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Building Nations, Dividing People

~by: Benjamin Cheah~

It’s refreshing to see a government body give straight answers for once. The People’s Association has declared that it is a de facto arm of the state. Its mission is to “bond the community and connect people with the Government”.  Grassroots advisers should “connect people to people”, and “are required to help the Government connect with people and help promote government policies and programmes”. Therefore, the government should appoint “grassroots advisers who support its programmes”. Opposition Members of Parliament “cannot be expected” to support the government’s policies, and so may not be grassroots advisers.

In so many words, the People’s Association is the bridge between the people and the government. And it’s only a small step away from the government to the People’s Action Party. As described by the Central Intelligence Agency, the People’s Association was “a nation-building program” that aimed to sway the populace away from the Barisan Sosialis and towards the PAP.  The Agency described three key characteristics of the PA, specifically:

First, it was wholly an Asian creation and at no time depended to an important degree on idea, or resources from outside. Second, the program aimed at two-way communication between government and ruling party at the top and the people below, and it aimed also to prove that the government could be responsive to the people’s needs. Finally, the program deliberately confused the roles of government and party so that the people tended to praise the party for activities undertaken by the government[.] Funded by the government but exploited by the ruling party, it cultivated an image independent of both.  (Corrections mine)

I’m not against grassroots organisations or advisers by any stretch. But I believe that should such organisations should be independent of any party. They should not be used as tools to promote one political ideology over another. Their mission should be to serve the people, not political interests. That’s why they’re called grassroots organisations.

Ooi Hui Mei’s letter is based on the assumption that opposition MPs will always oppose the government’s policies. This is profoundly untrue and antidemocratic .

In 2006, I interviewed Low Thia Khiang, the Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party, for a project. When I asked him about the Workers’ Party ‘s stance vis-à-vis the government’s policies, and how he represents that position in Parliament, he gave a fairly nuanced answer. He said he – and by extension, the party – will first assess any given policy. If he agrees with it, he’ll support it. If he doesn’t, he’ll oppose it.

Opposition politicians do not exist to make trouble for the government. Their job is to represent the views of a slice of the population. It is disingenuous to suggest that their views are necessarily opposed to that of the government. There are definitely issues both the government and the opposition can agree upon.

It does not necessarily follow that the opposition will oppose every government program. In its pending press release, the  Singapore People’s Party says that Chiam See Tong, its Secretary-General, “has always done his part for the aged and fought dengue with the Potong Pasir Town Council”.

The opposition has raised no strenuous objections to the government’s anti-dengue policies and active ageing stance, and as the SPP points out, supports them.

Opposition politicians who have been elected to Parliament have won the support of the people. By being Members of Parliament (MP), it is their job to bridge the people and the state.

Winning the elections fosters on them the moral authority and the obligation to represent their constituents’ views to the government. Their office grants them the legal authority to make decisions on behalf of their constituents, and communicate the government’s views to their constituents. In this way, they connect the people and the government. In this role, they are no different from PAP (People's Action Party) MPs.

There are no more qualified people than elected MPs to take on the role of grassroots advisers. The PA counts among its grassroots advisers current members of the PAP.

Since it’s clearly not independent of political parties, it is profoundly antidemocratic to prevent an opposition MP from being a grassroots advisor on the assumption that an opposition MP will never support the government’s policies. This effectively disrespects the people’s decision to support a certain politician in favour of another, by tacitly suggesting that the opposition MP will make trouble for the government instead of serving the people.

Alex Au has argued more extensively that it’s time to disband the People’s Association (and sack the members of the Housing Development Board). And I agree.

Leaving aside discussions on the historical necessity and effectiveness of the People’s Association, PA’s time is past. The PA was formed in a time when the people were divided between left-wingers (the Barisan Sosialis) and democratic socialists (the PAP).

Today, the nation is divided still, this time between the PAP and various opposition parties. This time, the PA is dividing the people, by favouring the PAP over the opposition, and by making insinuations about the opposition.

If it ever were a nation builder, the PA is one no more. Instead, it insists on continuing its historic mission of promoting government policies, and blurring the government and the Party, without adjusting to political realities.

The PA is a relic of the past. It’s time to consign it to history.

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The article was first published on the writer's own blog.