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about former PAP stalwart and independent presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock having his invitation to a tea party withdrawn throws a spotlight once again on (a) the issue of the politicisation of the People’s Association, and (b) the question of what purpose it serves — even for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