The latest episode of the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) locking horns with members of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the People’s Association (PA) over the use of public spaces in opposition-held constituencies is intriguing.
At the heart of the dispute is the leasing of public spaces to the PA by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). These spaces were under the authority of the town councils of each constituency, including opposition ones.
The issue is not new. Some years back, in 2004 or thereabouts, the HDB leased “a big field in Potong Pasir” to the PAP’s Sitoh Yihpin for three years, according to reports by The Straits Times. “That field is the site of past election rallies, and is used regularly for constituency events,” the report said.
Mr Sitoh had lost to Mr Chiam See Tong of the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) in the previous general elections (GE) in 2001.
...it is Singaporeans who will lose out if our public institutions... are seen as nothing more than political tools... Andrew Loh
Mr Sitoh was appointed “adviser” to the grassroots organizations, which are under the purview of the PA. The move by the HDB was seen as politically-motivated to give Mr Sitoh an advantage in continuing to be present on the ground in Potong Pasir in spite of his electoral defeat.
In the ongoing saga between the WP and the PAP/PA, the WP has leveled the same charge at the HDB and the PA. The HDB leased 26 sites in Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC), which is now run by the WP, to the PA shortly after the PAP’s electoral defeat in the constituency in the 2011 GE. The HDB, claims the WP, had not informed the new WP town council about this.
Mr Desmond Choo, defeated candidate in Hougang in the May GE to the WP’s Mr Yaw Shin Leong, has applied to the HDB to lease six plots of land in the Single-member Constituency (SMC) for use by the grassroots organizations (GROs) which he is adviser to.
Mr Choo claims that the GROs had faced difficulties in securing the use of these sites for community events.
The WP, in response, has issued three statements so far to rebut the allegations or claims by Mr Choo, the PA and the Ministry for National Development (MND). Mr Chiam’s SPP, too, has come out in support of the WP. The SPP, which said Mr Chiam “suffered this kind of abuse all his 27 years as MP” of Potong Pasir, said it is ready to “support the WP if the matter went to court.”
Serious issues at the heart of the dispute
The disputes may seem like childish bickering unworthy of elected Members of Parliament (MP), but at the heart of it lies the very serious issues of the use of public funds, the perceived politicisation of supposedly “non-partisan” organisations (HDB & PA) by the ruling party, and the Prime Minister’s roles in the matter.
The PM is the secretary general of the PAP and he is also the chairman of the PA. The PA’s Board of Management, headed by the chairman, consists of 14 members in total, 7 of who are PAP members. Its “special adviser to the chairman” is former Minister Mr Lim Boon Heng.
Because of this potential conflict of interest of having PAP members on the Board in what is supposed to be a non-partisan organization run on public funds, there have been calls for the PA to either be abolished or for it to be moved to the purview of the elected president.
But such calls will, as in the past, be ignored by the government. These GROs (which number some 1,800) under the PA are critical, as the government claims, for fostering community bonding, social cohesion, and in dealing with serious matters which affect the community, such as the SARs epidemic in 2003.
The government has also defended its appointments of PAP members, even those who were defeated in the polls, as advisers to these GROs. The reason it gave is that opposition members are not and indeed cannot be expected to support government programmes. The opposition, on the other hand, accuse the ruling party of using taxpayers’ money to further its own political cause.
But what programmes are the GROs involved in that opposition parties would not support? The government has been silent on this and has not provided any concrete examples or instances of this.
Consequences if institutions become political tools
At the end of the day, it is Singaporeans who will lose out if our public institutions – which should be beyond politics and beyond disrepute – are seen as nothing more than political tools to be used by the ruling party for its own selfish and myopic ends.
And indeed it would be an utter insult to the volunteers in the GROs who are genuine in wanting to do their part to serve the community.
PM Lee has called for a “harmonious political system” and said that Singapore cannot afford a “gridlock”. If indeed this is a sincere call, then he should first and foremost remove any bias – perceived or otherwise – of public institutions and move the PA out of his office and disengage himself as PA chairman, and set down in no uncertain terms that the PA is, should and must be utterly impartial and non-partisan.
Otherwise, our society at the grassroots level will be polarised not through the fault of Singaporeans but by the selfish agenda of the ruling party through the People’s Association – an organization whose motto is “Bringing People Together” and whose mission is to “build and to bridge communities in achieving One People, One Singapore”.
And that would be ironic indeed.
But more than being ironic, the PA’s assent to being used as a political tool would also be an abuse of public trust, highly irresponsible and indeed dangerous for our society.
Andrew is the co-founder of a socio-political website and writes frequently on issues which are close to his heart, particularly those affecting the less fortunate and on Singapore politics.