PA stands firm over selection of grassroots advisers

Jeanette Tan

The People's Association (PA) has reiterated its stance against having Opposition Members of Parliament (MP) take on grassroots adviser roles.

The PA and grassroots organisations (GROs) gather feedback from the public, explain government policies and programmes to citizens, and implementing social programmes, said PA's director for corporate and marketing communications Ooi Hui Mei in her latest letter to the media, this time published in the Today newspaper on Saturday.

It's not possible to appoint Opposition MPs as advisers because we cannot ask Opposition MPs to help the government to connect better with the people PA spokesperson Ooi Hui Mei

As GRO advisers guide the organisations in carrying out such functions, "it is not possible to appoint Opposition MPs as advisers because we cannot ask Opposition MPs to help the government to connect better with the people," said Ooi, responding to recent concerns over the neutrality of the organisation.

"Nor can we reasonably expect them to help the government explain, implement or improve its policies," she continued. "This is especially true of policies which they oppose, such as restructuring our tax system when we introduced the GST and relying on ComCare instead of unconditional welfare."

Ooi said the body performs its duties "in accordance with the policies of the elected government of the day".

"Just like other public sector organisations, the PA is not involved in party political activities," she pointed out.

Ooi noted, however, that the government does involve all MPs in matters where they have "substantial and important responsibilities", such as in town council matters and HDB upgrading projects.

"This way, even if the adviser is not the MP, the two will complement each other in serving residents and the community, despite any differences in their political views, principles and philosophy." said Ooi.

Opposition parties had criticised a previous forum letter by the PA, published in The Straits Times on Wednesday, on why opposition MPs cannot be advisers to GROs.

"I can only conclude that the PA is partisan," said Hougang SMC MP Yaw Shin Leong, pointing out that organisation seemed to be equating the government with the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) in its forum letter.

"The government and the said political party needs to be separated in terms of identity," Yaw said. "Over the decades, however, the two seem to have been increasingly seen as the same."

The Singapore People's Party echoed this view.

 "By choosing not to work with duly elected Opposition MPs, the PA is confirming that it is working for the interest of the PAP, not Singapore," the party's central executive committee said in a statement.

In the letter, Ooi said opposition MPs cannot be advisers to GROs because they "cannot be expected" to promote government activities.

"The government has to appoint grassroots advisers who support its programmes and can play this role well... Opposition MPs cannot be expected to do this and thus cannot become advisers to GROs," wrote Ooi.

She further explained that "besides connecting people to people, grassroots advisers are required to help the government connect with people and help promote government policies and programmes such as anti-dengue and active ageing." 

Ooi was responding to a reader who felt grassroots advisers, who are appointed by the PA, should be elected MPs.

By choosing not to work with duly elected Opposition MPs, the PA is confirming that it is working for the interest of the PAP, not Singapore. Singapore People's Party

Yaw told Yahoo! Singapore that he found it strange for the PA to comment that an elected opposition MP, being one himself, is unable to fulfill the role of connecting with people and promoting programmes such as anti-dengue and active ageing.

When contacted, Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC and PAP MP Janil Puthucheary defended the PA's policy.

Dr Puthucheary, who sits on the PA's board of management, said that as a statutory board, the PA is "linked to government policy" and the grassroots adviser has to believe in the overall thrust of the government's approach.

"People who implement and operationalise these policies cannot oppose them. You simply can't have a situation where the adviser does not support the implementation of these policies," he noted.

Opposition MPs fundamentally oppose the government and so would not always be in support of its policies and programmes, he said.

"Even if they did support policies such as anti-dengue and active ageing programmes, it is possible that they could oppose methods of implementation of these policies," he added.

However, political observer Tan Ern Ser said that the PA's actions may erode the moral ground of the PAP and dilute its political capital.

While the PA is able to defend its practice of appointing PAP members as grassroots advisers on "logical grounds", the associate professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore suggested that Opposition MPs take matters into their own hands.

"I would argue on practical grounds that the WP may want to consider setting up its own grassroots organisations, since the ones set up by PA may not take to them as advisers in any case," he said.

The debate over the politicisation of the PA started when Workers' Party (WP) Aljunied GRC MP Chen Show Mao was uninvited from a Hungry Ghosts' Festival dinner organised by Hougang residents because they were told that approval for the venue would be withdrawn by the PA if they invited Chen.

It later emerged that 26 commonly-used spaces in the constituency had been leased to the PA by the Housing and Development Board in June. Following a public outcry, the PA revised its policy and relaxed its restrictions on event guest lists.