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PAP is changing its ground politics

Something is happening at the PAP grassroots, at least in the opposition wards, which seems to have escaped the eyes of mainstream media. It has decided to stop rivalling the Workers’ Party MPs in catering to residents’ woes through its version of the Meet-the-People sessions. 

The change in approach came almost right after the general election last year, when the People’s Action Party lost the four-member Sengkang GRC ward to the WP. The four defeated candidates have not re-started MPS, although they remained chairman of the party branches. 

What is more significant is that the PAP branches in the Aljunied GRC and Hougang wards have stopped such sessions too, although they have been a staple offering since the wards were lost to the WP more than a decade ago. 

The PAP confirmed this to Rice Media, but has said nothing about whether this signals a change in strategy in its efforts to reclaim the wards, or a sign of territorial surrender. I don’t expect it to lay its cards on the table but it’s a notable change in PAP culture.

Another material change affecting grassroot politics was reported in the Chinese language Lianhe Zaobao last month:  funding rules for community projects in the wards have been revised. The ministry-level Community Improvement Projects Committee no longer asks that the Citizens’ Consultative Committee’s approval be sought when the town council wants to  build, say, a covered walkway or ramp. The town council can also apply to the CIPC independently. This was contained in National Development ministry notice sent to town councils in April, said Zaobao. 

That fixes a big bugbear of the Opposition MPs who have to go through the ignominy of asking the CCC, headed by the PAP defeated candidate, to agree to projects  they want to have for residents. The Government has consistently maintained that the CCCs, which have to raise 10 per cent of the bill, are best placed to decide on the benefits of the project. Its last public say on the matter was in a written parliamentary reply to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singapore in July 2020. 

“CCCs are close to the ground and can help identify projects which will be most useful for the residents, and through that process, strengthen bonds within the community. 

CIPC allocates its budget to the CCCs each year based on the number of HDB residential units in each Town. CCCs have the flexibility to allocate their notional budget and prioritise projects within their Towns based on local needs and which will be most useful for the residents. Town Councils may approach their respective CCCs if they have any enquiries or proposals.’’ 

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The MND is chary about revealing the grants it disburses under CIPC. But a check through town council reports has shown the disparity in the amount of grants to PAP and WP town councils. The Opposition Aljunied-Hougang town council received no CIPC funding at all in 2017 and 2018. It received $316,000 in 2016. On the PAP side, annual grants usually do not total less than $1m in 2017 and 2018. One even obtained more than $10 million. 

This has a material effect on the ability of town councils to deliver concrete benefits to residents. It has to use more of its own surpluses to pay for projects. 

According to Rice Media, the CIPC composition has also been revised. It’s come down from 12 persons to just five and, other than chairman Sim Ann, Senior Minister of State for National Development, it no longer consists of PAP politicians.The rest are civil servants from four different public agencies. 

So the PAP is drawing a clearer line between the elected and the unelected at the grassroot level, and between the State and party machinery.

It might argue that petition-writing is a service that any agency can provide. But it is more often perceived as a way to undermine the role of the elected Opposition MPs, especially in a politically apathetic society. It doesn’t help that even public agencies tend to be confused about the source of the petition, attributing them to the unelected rather than the elected. 

Now the PAP has to think about how to win residents’ favour, like any opposition party. PAP members who are no longer activated for petition-writing duties every week have to think about other ways to engage constituents. 

It is likely, though, that they wear two hats : party and grassroots member under the umbrella People’s Association. Should the roles be distinguished to ring fence the community centre as a non-partisan platform? Recall that professional bodies have been exhorted time and again to keep their political views to their private selves.

The changes to CIPC and its funding process are way overdue. The G simply has no leg to stand on when it maintains that the CIPC is non-partisan simply because it is parked in a ministry, given its previous composition of PAP politicians. Now, the G has given the CIPC a more professional cast, with civil servants from the Finance ministry, Land Transport Authority and the Housing Board to scrutinise the viability of projects. 

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The Citizens Consultative Committee, however, is still a formidable presence at the grassroots. Defeated PAP candidates usually chair them. But it is not always the case that they return to the same ward to fight again. Save Ong Ye Kung, the defeated PAP candidates of Aljunied GRC in the 2011 election dispersed altogether or retired from politics. Even Mr Ong did not contest in Aljunied but in Sembawang GRC in the next round. 

It looks like the same thing will happen for the PAP candidates in Sengkang. Former political office holder Amrin Amin, for example, told Yahoo News that he is back where he started his political journey nearly 20 years ago: helping out Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in his Chong Pang constituency’s meet-the-people sessions. 

Has the PAP eschewed hardball politics on the ground, paying heed instead to increasing calls for fairness and equity on the political playing field? How will this affect its electoral chances? 

In my view, pouring its services and largesse into the opposition wards haven’t worked. It re-took Potong Pasir single-seat ward in 2011, after five tries from an ageing Chiam See Tong who didn’t seem to have groomed a successor to take his place. It took back Punggol East from the WP in 2015, more because it parachuted a veteran MP rather than put up a long-time grassroot member who had been the surrogate MP in the intervening years. 

Residents have come to expect fair treatment in terms of G services, regardless of whether they voted for the PAP or not. The vote-for-upgrading gambit employed by the PAP in the 1992 general election will lead to howls of protest if it is re-enacted. 

The town council was meant to be the distinguishing factor, highlighting the ability of politicians at estate management. But even the WP’s messy town council finances didn’t seem to play a part in voter consciousness. The vote share last year for WP actually increased for Aljunied GRC.  

In Parliament, observers have noted a mellower debating style, with attempts to find common ground by office-holders even as they level charges of falsehoods at the opposition bench. More data has been released in Parliament on hot button issues such as immigration. Just as the Opposition have less reason to talk about being handicapped on the ground, its MPs cannot complain about non-engagement in Parliament. 

The PAP, by making those moves at the ground level and in Parliament, is showing itself to be more approachable and even, ahem, likeable. If this is the way the 4G leadership intends to govern the country, coupling efficiency and effective government with fair engagement and transparency, I’m all for it. 

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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