The practice of appointing PAP candidates as grassroots advisers in opposition wards has been in the news of late due to disputes in Workers’ Party-held Aljunied GRC and Hougang. Insight digs up the history of this controversial practice.
On October 31, 1981, Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam won a by-election in Anson and became the first opposition Member of Parliament to be elected since 1963.
It was a historic win, for the then Workers’ Party chief had broken the 13-year monopoly of Parliament by the People’s Action Party (PAP).
A peculiar question arose in the aftermath of his victory: Who would be made adviser to Anson’s grassroots organisations?
Uncertainty in Anson
Between 1968 – the year the last Barisan Sosialis MPs walked out of the House – and 1981, Parliament was an all-PAP affair.
Every elected MP automatically became his ward’s grassroots adviser.
Shortly before the 1981 by-election, however, there was a rule change. The adviser no longer had to be the MP. Instead, he would be chosen by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
Mr Jeyaretnam observed then that as these rules were not gazetted, one could not tell exactly when changes were made.
For almost two months after the by- election, whom Anson’s adviser would be remained a mystery – at least to the public.
Mr Lee Khoon Choy was then a senior minister of state in the PMO and deputy chairman of the People’s Association (PA), a post he held from 1977 to 1984.
Mr Lee tells Insight that even then, he thought the elected MP should be appointed grassroots adviser.
‘I was in favour of allowing all elected MPs to be active in the centres,’ Mr Lee says, referring to community centres and others that come under the PA’s grassroots network.
‘They should be allowed to do so – after all, they were elected,’ he adds.
But as chairman of the PA, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew objected to allowing opposition involvement, he says. A line had been drawn on the matter.
On Nov 8, 1981, Mr Goh Chok Tong, then Health Minister, Second Defence Minister and deputy chairman of the residents’ committee (RC) steering committee, said RCs came under the PMO and would ‘continue to report to the PMO’.
Asked how Anson RC members should respond to Mr Jeyaretnam’s requests for help, Mr Goh said: ‘If the requests coincide with the efforts of RC members, which comply with what the PMO would like them to do, then I think they are legitimate requests. And I think RC members will comply.’
In his first post-election press conference, on Nov 13, Mr Jeyaretnam said he was unsure if he would accept the advisory role even if it was offered to him.
But he later said he would have to give such an offer serious consideration as he did not want any confrontation with the authorities.
A civil servant as adviser
On December 23, the PMO finally announced its decision. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had appointed PMO director Ong Kok Min as the adviser to Anson’s six grassroots organisations: three RCs, the citizens’ consultative committee (CCC), and two community centre management committees.
In response to the news, Mr Jeyaretnam told reporters that he intended to form his own grassroots committee.
‘I intend to get in a committee that will represent the residents and not the Prime Minister,’ he said.
Before the announcement, he had expressed his intention to make grassroots committees elected, rather than appointed by the Government.
In its statement, the PMO observed that since the PA’s formation in 1960, no opposition MP had been included in its committees and activities.
Advisers to grassroots organisations – which were government agencies under the PMO’s authority – were chosen for ‘their commitment to government policies’, said the PMO.
As an opposition MP, Mr Jeyaretnam was not expected to work for the success of the Government’s policies, it added.
The Government has not wavered from that line since. In PAP-held wards, it appoints MPs as grassroots advisers but in opposition-held wards, it gives PAP candidates that role.
Politics and the PA
In Parliament in 1983, Mr Jeyaretnam disputed the neutrality of grassroots organisations – a topic which would recur in the House for the next three decades.
He claimed that the PA and its organisations had been put to use ‘in promoting the fortunes of a political party’ – namely, the PAP.
As an example, he noted that PAP candidates at election time were accompanied by officials of CCCs and RCs.
In contrast, he said, the RCs in his constituency had shunned him.
Then PM Lee Kuan Yew retorted that Mr Jeyaretnam had ‘disqualified himself’ from being made adviser by disdaining the unelected nature of RCs.
As for the PA, it was ‘an unusual association to meet an unusual set of circumstances’, he said.
When the PAP came to power in 1959, it wished to combat the communist threat, said Mr Lee. But one problem was that people preferred not to be involved in politics, out of fear of communist reprisal.
‘We therefore came out with this proposition which enabled community leaders not to identify themselves with a political party but to identify themselves with the Government of the day. There is a clear distinction,’ said Mr Lee.
That proposition was the PA, conceived as a non-partisan body.
Speaking to Insight this week, Mr Lee Khoon Choy regrets how the PA and its organisations came to be embroiled in political controversy.
‘The PA should concentrate not on politics, but on culture, and how to bring the people together,’ he says.
His views have not changed from 1981: ‘The PA is for everybody,’ he says. That includes the opposition, he adds later.
Government explanations have failed to satisfy the opposition.
In the 16 years from 1981 to 1997, issues relating to the role of grassroots advisers were raised in Parliament no fewer than 10 times.
Mr Jeyaretnam raised them again in 1985, this time supported by Mr Chiam See Tong, who became MP for Potong Pasir in the 1984 General Election.
In an interview with Insight this week, Mr Chiam says his constituents were ‘very disappointed’ when he was not made adviser.
‘It was a slap in their faces. They elected me as their MP, and here came the PAP to take me away from them.’
Mr Chiam pursued the topic through the 1980s and 1990s. After the 1991 General Election saw more opposition MPs in Parliament, his complaints were joined by those of Mr Low Thia Khiang, then MP for Hougang, and Mr Cheo Chai Chen, then MP for Nee Soon Central.
The opposition MPs asked why they could not be made advisers to grassroots bodies; disputed the neutrality of the PA; complained about being denied the use of community facilities; and took issue with the process of applying for public funds.
The Government’s response remained the same through the years: grassroots advisers must help advance government policy, and opposition MPs cannot be expected to do so.
When Mr Chiam protested in 1987, then Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan noted that any PAP MP who did not help to advance government policy would be removed as adviser.
If Mr Chiam could state that he was able to advance government policy, then the PA would be prepared to consider him as an adviser, he added.
Then PA deputy chairman Lee Yock Suan echoed that sentiment in 1989.
But opposition MPs said that stance painted too obstructionist a portrait of them.
In 1995, Mr Cheo said that opposition MPs like him support and promote government policies that are good.
‘But if the policy is no good, then we have a duty to point it out,’ he added.
Mr Chiam tells Insight this week: ‘We are all Singaporeans. If it’s good for Singapore, we will put our full backing behind government policy.’
Members of the public have recently made the same point.
In a letter to The Straits Times on Aug 31 this year, the PA noted that grassroots advisers have to ‘help promote government policies and programmes such as anti-dengue and active ageing’.
Opposition MPs could not be expected to play this role well, it added.
In response, a flurry of forum letters expressed scepticism that opposition MPs would not promote such policies.
And on its Facebook page, the Singapore People’s Party – of which Mr Chiam is secretary-general – posted photographs of Mr Chiam’s efforts in those exact two areas: serving senior citizens at a ‘durian party’, and holding an anti-dengue campaign when he was the MP for Potong Pasir.
Gaining a political edge?
One consequence of opposition MPs not being grassroots advisers is that their town councils’ access to public funds becomes more difficult.
Applications for Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC) funds must get the approval of the CCC.
In opposition constituencies, the CCC adviser is usually a PAP member – often the defeated candidate at the previous election, or the candidate intending to contest the next election.
Projects by opposition-held town councils are hence unlikely to be approved, Mr Chiam and Mr Low have said.
Both have called for the town council to be allowed to apply directly for funds.
In 1995, Mr Chiam noted in Parliament that before Mr Low was elected, the Hougang CCC had supported several recommendations for CIPC funds.
But this support was withdrawn after the PAP lost Hougang, said Mr Chiam.
The next year, noting that defeated PAP candidate Andy Gan was adviser to Potong Pasir CCC, he said: ‘How do you think the defeated candidate will advise the CCC? To give support to the opposition’s application?
He noted that his own town council’s applications had been rejected by the Potong Pasir CCC.
The defeated PAP candidate is elevated ‘to a higher status’ than the elected MP and ‘given all the facilities to win back the seat’, said Mr Chiam.
Meanwhile, Mr Low noted that potential PAP candidates were often brought into the constituency as second advisers to the grassroots organisations, allowing them to ‘work the ground in the constituency and gain political capital’.
Even if this was the PAP strategy, it does not seem to have paid off.
Before the 1984 General Election, Mr Ng Pock Too – then political secretary to the prime minister – was made adviser to the Anson CCC. He ran against Mr Jeyaretnam that year and lost.
The Anson seat disappeared after the electoral boundaries were redrawn ahead of the 1988 General Election.
In Potong Pasir, a string of PAP candidates became grassroots advisers – but electoral victory remained Mr Chiam’s.
Mr Mah Bow Tan became adviser to the Potong Pasir grassroots organisations after his defeat by Mr Chiam in 1984, but handed over the position to Mr Kenneth Chen in 1988.
Mr Chen ran in Potong Pasir that year, but was defeated. Two weeks before the polls in 1991, Mr Andy Gan became adviser. He ran and lost in 1991 and 1997.
In early 2001, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin took on the role. He ran and lost in 2001 and 2006, but finally won the seat this year, after Mr Chiam left to contest in Bishan- Toa Payoh GRC.
The story was similar in Hougang, where defeated PAP candidate Tang Guan Seng became a grassroots adviser after the 1981 polls.
He was followed by Mr Heng Chee How, who lost in the 1997 election; Mr Eric Low, who lost in 2001 and 2006; and Mr Desmond Choo, who lost this year.
Many of the defeated candidates later entered Parliament by contesting in other seats and GRCs.
Mr Chiam, in 1987, warned that excluding opposition MPs from grassroots bodies might divide the nation.
‘We cannot have two worlds in Singapore – one who is supportive of the ruling party and the other who appears not to be supportive,’ he said.
And if there are more opposition members in the future, ‘the difference will be greater’, he said.
Today, there are six opposition MPs in Parliament. An alternative grassroots body has been set up in Aljunied GRC, which is held by the Workers’ Party.
Some have suggested that this duplication is unnecessary, and a result of the exclusion of opposition MPs from grassroots bodies.
‘It’s unnecessary and a waste of energy,’ says Mr Lee Khoon Choy, who thinks the Workers’ Party MPs should be involved in the PA organisations. He adds that ‘our society needs more harmony’.
Others have turned the question around and asked: Why should PAP MPs themselves be grassroots advisers?
Having PAP members on the ground to explain the party’s policies was crucial in the volatile decade of the 1960s, when ideological battles were being waged.
But the justification for having a party member as grassroots adviser, rather than a grassroots leader with no political affiliation, may seem less strong today.
As members of the opposition – and of the public – continue asking these questions, the three-decade-old response might eventually have to be reconsidered.
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This article was first published by the Straits Times on 23 September 2011. Photo courtesy of Bukit Batok East CLC.