The following is the transcript of the speech delivered by Mr Pritam Singh, the Workers’ Party’s MP for Aljunied GRC, at the NUS Political Association Young Guns forum on 29 January.
Firstly, thank you to the NUS Students’ Political Association for the kind invitation.
I have been asked to speak on the topic – how has Singapore progressed as a nation and the direction Singapore should steer in the years ahead. From this main question, the organizing committee forwarded a list of sub-questions that I could speak in greater length on. These covered social media, political engagement, amongst others. I am going to speak on the topic of whether the quality of governance has improved with the emergence of a more active opposition.
But before doing so, I would like to suggest that governance occurs at two levels – at the national level and the local level. I am going to speak for the next nine minutes or so on the quality of governance at the local level, and I will be happy to take your questions on this subject thereafter.
Before I begin, can I ask all of you, how many of you know who is the Chairman of the Citizen’s Consultative Committee or the CCC of the constituency or ward where you stay in Singapore? Three hands (out of an audience of 150). Yi Da, that’s four. Mr Baey of course! That’s five.
Your answer does not surprise me. If I turn the clock back 15 years or so when I was an undergraduate, I would have responded similarly. In fact, I don’t know who my CCC Chairman is, even where I stay! Perhaps I should ask the question differently. Do you know what the CCC does? (Dr Paul Ananth Thambyah [in the audience] guesses they are involved in line-dancing!). Again, if I turned the clock back 15 years, and sitting in your shoes, I would equally clueless.
The CCC is the umbrella local grassroots organisation in any constituency in Singapore. Many sub-committees come under it – including merchant and hawker sub-committees, aging subcommittees, and so on. CCCs plan and lead grassroots activities in a constituency, they oversee community and welfare programmes and they also act as a feedback channel between the government and the people. Quite simply, CCCs were envisaged as a quasi-local government in action, with the CCC Chairman acting like a village head or penghulu in the kampung.
Today, the main role of the CCCs to organize programmes to support the People’s Association. CCCs support the government in nationwide campaigns such as dengue prevention, Clean & Green Week, Racial Harmony Month and Good Neighbour Day. They also organise community forums and administer welfare assistance. Members in the CCC are volunteers appointed by the CCC Chairman once every two years and the Chairman’s appointment has to be approved by the Grassroots Advisers who is a PAP MP. But the question I want to put out to the audience is this – are CCC volunteers just volunteers?
In 1992, the Straits Times published an article titled, “CCCs at the crossroads, where it was stated, “Several grassroots leaders and advisers say that when they organize activities for residents, they also hope to win political mileage for the MP, and by extension, for the PAP. In those days, opposition MP Mr Chiam See Tong accused the CCC of serving the PAP and not the people.
What happened was that the Potong Pasir CCC suspected that some of its CCC members were actually supporters of Mr Chiam’s party because they were seen at community functions organized by Mr Chiam. In response to this, the 1991 PAP candidate for Potong Pasir, Andy Gan was quoted as saying, “we will ask them to leave if they are opposition supporters.”
The same Straits Times article goes on to quote a then Bishan North CCC Adviser who stated that the CCC and the PAP are indirectly linked by people who are members of both. The same article went on to say that sometimes, the link is spelt out even more clearly, with one CCC Chairman stating that he expects his CCC members to join the PAP, and wants an explanation if they refuse. To this CCC Chairman, the CCC is (I quote), “a voluntary organization for the PAP”.
This article was dated 1992. There has been no real significant change to the role of and function of the CCCs in all the constituencies in Singapore, be they PAP or non-PAP. But I look back to the incidents that took place in Aljunied GRC in 2013.
The first one concerned the by now infamous hawker centre dispute at the Kaki Bukit ward of Aljunied GRC. In both cases, the role of the CCCs were clear. The individual who wrote to the TC on behalf of some Block 511 hawkers, served in Kaki Bukit ward as a PAP member for over 20 years and another, a former Chairman of the Block 538 Hawkers’ Association, was a member of the PAP and the CCC for Kaki Bukit. The second episode concerned the petition by some Hougang shopkeepers against the organization of trade fairs. The petition was driven by the Chairman of the Bedok Reservoir-Punggol Shops Sub-Committee under the CCC once more.
When Town Councils were first set up in Singapore in the 1980s, then DPM Goh Chok Tong explained the politicisation of the Town Councils as giving MPs increased authority and responsibility as a result of which, voters would be more likely to vote “carefully and sincerely” and choose honest and effective MPs. But the reality at the local level is that there are grassroots organisations which can also be politically motivated to lower the standing of the local MPs.
It is my contention that in the years to come, the Government should steer the nation in a different direction insofar as local governance is concerned.
The problem with the existing system of People’s Association managed outfits like CCCs is that its fundamental purpose is to perpetuate a one-party state.
With a greater plurality of voices making themselves heard in Singapore, our local organisations should evolve in tandem with the democratic norms of a society where every voice has an equal right to be heard. Your local representatives, be they CCC Chairmen or RC Chairmen should be residents and ought to be elected by residents, and not appointed by the Grassroots Adviser. Local elections would determine what issues truly affect the people to bring these up to the elected MP.
A forum that brings the elected MP together with local leaders and representatives should be the platform through which municipal issues are discussed and addressed. The Government of the day should work with these locally elected leaders on national level issues such as dengue campaigns, blood donation days, emergency preparedness days, inter-racial confidence circles, etc. all of which currently come under the People’s Association. Political activities such as block visits by the MP or political candidates during elections should solely the purview of political parties and not local grassroots organisations.
At NTU’s annual ministerial seminar yesterday, Prime Minister Lee remarked that young people should take ownership of the country and lead it to greater heights. He also said that young people are not thinking of becoming billionaires but to change the world for the better, although not necessarily knowing what that change ought to look like. In the Singapore case, I say we can start by looking closely at the institutions which determine the contours of local governance that focuses on a better Singapore, so that we can create a more inclusive society, where the underlying philosophy of governance is not about power and the perpetuation of one-party rule, but about democratic norms and a mature democracy where the political choices of Singaporeans are respected by the Government.
1. According to the Central Intellgence Agency’s World Factbook, the People’s Association had its origins as a national building programme ‘designed to wean pro-Communist voters away from the opposition’. Besides serving as a communication channel between the government and ruling party at the top and the people below – making way for a more responsive government – it was also intended for the PA to blur the boundaries between the government and the party, such that ‘the people tended to praise the party for activities undertaken by the government.