By Andrew Loh
“I’m very sure there are people who voted for opposition. And you have to take my word for that because I know more than you on CCC.”
People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP) Baey Yam Keng, came under fire for defending the relationship between the grassroots organisation, the Citizens Consultative Committee (CCC), and the PAP government, at a forum held by the National University of Singapore (NUS) on 29 January.
Mr Baey, who is MP for Tampines GRC, was a panellist at the NUS Political Association’s Young Guns forum, alongside the Workers’ Party MP, Pritam Singh; The Singapore Democratic Party’s Chee Siok Chin, and the National Solidarity Party’s Syafarin Sarif.
In his speech addressing the 150 students, Mr Singh said that the “problem with the existing system of People’s Association (PA) managed outfits like CCCs is that its fundamental purpose is to perpetuate a one-party state.”
The PA is the umbrella outfit which oversees some 1,800 grassroots organisations, including the CCC.
Its chairman is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Its Deputy Chairman is Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr Lim Swee Say. Its Board comprises 3 other ministers, and the Special Advisor to the chairman is former PMO Minister, Lim Boon Heng, who is also currently the chairman of Temasek Holdings. [See PA members here.] Mr Singh explained the role and make-up of the CCCs:
“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.”
Mr Singh cited an article in the Straits Times in 1992 to back up his point that “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.”
“In 1992,” Mr Singh said, “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.’
Mr Singh said:
“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’.”
Mr Singh suggested that in order for such grassroots organisations to “evolve in tandem with the democratic norms of a society where every voice has an equal right to be heard”, 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,” he said. “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.”
Mr Baey, in response to Mr Singh’s accusations, said, “That is the system here.” He repeated the government explanation which various ministers have made over the years whenever such accusations arose – that the PA is a government body that links the people with the government of the day and explains policy decisions. That is why opposition MPs are not appointed as PA grassroots advisers.
His explanation, however, came under fire from a member of the audience.
Here is the exchange:
Audience member: “I find it very disturbing to hear you as an MP, one of eighty-something people who can effect real change in Singapore, say that ‘this is the system.’ Because if this is the system you [would not be fighting] for the dialect cause, right? So, either you accept that democracy at the CCC level is good and advocate for it, or you argue against it. That’s as simple as it is.”
Baey: “When I say I accept it as the system, it is the system now, I accept it because that is part of the government. Do I say it’s unfair? Ya, some people think it is unfair, but nothing is totally fair in this world. At the end of the day, does the CCC serve the people? It has to serve people. Does it mean that because I’m advisor [to] the CCC, I’ve total outreach of all residents in my estate? The answer is no.
“You have read [grouses] about same old few people, senior citizens coming to our block parties this type of events. It’s true! I know a lot more about CCC and grassroots events then our fellow panellists here. [There are certain] shortcomings as well. It is up to us, how do we make use, or rather, work with this system. It doesn’t mean it is always to our advantage.
“So at the end of the day, it’s a system that existed or evolved or maybe planned for certain objectives or motives in mind…
“So, right now I would say that I am happy that grassroots leaders would help me, you know, in reaching out, but I will not deny that it’s not the best, the most effective way… I hope I don’t come across as dismissing that, ‘Oh, I just take it…’. It’s not so, ok? It is the system now, yes, it doesn’t mean it won’t change. In fact, right now from what we see, people working in PA are very sensitive about, ‘Oh, you know, you’re a political person, therefore I do not want to be seen too close to you.’ There are a lot of challenges now because I think the landscape is changing. It’s ok, we have to adapt to that. And even among the whole CCC, I’m very sure, I’m 100 per cent sure that not everyone is a PAP member. I’m very sure there are people who voted for opposition. And you have to take my word for that because I know more than you on CCC.”
Some in the audience could be heard asking how Mr Baey would know how members of the CCC voted in an election.
The relationship between the PA, and by extension the grassroots organisations under its charge, and the PAP has always been a contentious issue.
In December 2009, then-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was reported as saying of the Chinese officials who came here to study the governance of S’pore, “They discover that the People’s Action Party has only a small office in Bedok. But everywhere they go, they see the PAP – in the RCs, CCCs, and the CCs.”
And during the run-up to the 2011 General Election, PAP MPs were seen canvassing for votes wearing PA t-shirts. [See here.]
The PA network has expanded over the years to include some 1,800 grassroots organisations. Of note were the inclusions of the CCCs and RCs under the charge of the PA in 1993. This move to create one grassroots movement was started in 1992 by then Minister for Community Development Wong Kan Seng in his role as deputy chairman of the PA. The official purpose of the consolidation exercise was to maximise the use of resources and allow for better coordination among the different grassroots organisations