Thursday, October 22, 2009

'Adviser over MP' raises many questions

Oct 22, 2009
Who should manage lift upgrading at the constituency level?
By Sue-Ann Chia

THE official reply from the Ministry of National Development (MND) to justify why opposition MPs should not manage the Government's lift upgrading programme (LUP) in their wards raises many questions.

The MND's argument is as follows: The LUP is a national scheme that ought to be managed by government representatives, as elected opposition MPs are not answerable to the Government.

So the task falls to government-appointed grassroots advisers in Hougang and Potong Pasir. In this case, both are People's Action Party (PAP) candidates who lost at the polls.

To press home the point that opposition MPs have no right to manage the LUP, the National Development Minister's press secretary Lim Yuin Chien said in a reply to Workers' Party MP for Hougang Low Thia Khiang:

'Mr Low is mistaken when he cites the 'will of the people' expressed in general elections to justify why he should play a leading role in the LUP in Hougang.

'The will of the people expressed in general elections is to elect a government for the country as a whole; and not to elect separate local governments for each constituency.'

Mr Lim added in his letter to The Straits Times Forum Page: 'Singapore has a one-level system of government. MPs, whether People's Action Party or opposition, do not constitute a local government in their constituency.'

These arguments deserve a closer look. Let us first consider 'the will of the people', as expressed by the votes they cast in elections.

The general purpose of general elections here is undoubtedly to elect a national government, as Mr Lim points out. But voters also choose their local representatives: Members of Parliament.

The individual who commands the support of a majority of MPs becomes the prime minister and he forms the government. In most democracies, the prime minister is usually also the leader of the party with the most number of MPs in Parliament.

The Singapore system is quite different from, say, Israel's, where voters vote directly for political parties - not individual candidates - and parliamentary seats are divvied up according to the proportion of votes each party garners.

Here, we elect MPs directly; and the majority among them choose a prime minister. In our system, MPs do have the mandate of voters. We vest in our elected representatives the power to speak on our behalf and act in our interest. They are our particular, local MPs - not the representatives of the amorphous 65 per cent or 35 per cent or whatever who voted for particular parties.

Yet Mr Lim said Mr Low is wrong to assume that this gives him the authority to lead the LUP in Hougang. 'MPs - PAP or opposition - do not constitute a local government in their constituency,' wrote Mr Lim.

If that is so, it is a principle that should apply to all 84 MPs, equally. But only the two opposition MPs are denied the right to manage the LUP.

The MND's justification appears to be that the Government works through grassroots advisers on national schemes. PAP MPs are appointed as advisers to the grassroots organisations in their wards by the People's Association (PA). In the two opposition wards, the PA picked the PAP candidates who contested but lost in the wards in the last two polls as the grassroots advisers. Therefore, the Government should work with them, not the elected MPs, in those two constituencies.

This would imply that the Government accords more recognition to grassroots advisers than MPs. If this is the case, Singaporeans may ask: So what happened to their elected representatives?

To Mr Lim, the MP's role seems to be confined to that of running the town council: Collect service and conservancy fees from residents and maintain the estate. And yet town councils, he emphasised, should not be considered local government - for Singapore has only 'one level of government'.

This statement, however, contradicts statements that senior government leaders have made previously.

In the 1997 polls, for instance, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong upped the stakes by getting PAP candidates to come up with detailed plans for their constituencies. The aim was to get voters to decide not just whether a candidate could make speeches in Parliament, but whether he also had concrete plans to improve people's lives, Mr Goh said.

'With town councils and community development councils, and my intention to give more power and responsibility to them (MPs), every election in a constituency is indeed a local government election,' Mr Goh explained at the annual PAP conference held before the polls.

At another event, he elaborated: 'In every constituency, there will be a local government with a local programme, and how you vote will affect immediately your own interest.'

His point was reiterated by then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew when Mr Lee commented on the PAP's 'local government' strategy. 'We know that if there is no direct stake, everything is the same, then the voter does not take his vote seriously. He would if he knows that he has a stake,' he said.

Then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong added: 'They know that the way they vote will influence their own personal well-being - their town, their neighbourhood, their property values.'

In the two elections that followed the 1997 polls, PAP leaders continued to invoke the 'local government' argument.

Singapore is not a federal state - so yes, there is really only one centre of power. But that does not mean that there is no local government - in practice and by policy.

When the Government announced in July that the LUP would be applied to ageing HDB flats in Potong Pasir and Hougang earlier than expected, many Singaporeans saw it as an act of political goodwill, recognising that all citizens - regardless of who they voted for - should benefit from national schemes.

Unfortunately, that act of goodwill was marred in its execution: In this case, MND's insistence on working only with the appointed grassroots representatives instead of the elected opposition MPs.

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