In a heated debate with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on Thursday (25 Feb), Central Singapore Mayor Denise Phua on Thursday (25 Feb) defended the mayoral post and the Community Development Councils (CDCs) run by mayors.
Ms Phua said that the CDCs was a brainchild of then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1996, who envisioned a tightly knit compassionate and self-reliant community in Singapore, with more privileged groups in society helping the less privileged based on specific geographies.
This is different to the functions of Government ministries that have a broader, more focused role nationally.
Mr Singh yesterday noted that the Government allocated S$20 million to the CDCs in the Unity Budget last year, with the amount increased to S$75 million dollars a month later in the Resilience Budget.
“This injection is equal to all the reserves of the CDCs put together according to the CDC’s FY 2018 annual report,” he stressed.
Mr Singh said that bodies such as the Citizens’ Consultative Committees (CCC) are more closely connected to the ground.
He observed that representatives of market and merchants’ associations are commonly present on the CCCs and that CCCs are more targeted, as there are such committees for each ward or constituency.
“So it would appear to me as if the Government is, in view of their relative absence in the public mindshare,” said Mr Singh.
Addressing Mr Singh’s remarks on Wednesday about how the Government is “trying to find some way to make the CDCs relevant” by asking them to manage the CDC voucher scheme, Ms Phua said that such a suggestion is “belittling” towards the CDCs and their partners.
All eligible Singaporean households will receive S$100 worth of CDC vouchers to be utilised in heartland shops and hawker centres.
The vouchers aim to assist households in reducing their expenses and to help keep local small businesses afloat, as announced by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat last week.
The CDCs’ role in the voucher scheme, said Ms Phua, is clear: They “organise the resources, communicate the scheme, and get as many merchants as possible to sign up and make full use of this well-intended help scheme”.
Ms Phua also said that bodies such as the CCCs do not always have market and shop representatives sitting on the committees, whereas the CDCs reach out to merchant and hawker associations by tapping on a network that includes volunteers and national bodies such as the Singapore Federation of Merchants’ Associations and its subsidiary, the Heartlands Enterprise Singapore.
“Mr Singh’s suggestion to have the CCCs or grassroots volunteers run this multi-million help scheme is either ignorant of or insensitive to the reality on the ground,” she said.
The CDCs, Ms Phua added, serve to support national initiatives at the district level, complementing the work of the grassroots.
“More importantly, they are active in the non-grassroots space. CDCs keep in regular touch with non-grassroots players such as the district’s business and corporate community, and the social service agencies,” she said.
Ms Phua also tried to draw parallels between the roles of Mayors and the CDCs, and that of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s creation of the Leader of the Opposition role after last year’s general election.
“Did Mr Singh not accept the role when asked — and the office, and the research assistant, and the salary — and try his best to be relevant too? Singaporeans, too, ask what the role of the Leader of the Opposition in our Parliament is,” she said, adding that such is especially when all of the elected opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) currently are “all from one single party”.
Two Non-constituency MPs are from the Progress Singapore Party.
“His comment on the CDC’s relative absence in the public mindshare has also given us some food for thought: Perhaps the biggest mistake we made was not to have better publicised the work that we do,” said Ms Phua.
The “real work” is “in the work”, she continued. “How much publicity does one have to put out just to justify one’s existence and to prove one’s value?”
“Would Singapore society be worse off or better off without the CDCs? This is a question that is best answered by the beneficiaries of the work done by the CDC,” said Ms Phua, adding that attempts to “politicise” the CDCs’ and their partners’ good work should be avoided.
Responding to Ms Phua’s explanation, Mr Singh replied: “I expected a robust response to my speech and indeed Ms Denise Phua’s remarks are not surprising.”
He stressed that raising a point about the extent of Mayors’ roles was not “a personal sort of vendetta against the current Mayors or Mayors who have been full-time”.
“Neither was it an indictment against the programs that are run by CDCs,” added Mr Singh.
He noted that Ms Phua’s explanation “did not provide a complete picture” of the evolution of CDCs over the years since its conception.
“When the CDCs were first formed in 1996 or 1997, the Mayors were not full-time. They were part-time. They became full-time. They became full-time appointments, to my understanding, after elections in 2001, and that’s because the trajectory of the Government’s thinking at that time was government programmes,” said Mr Singh.
A lot of roles have devolved since, such as how ComCare is now under the Social Services Offices.
He highlighted also that Ms Phua’s response did not address whether it is still “viable” for Mayors to perform full-time duties, particularly when the roles they used to perform are now carried out by different organisation such as those in social services.
Ms Phua said that she is “probably the only full-time Mayor” as the others are “all double-hatting, or triple-hatting sometimes” as Ministers and other roles, adding that she is running the largest district with three divisions.
“I don’t know whether you consider them full-time, but I do know that they only get one pay,” she added.
Mr Singh reiterated that his question is “certainly put out”, and that it is now on the Government to decide whether Mayors should be full-time or part-time.
He added that the issue of mayors and CDCs is not something that has only cropped up recently — it has, in fact, “been a problem in my view for the longest time”.
Mr Singh quoted the remarks of his Aljunied GRC MP predecessor, Zainul Abidin Mohamed Rasheed who served as Mayor of the Northeast Community Development Council from 2001 to 2008.
In a committee of supply debate from 2002, Mr Zainul said:
“Recently, Radio 93.8 started a series of programs where they interviewed Mayors and staff of the CDCs to explain and to talk about the CDCS. To my surprise, most of those who were interviewed by Radio 93.8 claimed that they were not aware of what the CDC was all about and they do not even know who their Mayors were, despite the fact that we have carried out quite a number of activities.”
“I think the point here is nobody is questioning the projects that the CDC runs. The question is: Is it ostensibly possible that these projects also could be carried out with charities, some of whom have a huge footprint not dissimilar to very worthy initiatives that Ms Denise Phua herself helms?” Mr Singh concluded.