PAP must depoliticise the People’s Association for their own good

~by: Eric Tan Heng Chong~

The debate continues on the role of the PA (People’s Association) and its PAP (People’s Action Party) grassroot advisors in opposition constituencies.

On the one hand the government and the PA have stated that PAP grassroots advisers are necessary to explain and help implement government policies so as to better connect the people with the government. The government also states that the PA is not political. The PA has relaxed the rules governing the use of PA sites to allow residents to invite whoever they choose, including opposition MPs, for their functions when they use such sites.

This exception however does not include PA sponsored grassroot activities in which only PAP grassroots advisers are invited. The public is not convinced that this is a substantial concession as most of the activities are organised by the PA sponsored grassroot RCs or CCCs. Apart from this exception, nothing else has changed. The HDB will transfer the 26 common areas managed by the former PAP Aljunied town council to PA when it should in fact remain with the WP town council.

The opposition parties and supporters have blasted the PA, stating that having PAP potential candidates or defeated candidates as grassroots advisers in opposition wards is tantamount to using tax payers’ money to further the PAP ‘s interest. It is difficult for both the government and PA to defend their positions when the grassroots adviser is a potential PAP candidate rather than a civil servant.

Looking at both sides of the debate, I am compelled to disagree with the government’s argument. The PA started as a partisan organisation right from the very beginning. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his memoirs “To compete against the self improvement night classes of the pro communist unions and associations, we formed the People’s Association “.

It was established to counter the Barisan Sosialis who had bottom up grass roots support then. Over the years, the PA became synonymous with PAP and most of us accepted it as we needed one strong voice to achieve good economic progress for all. The PA was always political and it is now time to change its role.

Governing Singapore today is much more complex as the PAP found out the hard way, in this year’s two public elections. I believe that the PA being funded by the public must serve the peoples’ elected MP who is their choice. I looked at the objectives of the PA and I cannot find any conflict in the PA working with the popularly elected opposition MP.

The PA must accept this new norm and do the right thing by appointing the opposition MP as the grassroots adviser.

The PAP should depoliticise the PA for their own good as they will be getting invaluable feedback from the public. The danger of having a PAP grassroots adviser is that you get to hear what you want to hear – group think.

When I was at HSBC, we had a saying that a customer complaint is a gift as we know how we can do better.  By working with the opposition MP, the PA will be exposed to a different world and they can identify issues which the people are very unhappy about. As part of the civil service they are obliged to give this feedback to the Minister for Community Development Youth and Sports. The PAP will have this invaluable feedback which they cannot get easily from the PAP held wards. For the opposition MP, he or she will now have the resources to carry out grassroot activities which will benefit the people.

Everyone will be the winner but the biggest winner will be the people of Singapore as they will be served.

I am reminded of Charles Erwin Wilson, the CEO of GM in the 1950s who said ‘What’s good for GM is good for America ” at the time when GM was the largest company in the world and almost one in two cars sold in the USA was GM. Look what happened to GM, it went bust in 2009 and was rescued by the US government.

Does the PAP think what is good for the PAP is good for Singapore? I hope the PAP learned from this past election that doing the right thing for the people is the path to win back the hearts and minds of Singaporeans. Singapore and the PA are bigger than the PAP.

If the PAP recognises this fact and be guided by this principle, they will be back on track. Otherwise the opposition will rise to new heights as they had done in the last election.


Eric was formerly a CEC member of the Workers’ Party (WP). He stood as WP’s candidate for East Coast GRC in the General Elections of 2006 and 2011. Eric is a private equity fund manager and has a MBA (Distinction) from University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, USA.

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