By Howard Lee/ cartoon by Joshua Chiang
I have always had faith in institutions of public service. To me, the public service has always represented the very best of human nature – service to fellow citizens.
Yes, some would call it the iron rice bowl, although those in the rank and file now would attest that it is hardly true today. Sure, the pay could be stable, but there are those who would tell you there is more to be made in the private sector. And I would always like to think that there are those who joined for a chance to make a difference for their people.
Unfortunately, that positive trait has in recent days been dealt a ghastly blow, when the People’s Association (PA) and the Housing Development Board (HDB) got mixed up in the simple tussle for public space between the Worker’s Party (WP) and the unelected members of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in Aljunied Group Representative Constituency.
I will not delve into the evidence thrown up by the political parties to support their bids for management of the public spaces. Who is right and wrong can often be a matter of perspective. Also, there has been very little recorded documents from both WP and PAP to support their claims.
Instead, I would like to focus on three key areas that I felt reflected badly on PA and HDB as public institutions. It had nothing to do with the evidence thrown up by the aggrieved parties, but everything to do with the rightful conduct of the agencies, which in turn has cast doubt on their dignity and impartiality, bodies constituted for the benefit of the people. Unfortunately, such actions increase public suspicion that our government agencies are nothing more than a machine of the PAP.
Decision without consultation – From statements made thus far, it is clear that the reassignment of the 26 lots of public spaces from the Hougang Aljunied Town Council (HATC) back to the management of PA was done without first consulting WP and without asking WP to provide evidence to dispute claims of mismanagement by PAP. It is unfair, plain and simple, to hear just one side of the story, and definitely not something that the public service should do, even on a remote basis.
Pre-emptive prejudice – PA has clearly admitted that the move on HATC was a pre-emptive strike based on alleged difficulties that Hougang Town Council (HTC) has placed for applications made to use public spaces under its charge. But HTC is not HATC, or at best only constitute one of its parts. It should be given the benefit of the doubt, since HATC never had the chance to demonstrate a track record of making things difficult for grassroots orgaisations. The idiom that goes with this course of action is “give a dog a bad name and hang him”. It is discrimination, and discrimination should never be part of public service DNA.
Benefit for a few or benefit of the people – The current action is chiefly an attempt to make things better for the few within grassroot organisations who organise activities at these public spaces. For the people who participate in the activities organised at these locations, it seldom matters (or shouldn’t matter) who organises them or which political party is invited. If anything, the action has cast doubt on the neutrality of grassroots organisations, suggesting that they, too, have political motivations, since their advisors are almost always the PAP member, whether the person is an elected representative of the people or not.
Conversely, the people need every opportunity to interact with their elected representatives, not the advisors of the grassroot organisation. If Members of Parliament have been voted in by their constituents, it is only right that they retain first right of use of these public spaces, as it provides for opportunities to interact with residents and get a feel for ground issues.
If it is not in PA’s or HDB’s interest to facilitate that, the least that they can do is not to hinder it. Hence, it makes more sense for the management of such spaces to be under the purview of the Town Councils.
Sadly, this initial careless decision has routed PA into a corner, such that it can only take two steps to maintain the public service’s position as a defender of the people’s interests. Neither is favourable to PA.
The first possible recourse is to reverse the decision to manage the 26 lots of public spaces taken from HATC. This is not a likely outcome, as it immediately indicates wrong-doing. It would only serve to further undermine PA’s credibility, assuming that the current line of action has not already done irreparable damage.
The second option is to standardise and apply the same to all constituencies and resume administration of all similar public spaces. That alone would bog down PA’s operational effectiveness, but would surely be a cementing point to reaffirm its fairness.
In addition, there is immediate need for damage control, as Desmond Choo’s (PAP’s grassroot advisor in Hougang Single Member Constituency) application to reserve six sites in HTC to be likewise categorised has yet to be approved. Particularly since Choo’s application is, in my opinion, made on shaky grounds. I say this because he has used dated examples, is not the elected representative of the residents in Hougang to be able to speak on their behalf without a petition, and his telling WP to be more creative in using other opportunities to reach out to residents just smacks of double standards.
To me, public service represents an honourable side of us, and to this day, I would still like to believe that the Singapore public service – my former colleagues and friends – have done all they can for the benefit of the people. I would like to think that they go home each day, weary from battling bureaucracy, but not battling bias.
This latest spate is a betrayal of all those who start their day making it a point to put the interest of the people first. Whatever the reasons for this murky business having happened in the first place, I can only hope that WP’s claim of political motivation proves untrue, and PA and HDB would be able to rise above it by taking impartial steps forward.
The writer has served close to 10 years in the Singapore public service.