Who’s Politicizing the Governance of Constituencies?
I was a Potong Pasirian. For more than two decades from my teenage years, my family and I lived in the small housing estate and opposition ward managed by the well-loved Mr Chiam See Tong. A recent visit to the neighborhood brought back fond memories for my family and I, who waxed lyrical about how so little had changed in the charming town.
While we can now look back on our days in Potong Pasir with nostalgia, I remember what I dreaded most about living there: the daily long walks under the scalding sun from block 118 nestled right inside the town to the main road of Upper Serangoon where we then took a bus to school and other destinations.
Potong Pasirians of my time could instantly relate to this inconvenience: in those days there was only one bus service (service 142) that plied the entire neighborhood.
There used to be two, but bus service 147 was rerouted a few months after Mr Chiam was returned in GE 1991 such that it no longer looped into the town. Despite the petition of more than 8,000 Potong Pasirians and the fact that the feeder also served hundreds of students at the Saint Andrew’s School in the neighborhood, the bus service was removed in 1992 (“No direct bus to town,” The Straits Times, 5 April 1992).
PAP would, of course, claim that this was not politically motivated but Potong Pasirians like myself felt otherwise. And there were other laughingly petty moves in a similar vein throughout the decades in this opposition ward, as listed in a reader’s comments to this blogpost.
You Think We Stupid?
So it was with much amusement that I read Khaw Boon Wan’s self-righteous parliamentary speech (full-text), which I excerpt below.
1) In response to Sylvia Lim’s suggestion that the AIM transaction was meant to trip up incoming MPs:
… are we so stupid? As the WP themselves point out, the people who suffer are the residents. Why would we want to deliberately disrupt the lives of residents in Aljunied? Would the WP just keep quiet and not make a political issue out of it? Who then would get the blame? Why would the PAP want to hurt the interest of residents in Aljunied and alienate them? How could we hope to regain Aljunied if we did this?…
…So when Ms Sylvia Lim said that the AIM transaction shows that the PAP is hurting the people in Aljunied and that it is just “collateral damage in a bigger political game”, I am disappointed at such a comment, What is the bigger political game? It is about winning back Aljunied, not about doing something petty that will just upset everybody and make us lose Aljunied permanently (emphases mine).
2) In response to the politicization of Town Councils (TCs):
Mr Pritam Singh and Mrs Lina Chiam added their own flavour on this politicisation of TCs by referring to this old topic of upgrading projects and CIPC (Community Improvement Projects Committee). Residents in opposition wards are not excluded from the selection of upgrading programmes whether it is the Home Improvement Programme (HIP) or the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (NRP). In our selection process, MND will try to spread out the projects among the wards and TCs. Priority is always given to the older blocks. Within each town, we also give weight to the TC’s ranking of projects.
I could not help rolling my eyes as I read through the speech.
Going by the experience of Potong Pasirians (and Hougang residents too), it is all too evident that PAP has not been averse to disrupting the lives of residents as a part of its bigger political game.
“Old topic” or not, the HDB upgrading programs are another case-in-point as Pritam Singh and Lina Chiam rightly cited. To refresh selective or failing memory, it was former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong who politicized the upgrading projects (“Voter will decide upgrading priority,” The Straits Times, 13 April 1992):
While those constituencies which gave the PAP a clear vote would receive first priority, Mr Goh made clear that the HDB upgrading project would still be carried out nationwide, as overall, the majority of Singaporeans had voted for the PAP…
When the HDB started deciding on which constituencies to upgrade, factors such as the demographic profile and age of the flats would be considered. But where they were the same, how residents vote at the polls would determine how soon they could have the upgrading (emphasis mine).
Thus residents in opposition wards were unfairly denied the upgrading in their neighborhoods for years. Yet when Low Thia Khiang and Chiam See Tong overcame the hurdles and offered free lift upgrading to their constituents, Mah Bow Tan, citing rules set by the Ministry of National Development, insisted that residents must co-pay for the upgrading (?!!).
Talk about hurting the interests of residents.
TCs and Governance
The good thing that emerged from the AIM saga is that a review for TCs is now in order. Lee Yi Shyan, Senior Minister of State for National Development and Trade and Industry, said that the review committee will look into TCs’ financial responsibility and handover arrangements in the event of a change of Member of Parliament (MP).
I suppose he meant the procedures in handing over a TC to an MP of another political party, which will likely be increasingly common in the coming years.
Disruptive practices that may sabotage the incoming MP of another party and, in turn, damage the interests of constituents, should be banished.
It is also long overdue to relook at TCs’ financial responsibility, an issue that should be addressed during the financial crisis of 2008 when it was exposed that some TCs had mismanaged their sinking funds.
The review committee has to tackle fundamental questions such as: Should sinking funds even be used for dabbling in financial products? And why do TCs have to chalk up so much sinking funds in excess?
These issues concern the larger good of Singaporeans residing in HDB flats and warrant the attention of Minister Khaw, who ended his parliamentary speech with the following plea:
… I often look at the way politics is being run in many other countries with great sadness. Instead of engaging one another to solve problems, parliamentary debates are conducted more like political theatre, obsessed with only scoring points against each other, while ignoring the serious issues facing the country. I really hope Singapore does not go down this route. Please, for the sake of our children and future generations…
I personally comb through nominations for estate upgrading to ensure that the projects are selected based on objective criteria and that they also respect TCs’ order of priority. Every TC wants MND to select more projects from their town. We try to make sure that all TCs benefit from upgrading within the overall budget that we get from MOF. I cannot satisfy all TCs but I will always strive to be fair … Parliament is now more diverse with different political parties and different opinions. But that should not prevent us from still working together for the larger good of Singaporeans.
Well-said, dear Minister Khaw!
And tolong tolong, please walk the talk. Singaporeans will be watching.
This blogpost first appeared on The Online Citizen.