COMMENT: Can we have a better report card in constituency broadcasts?

Workers' Party's Aljunied GRC candidates speaking at a televised constituency political broadcast on 3 July 2020. (SCREENSHOT: Mediacorp)
Workers' Party's Aljunied GRC candidates speaking at a televised constituency political broadcast on 3 July 2020. (SCREENSHOT: Mediacorp)

by Bertha Henson

The constituency political broadcasts started last night and it’s a definite change from the usual speeches on the “big-picture’’ and “macro’’ challenges we face as a nation. Instead, we were treated to real grassroots matters like covered linkways, renovated hawker centres and that alphabet soup of upgrading programmes for HDB neighbourhoods.

It was nice to see even the Prime Minister talk about having job fairs in his Ang Mo Kio ward and candidates vying for re-election reciting what has been achieved in the neighbourhood since the last election.

I liked the concept tremendously. But I wish the candidates would go one better.

For example, can the former chairman of the town council give a report card on its finances, how much it has spent on what sort of maintenance and improvements? What about the state of its reserves and how it is investing the money? Can it boast about levying the lowest service and conservancy charges around while maintaining cleanliness of the town?

Such details are, of course, in the town council’s financial reports, except that very few would take the trouble to go through the mass of numbers, much less compare them with past reports, or with those of other town councils.

A meatier political broadcast will go far to educate residents on the importance of town council work which, after all, collects service and conservancy fees from them.

At the same time, I wonder if the candidates should make a distinction between services that are provided by the town council (a political entity) and government agencies, especially the Housing Board. The upgrading programmes, whether for lifts, home improvements for older flats or to spruce up the neighbourhood, are surely government schemes. I gather that the member of parliament is involved only in so far as to explain the benefits or to take in recommendations or complaints from residents. (Unless, of course, there is some kind of priority given to PAP wards or those which delivered more votes to the ruling party. That carrot-and-stick approach has been ditched a long time ago, right?)

Imagine if MPs had no town council to run, what would candidates be able to say in a political broadcast? For those new to the hustings, it would most likely be a personal introduction to voters, the way some of the new PAP candidates did it. Then, I suppose other candidates seeking re-election can talk about various welfare programmes that the party activists have organised, like grocery distribution or a fund for the needy.

Some of these activities filtered through the broadcast and, again, I suggest they go one up. Why not give a state of the constituency report, such as the number of house visits made over the past four or five years, or the number of new residents who have moved in since the last general election? Can the candidates be frank about the types of woes their residents go to them with - and what has been done for them?

While I liked this focus on the constituency, I also think the candidates should give an account of their work in Parliament, such as the number of interventions in debates on legislation, and the questions they raised on behalf of their constituents? What about the issues they have championed, especially issues that they said they would champion in the last general election? There are some reports on this, but can we also have some self-reporting?

The MP isn’t just an estate manager or glorified contractor. He or she is first and foremost, our representative in Parliament and shouldn’t be hiding their personal parliamentary work behind a party banner. I can’t help but think how embarrassing it will be for elected MPs, if Non-Constituency MPs outdo them at this most crucial part of their job. And they can’t complain about being “burdened’’ by grassroots work either, since Parliament agreed to expand the NCMP scheme and give NCMPs voting rights.

Opposition’s single card

As for the opposition’s broadcasts, you can see how those who have never been elected are at a disadvantage when it comes to toting up achievements in the neighbourhood.

They have really only one card to play: becoming full-time MPs. The Reform Party slate for Ang Mo Kio GRC has said so. Singapore Democratic Party’s Chee Soon Juan said he would be a full-timer too, a pledge he has been making at almost every election. He added that the SDP will run its own town council if elected, rather than outsource the responsibility to a managing agent. He will also turn over a portion of the MP allowance – about $192,500 a year – to fund programmes for the constituency.

The opposition’s usual argument for full-time MPs is being reprised: They can attend to residents fully and more quickly, compared to MPs who hold down day-time jobs. Chee’s PAP opponent, Murali Pillai, a lawyer in private practice, countered that having a Parliament with all full-time MPs would lead to them having the same blind-spots. There is merit in drawing people from diverse backgrounds into Parliament, he added.

I agree with Murali, but I think there is something to be said for at least one member of a GRC team, maybe the chairman of the town council, doing the job full-time. If not the chairman of the town council, then the mayor of the district should be a full-time job.

The current five mayors are Desmond Choo (North East District), Teo Ho Pin (North West District), Low Yen Ling (South West District), Mohamad Maliki Osman (South East District) and Denise Phua Lay Peng (Central Singapore). Teo is not running in this election. Of the other four, three are office-holders. Only Phua, who runs voluntary welfare groups, can be said to be a full-time MP. The mayors run Community Development Councils, which come under the aegis of the People’s Association. Therefore, they are government appointments. (Subtext: Not open to opposition politicians.)

The annual salary of a mayor, by the way, is $660,000. Before anyone starts jumping about double payment, the 2017 committee to review salaries also said this: “We recommend retaining the current practice of paying all political appointment holders one salary package as an appointment holder, even when they hold two or more portfolios.’’

The substantial remuneration (at least in my view) implies that the job of mayor is a full-time one, yet this work is being carried out by office-holders with ministry matters on their plate.

The role of an MP at the grassroots level has gotten bigger over time, although as I said before, their parliamentary authority is the same as NCMPs.

We, the voters, are to be blamed for this.

The elected MPs are expected to respond to every single need, whether about spalling concrete in the bathroom or dirty hawker centres. A few more full-time MPs, like PAP’s hardworking Louis Ng, would be nice to have.

Bertha Henson is a veteran Singapore journalist who now lectures at NUS. The views expressed are her own.

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