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Whom is a fair target for political criticism?

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Each time Temasek Review or other netizens expose the identity of a civil servant or grassroots leader convicted or formally accused of some crime or misdemeanor who’s not a PAP MP or political acolyte we observe two different reactions from readers. There’s the crowd which blames the ruling party for not doing enough to check a person’s background and the media for not reporting his ties with the government, and alternatively there’s the crowd who says it’s not fair to blame the PAP for the wrong-doings of someone who’s not even in office or planning to run for one.

Take for instance this recent expose by Temasek Review, when Lianhe Zaobao initially reported on how an unnamed married man had left his pregnant mistress on Hong Kong and cheated on her. Subsequent investigations by netizens and reporting by the Temasek Review revealed that man was none other than Mr Raymond Teoh Tham Kim, who currently holds a Chairman post in the Toa Payoh East Division, a grassroots organisation.

Some people argue that this shouldn’t be political fodder since he isn’t an MP and certainly has no plans to run for office. This would be a convincing argument if Singapore had a governmental structure where the ruling party, grassroots organisations and the civil service are all kept separate. It does not.

Grassroots Organisations

Grassroots organisations whose purpose are to serve the local needs of residents are often exploited for political advantage. None other than Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew proudly and explicitly declared so while welcoming visiting Chinese Communist Party officials interested in learning how the PAP maintains its one-party dominance in Singapore:

In his outspoken way, Lee admitted that all grassroots organisations (with nearly 30,000 community workers) which interact and organise activities in the estates were actually part of his party.

It is used by the PAP to foster bonds with Singaporeans.

Since they are publicly-funded and overseen by the People’s Association, a government statutory board under the Ministry of Community Development, the community workers are supposed to be non-partisans.

“… Everywhere they (the Chinese) go, they see the PAP – in the RCs (residents’ committees), CCCs (citizens’ consultative committees), and the CCs (community clubs),” Lee beamed.

The critics don’t faze the architect of the scheme. Lee once said: “I make no apologies that the PAP is the (Singapore) government and the government is the PAP.”

Furthermore, in a post explaining how the grassroots organisations are structured such that it remains under political control of the ruling party, Gerald Giam highlights how even elected opposition MPs such as Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang remained shut out of grassroots organisations and hence denied the resources the PAP is able to deploy to its advantage. To add insult to injury, often it’s the PAP candidate which loses to these two MPs in repeatedly whom are appointed as key advisors to the grassroots organisations in charge of the districts they happen to represent:

The de facto leader of all the CCCs, CCMCs, RCs and NCs in each constituency is known as the “adviser to the grassroots organisations (GROs)”. This adviser is appointed by PA, presumably with the nod of its chairman, the Prime Minister. In PAP constituencies, PA always appoints the elected MP as the adviser. But in opposition wards, PA appoints the PAP candidate who lost in the last election, not the opposition MP.

The same anomaly is repeated in the CDCs. CDCs have a whole panel of advisers, who are by default the GRO advisers. In South West CDC, where all the component constituencies are under the PAP, it is not surprising that all the advisers are PAP MPs. But in South East CDC, there is one grinning adviser who is not an MP — Sitoh Yih Pin, the man who lost to Mr Chiam See Tong (SDA) in Potong Pasir. North East CDC also has a non-MP — Eric Low — sitting as adviser. He lost to Mr Low Thia Khiang (WP) in the last two elections, garnering just 37% of the popular vote in 2006.

Mr Low Thia Khiang and Mr Chiam See Tong are completely excluded from the CDCs.

CDCs, Community Clubs and other GROs often organise events which involve a large number of residents. Most of the time, the guest-of-honour at such events is — you guessed it — the PAP grassroots adviser.

All this effectively denies the opposition MPs access to the whole array of grassroots resources that PAP MPs have easy access to. The opposition MP has to build up his own grassroot network from scratch, while PAP MPs simply inherit the control of the RCs, CCCs and CCMCs.

To drive home the above point, an official reply from the Ministry of National Development to a Straits Times article emphasises that opposition MPs cannot be appointed as grassroots advisors because opposition MPs, though they form part of the government as their role as Members of Parliament are somehow mysteriously unaccountable because they cannot be held responsible if their oversight of the grassroots organisations turns out to be unsatisfactory:

In Singapore, MPs also have an important role in running town councils. As provided for in the Town Councils Act, this role includes managing the common property of HDB estates and carrying out local improvement projects, thereby contributing to the well-being of the people of the constituency.

The roles of MP and adviser are distinct and separate, even though government MPs, wearing their other hat of advisers, are expected to perform both roles.

Opposition MPs cannot be appointed advisers, because they do not answer to the ruling party. They have no constitutional or legal obligation to carry out national programmes on the Government’s behalf. Nor can the Government hold them to account if they perform this role unsatisfactorily.

Let me re-emphasise that the LUP is not a town council programme. It is a national programme which receives most of its funding from the Government.

Of course the above answer simply begs the question of why isn’t the Lift Upgrading Programme made a Town Council Programme? Is it because otherwise the ruling PAP party would not be able to deny opposition-held wards funds for the programme or exercise political control over it?

Add to this the fact that Opposition-run town councils often receive far less funds from the government than PAP-managed ones, which gives the ruling party power to punish voters who vote against them and reward those who remain loyal. One can hardly be left with the impression that many of the grassroots organisations, which should remain non-partisan, seldom hew to the neutral line.

The Civil Service

As for the civil service, who can forget that it was a former high-ranking civil servant, Accountant General Chua Kim Yeow who was tapped by the PAP as a reluctant opponent to Cabinet minister Ong Teng Cheong in Singapore’s first presidential election in 1993?

Former TOC Chief Editor Andrew Loh opined recently in an article that the PAP may be recruiting election candidates from the civil service. This despite the fact that the Civil Service works under a Code of Conduct stated as follows:

  • Remaining completely neutral in all political matters and matters of public controversy
  • Refraining from using their official positions to further their private interests
  • Avoiding from giving favours or special treatment to any external party
  • Avoiding from engagement in outside activities which could lead to a conflict of interest

In a letter to the Public Service Division (PSD), Andrew asked the PSD to declare firmly that the civil service “is not and has not become a partisan political player”. However he received a non-committal reply from the PSD stating that they are curiously not in a position to comment on speculation on possible political involvement:

Dear Mr Loh,

Your query of 27 Feb 2011 refers.

Civil servants may volunteer to serve in grassroots organisations as these provide opportunities to contribute to the community as well as understand ground issues. The Public Service Division is not in a position to comment on media speculation about potential political involvement.

Andy ONG
Manager, Communications & International Relations
Public Service Division, Prime Minister’s Office

What can one make of this reply? It’s obvious that the PSD has refused to rule out possible political involvement in the upcoming elections in any possible manner.

It’s not just the musings of Andrew Loh or TOC which proves that under the PAP the civil service has become overly politicised. Dr Cho-Oon Khong, a political analyst concurred much likewise in the book Political legitimacy in Southeast Asia: the quest for moral authority:

The most prominent of these groups was the civil service, whose senior members merged with and to a large degree even supplanted the political leadership. In Singapore, civil servants have long played a key role in the political process. Lee Kuan Yew exhorted them: “Your role as civil servants is not only to help the Government well, but to help the Government in carrying the bulk of the people along with it.” The civil service must therefore do more than work with the government: it must help mobilize popular support and build a consensus in favour of government policies.

As the ruling elite co-opted the civil service, so the civil service in turn became politicized to serve the ruling elite. As noted earlier, the two were naturally inclined to share the same values, and a close identification of interests developed between them … The alliance, based on a convergence of interests between an increasingly technocratic civil service and the political leadership, has played a vital role in conferring legitimacy on the government.


The ruling party and their apologists should not cry foul for being unfairly blamed for misdeeds and crimes of appointed civil servants and grassroots leaders if they do nothing to dispel the impression that grassroots organisations and the civil service are often called upon to serve barely concealed political ends. Political accusations of misconduct of grassroots leaders and civil servants are fair game in the political arena if they refuse to demarcate between the civil service, grassroots organisations on one hand and the ruling party on the other.


Written by defennder

March 2, 2011 at 7:48 PM

Posted in Singapore affairs

8 Responses

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  1. […] Discourse – Singapore Notes: Real World Salaries – Furry Brown Dog: Whom is a fair target for political criticism? – Diary of A Singaporean Mind: 2 S-chips suspended for accounting irregularities… – One Less […]

  2. Yes, but how many ‘Singaporean’ know the difference.

    A lot of them think that the opposition is not creditable or worth voting for. Why? Because of the difficult terrains that the main party have already set for the oppositions to succeed. Just check, where did the main party get all their creditable candidates? Sorry to say, they can practically source from everywhere from civil servants to private companies CEO and even grassroots leaders or even ‘People Association’.

    Opposition? There are a few but I don’t know whether they is enough tough believer out there willing enough to stand up against the main party. Just imagine if you are a teacher ~ directly under MOE, and you tell the principal that you are going to be a opposition candidate. What do you think will happens? But, if you tell the principal that you are standing for the main party, I’m sure the scenario will be completely different.

    Main Media such as our different tabloids ~ newspapers, radio and television, are not making it easy for the oppositions as well. What about our civil servants or government sectors such as the ‘Home Affairs’, Police Force, etc. Not forgetting about ‘People Association’, ‘Constituency Office’ or CC and even the grassroots organizations such as CCC, RCs, IAEC, MAEC, WEC, YEC, hawkers associations, merchants associations, etc….the list can go on and on, which are the political instruments of the main party. Organizing events and promoting them are so easy because funding are never a problem as it always come indirectly from the government. Opposition?

    All the above will always claim to be neutral and not political. You and I know that it’s never so or the ‘Adviser’ for the constituencies for ‘Potong Pasir’ and ‘Hougang’ will be the oppositions.

    With such a system and monetary supports for the main party, how to have creditable oppositions. All I can see is as long as the system exist ~ uneven playing field, a truly democratic country we hope to be is still far, far away.

    But, there is still a glimmer of hope.. Not now I believe, but I hope all ‘Singaporean’ are using the power of their choice to make a difference and hope for the future.


    March 3, 2011 at 3:09 PM

  3. That must be the most corrupt manner where political leaders manipulate the govt resources and funds to further the interests of their political party.

    And then they try to justify themselves for not being corrupt by paying themselves the highest pay that any politician in the world could hope for.

    What a joke it is and we must be fools to believe them. No wonder we have been referred as daft people.

    Alan Wong

    March 3, 2011 at 4:34 PM

  4. Good article.
    The PAP’s tentacles are everywhere, in the judicial system and the SAF. Even all the largest companies in Singapore are controlled by the government, thus denying the Opposition access to funds to campaign effectively.

    That’s just how it is, and I don’t think anything can be done as long as it is a one-party country.


    March 3, 2011 at 5:55 PM

  5. I’ve always believed Defennder’s many well-researched and excellently written articles deserve better prominance. He has a natural flair for writing – and in his own unique way as well.


    March 4, 2011 at 11:48 AM

  6. Hi all thanks for your comments. Much of this article is written not by myself but rather sourced from other writers like Gerald Giam, TOC and TR. Credit must be given where it’s due to their articles from which I cited liberally.

    My writing style isn’t exactly unique. I adopted a modified form of it from Scott Sumner and Yves Smith, both bloggers, the former an economist professor at Bentley University and the latter a former banker. Both of whom make extensive use of aligned quotes in their articles. Both are in my blogroll list on the right. Daily Kos front page diarists make use of quotes in the same manner as well. I’ve had some feedback that this wasn’t a good writing style especially since it makes the articles unduly long. Most of the Singapore blogs I’ve seen tend to defer all quotes until the end of their posts.

    The original focus of this blog (since it was started in 2009) wasn’t on Singapore but instead on the global financial crisis (especially in the US) the subsequent financial recovery efforts. In recent times, I have posted almost exclusively on Singapore matters. I hope to be able to continue to write, subject of course to what spare time I have.


    March 8, 2011 at 7:06 PM

  7. The RC Chairman in my zone organizes bus tours for residents to Chinatown, Johor and other areas which meets their recreational needs. Other events include Children parties, art and craft competition and karaoke gatherings for senior citizens every odd weekday. As far as I know, there has been no brainwashing of these residents on the merits for voting the PAP. So associating these volunteer RC members with the ruling PAP party is a stretch for me. More importantly, you are imposing the “guilty by association” assertion on ALL grassroots organizations, including volunteer RC members by your arguments. In this instance, I find that position untenable in light of the many volunteer RC members I met in my housing estate.

    Secondly, you are driving home the point of fairness. The political arena is not a debating venue, but an institution where political parties strive to win and reinforce their power through a variety of ways. Fairness is an ideal, but hardly used by the ruling majority to level the playing field COMPLETELY for the minority parties. Accordingly, should the opposition parties secure a collation in the future to push the PAP as a minority party, I will not find it surprising at all if they were to push for initiatives that reinforce their stay in power.

    In the end of the day, it is the life of the voting citizens which determine the make up of the political environment in Singapore. As far as I know, many in Singapore are taken care by the presumably authoritarian government materially, while young Singaporeans have access to jobs that are created through investments locally or by MNCs attracted by the low corporate tax structure in the country. Despite this, citizens in Hougang and Potong Pasir have voted repeatedly for Mr. Low and Mr. Chiam, highlighting that the power held by the supposedly “unfair” political grassroot structure holds little value for registered voters in those SMCs. This proves that there is hope for opposition members to build on the work done by these veteran opposition MPs, and develop an alternative social platform that makes sense for all Singaporeans.

    economic fact

    March 15, 2011 at 2:29 PM

  8. economic fact

    I did not discuss this here but did so elsewhere. Personally I believe guilt by association should not be legitimate argument. I would like both sides to not use it. But at the same time it’s the government controlled mainstream media which for some reason enjoys highlighting the Opposition political affilation of people who run foul of the law, while simultaneously ignoring that of the ruling party. See here for eg.

    So for one side to not use such an argument, ie. to unilateral disarm without the other doing so. Is this really a wise move?

    It’s just like district gerry-mandering in the United States. Both parties do it when they’re in power. Needless to say there are plenty of people on both sides who would wish this undemocratic practice would stop. But who is to say the other side won’t continue to do so if you decide to stop? Is it wise to deprive your own side of a political advantage when there’s no indication the other side will reciprocate your move and do likewise?


    March 17, 2011 at 1:26 PM

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