League, Women’s Front, Advanced Workers Movement, Red Guards… It was a time when the totalising effect of politics was seen as necessary for national ‘progress’ and a new dawn. Firewalls between state and party organisations were considered too bourgeois and unhelpful.

The People's Association is nowhere as martial as Hitler Youth, but there are eerie similarities between this picture and countless ones in the People's Association's annual reports, testifying to perhaps similar aims.

The People’s Association is nowhere as martial as Hitler Youth, but there are eerie similarities between this picture and countless ones in the People’s Association’s annual reports, testifying to perhaps similar aims.

And so it is for the People’s Association, albeit that there was nothing overtly revolutionary about it. Whilst its founding aims — to promote racial harmony and social cohesion — were couched in uncontroversial terms, it is nonetheless notable that they too trumpetted social reconstruction. In any case, it is worth interrogating what kind of racial harmony and what model of social cohesion were envisaged. As we know today, there is plenty of room to criticise the kind of “multiracialism” being practised in Singapore. For instance, there’s a case for saying that our multiracialism perpetuates race consciousness. However, there’s no need to go into a detailed discussion of this issue; all this essay wishes to point out is that the mission objectives that the People’s Association were tasked to galvanise the population for were ones that were meant to remake Singapore in a way consistent with the PAP’s vision for the new country. If that’s not party-political, then pigs can fly.

Club managers

Yet, despite those founding aims, for as long as anybody can remember, it’s not been a particularly active participant in the social landscape, staged photographs in its annual report notwithstanding. Most people would be hardpressed to say what the People’s Association actually does other than run community centres — now name-inflated to a nicer-sounding and more bourgeois ‘community clubs’.

Honestly, community clubs can run themselves the way country clubs do, except that community clubs have to remain accessible to all, for a small fee perhaps. Each community club can be separately corporatised as a non-profit. If country clubs do not need grassroots advisers or the prime minister as chairman, why should community clubs? As for the rest of the People’s Association, let the local PAP branches run those events if they are really meant to promote the party.

I will argue that the People’s Association doesn’t really contribute anything substantial to its founding aims. Whatever the shape of “multi-racial harmony” and social cohesion today in Singapore, there is little to suggest that anything the People’s Association did had anything to do with the results. To really get to grip with issues of social cohesion, a promoter of the cause needs to engage with the real issues of the day. It needs to engage with all voices, including dissenting ones. It needs to be organising events that are accessible to all shades of opinion without pre-qualification so that all can feel that they have a stake in the process. This is diametrically opposed to the way the People’s Association actually does things. Its staged events are shallow, gate-controlled to like-minded persons only, and generally content-lite — except to give a PAP bigwig a chance to rehash the themes and slogans of the day.

The People’s Association, I am arguing here, is a political creature, designed to serve as the mass mobilisation arm of the PAP. However, seen from the falling popular support for the PAP and the stickiness of the prevailing view that it is a bunch of elites pretending to be at one with the people, the Association is failing abysmally in even that mission.

Handsomely funded

Oh yes, the title of this essay. Despite its uncertain track record, the People’s Association is handsomely funded. Its annual report for Financial Year 2012 shows that it received a grant from the government of $434 million (see http://www.pa.gov.sg/about-us/annual-reports.html). Over two years, 2011 and 2012, it received a total of $859 million.


All this is taxpayer’s money, for an outfit that looks like a cheerleader for a political party — but one whose performance in this regard is quite pathetic too.

20 Responses to “Half billion taxpayer dollars go to People’s Association each year”

  1. 1 balji 9 February 2014 at 15:56

    Hey Alex. Can I have your permission to use this?

  2. 3 ape@kinjioleaf 9 February 2014 at 18:53

    Slowly but surely, there’s more grassroots leaders, especially amongst the younger ones, sticking to the basic principles of community cohesion and maintaining apolitical stance.
    I’m in total agreement that Grassroots Advisers should be the person elected by the residents.

  3. 4 Steph 9 February 2014 at 20:09

    Wow, half a billion wasted annually. Can the WP table this up for debate in the parliament? I don’t see how a packet of nasi lemak and free transport to PAP’s rally can cost that much.

    Let’s also question about NTUC and how much money it is siphoning from the government each year.

    Can you also do a research on our expenditure at Suzhou and Tianjin? I really want to know what is happening and why so many government agencies are there to deliver low cost housing to the people in China when there is an acute shortage here.

  4. 7 gentleaura 9 February 2014 at 21:07

    TCB should have just showed up at the Istana and deny being uninvited by LSS. Afterall, nothing was said in writing right? It was just a phone call. Then, he can make an issue about it on his FB should they refuse to let him in.

    Unfortunately, as much as the sun rises in the East, Dr Tan will not stoop down to that level. We all know he is a man of integrity and his aspirations are bigger than that.

    But many of us common man can and will. Le’s spare no effort to rise to the occasion.

  5. 8 yuen 9 February 2014 at 21:15

    as the web address http://www.pa.gov.sg says PA is a section of the government, not a voluntary association despite its name; the PA Act says its mission is “community recreation” which, unlike the task of HDB, LTA or poice, in terms of deliverable goods or services to meet the needs of the public, is less clearly defined; the concrete part of its task is operating the community centres in various neighbourhoods; some of the activities (e.g., letting out space for yoga classes) generate some income, but this is presumably not a significant part of its budget

    by having government parliamentary members, or in the case of opposition districts, past for future PAP candidates as advisers, PA clearly believes that “community recreation” is related to government plans and directions; at least in my neighbourhood, people who participate in community centre activities tend to be old; indoctrination of youths does not appear to be active; it is also unlikely that the kind of regimentation enforced in national service can be easily applied at the community centre level

  6. 9 Tan Tai Wei 9 February 2014 at 22:11

    On the Tan Cheng Bock mis-invitation, seems clear that it had all been meant only for excluding him. After all the deliberate “revising” of the invitation list done months earlier for an august function at the Istana, and then only to have mistakenly used a wrong one – is that believable? Even if that were so, surely, the invitations, in the normal course of human relations and courtesy, should be just left to stay. It was after all only a small departure from previous norms. So, it must be that the new invitation “policy” was only an after-thought – someone ‘higher-up” subsequently thought Dr Tan should be excluded, and that policy was then concocted. And, nevermind the discourtesy, including to others similarly affected, as long as the absolute imperative of Tan’s exclusion was achieved (mustn’t run the fearsome risk of some village headman-like power-that-be throwing tantrums!).

  7. 10 Terence Koh 10 February 2014 at 09:55

    One of the many things we learnt in Political Science 101 at NUS was how the PAP coped with the split of the party when Lim Chin Siong and his cadres decided to split with LKY and his gang to form Barisan Socialis. The PAP, having been dominated by Lim Chin Siong and his unionists had control of most of its party offices. What the PAP did in response to shore up their party apparatus was to create community centres and co-opt the civil service machinery into its party apparatus. This is the reason behind the formation of the People’s Association. The PA has never ceased to be what it was created to do. In fact, you could say the civil service hasn’t either. It’s time, we, as a young more discerning generation, set forth to depoliticise our civil service and separate party politics from the civil service’s main responsibility of serving the people not the party.

  8. 12 Alan 10 February 2014 at 13:08

    If PA is indeed runned as the propaganda machine for PAP, isn’t that tantamount to PAP deceiving the public by using public funds for its own political objectives ?

    Just wonder what the PAP leaders have to say to explain the perceived cheating ?

  9. 13 Chanel 10 February 2014 at 15:12

    “The government’s reply is that since the People’s Association is (technically) an arm of the government, it can’t have advisers that hold views different from the government.”

    The above excuse is so terribly lame. Can the PA tell us what views (at the constituency level) that, say, WP holds that differ from the government’s?? Is PA implying that WP doesn’t want to eradicate dengue? Doesn’t want to improve bus services in the town? Doesn’t want to have more/better hawker centres for the town? Doesn’t want to have better street lightings? Doesn’t want to have trader fair once in a while?

  10. 14 GoonDoo 10 February 2014 at 16:51

    Well, if the CCCP came to study the PA system in Sg with the intention of using the same in China, I think that in itself speaks volumes for how the PA is perceived – to perpetuate 1 party rule.

    If the way the PAP has defended its role in AIMgate is any indication, PAP does not understand nor is it willing to accept that there is a standard of morality far more important than for eg continuing to criminalize acts of male sodomy. It is the need to avoid conflicts of interest & to lead in maintaining the highest standards of integrity & accountability to those who put them in power.

  11. 15 Anonymous 11 February 2014 at 08:43

    In a real democracy there is separation of church and state, separation of party and government and finally, separation of the executive and the judiciary.

    Do we have all three?

  12. 16 miffer 12 February 2014 at 08:07

    Outstanding article.

  13. 17 Jhon Tan 23 February 2014 at 01:38

    We still remember that last year the PA invited Chen Show Mao to be its guest-of-honour at its mid-autumn dinner gathering, but this was not allowed by the Ministry in charge of the PA. So, poor Chen Show Mao was then unceremoniously dis-invited. This dis-invitation of the guest-of-honour was certainly much more embarrassing than that of Tan Cheng Bock.

  14. 18 Tommy Kong 26 February 2014 at 15:31

    Before & After each GE, the so called non partisan RC members are sponsored to a pre GE retreat overseas at countries such as Taiwan etc. Same trips will be organised after a GE and some MPs will follow these holiday trips with the RC members.

    The funny thing is these same RC members (not all) will wear white PAP uniforms during polling day walking around looking important.

    Even more funny is the money used for these trips are paid for by PA which is funded by tax payers. If this is not clear partisan and political then what?

  15. 19 Anon j365 2 March 2014 at 08:24

    “The government’s reply is that since the People’s Association is (technically) an arm of the government, it can’t have advisers that hold views different from the government.”

    Do opposition members elected not become part of the government? is government not elected by the people?

  16. 20 Here comes trouble 3 March 2014 at 20:31

    Great article. Clearly cronyism at work here.

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