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Explainer: The perennial issue of public funding for upgrading works in opposition wards

SINGAPORE — It is a perennial issue that opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) and the Government had sparred over previously.

The barrier-free ramp at Block 108 Bedok Reservoir Road that triggered the public spat between Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh and People's Association grassroots adviser Chua Eng Leong.

The barrier-free ramp at Block 108 Bedok Reservoir Road that triggered the public spat between Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh and People's Association grassroots adviser Chua Eng Leong.

SINGAPORE — It is a perennial issue that opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) and the Government had sparred over previously.

This time, it is a barrier-free access ramp that triggered a public spat between Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh and People’s Association (PA) grassroots adviser Chua Eng Leong.

Mr Singh is an MP for Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) while Mr Chua is the branch chairman for the People’s Action Party (PAP) in the ward. The latter was part of the PAP team in Aljunied GRC that lost to the WP in the 2015 General Election.

Mr Singh took to Facebook to accuse the PAP of being “divisive” and having “double standards” when it comes to how certain things are done in opposition wards.

The ramp at Block 108 along Bedok Reservoir Road was handed over to the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) by the PA on Oct 15.

But Mr Singh questioned why it had taken so long after the project was first mooted in 2012, when it could have been completed in just months. He also claimed that other proposals by opposition MPs for the community were “commonly ignored by the People’s Association”.

Mr Chua responded on Facebook on Oct 16 by saying that Mr Singh’s allegation of a deliberate delay in the completion of the ramp was “unjustifiable” given that a proposal for the project was similarly mooted by the Eunos Citizens’ Consultative Committee (CCC).

Shortly after Mr Chua put up his Facebook post, Mr Singh responded to say among other things that he was “delighted to see the CCC finally engage this issue, albeit only after things have to go public”. He added that “repeated emails, requests for answers have gone unanswered and ignored, over many years”.

The dispute continued earlier this week, when Mr Singh made public his communications with PA’s grassroots leaders. The summary by Mr Singh goes back to 2012 and includes emails, letters and reminders that he and AHTC sent to PA representatives over Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC) funding for various projects, including the ramp at Block 108 along Bedok Reservoir Road.

FIRST RAISED IN 1992

Mr Singh’s complaint is an issue that elected opposition politicians have raised since 1992. It stems from the CCCs’ control of some S$40 million in CIPC funds issued by the Ministry of National Development (MND) to upgrade estates with facilities such as covered walkways, footpaths and cycling tracks.

In opposition wards, MPs looking to tap CIPC funds will have to submit proposals to the CCC, which is a grassroots organisation under the PA.

Since the CCC also comes up with ideas for community improvement projects, it will have to look at these, as well as proposals submitted by the ward’s MPs, and decide which projects to prioritise.

The CCC will then submit an application, endorsed by a grassroots adviser, for the funds to the MND’s CIPC. The CIPC consists of 10 PAP MPs — such as Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Dr Teo Ho Pin and Ms Joan Pereira — and Mr Victor Lye, a PAP candidate for Aljunied GRC who contested in the 2015 General Election alongside Mr Chua and lost.

The approved funds will then be disbursed to the CCCs, not the town councils. Separately, the town councils can propose upgrading works under the Housing and Development Board's (HDB) Neighbourhood Renewal Programme and Home Improvement Programme.

WHO ARE THE GRASSROOTS ADVISERS?

In PAP wards, grassroots advisers are the MPs themselves. And in non-PAP wards, they are often the losing PAP candidates.

Can opposition MPs be appointed as grassroots advisers? The question had been asked before, and the answer was no.

“Grassroots advisers are appointed by the Government of the day to guide the PA grassroots organisations in carrying out (the mission of promoting social cohesion and racial harmony, and connecting the people and the Government),” said Cabinet minister and PA deputy chairman Chan Chun Sing in Parliament last year.

“This includes explaining difficult and sometimes unpopular policies that are necessary for the future of Singapore, such as a GST hike and foreign manpower policies. We do not presume that opposition MPs believe that they would be willing or able to execute this role for the Government of the day.”

Mr Chan is part of PA’s board of management, which is chaired by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

PA spokesperson Ooi Hui Mei had echoed the view in a letter to TODAY in 2011: “It is not possible to appoint opposition MPs as advisers because we cannot ask opposition MPs to help the Government to connect better with the people.”

GOVT'S POSITION

The reason for such a system was explained in Parliament in 1995 by then-Senior Parliamentary Secretary for National Development Matthias Yao: “Town councils, by law, can only work within the boundaries of HDB estates, in particular, within the common areas of the HDB estate.

“And if we give the money to the town councils, then the private estates and privately-run commercial and industrial areas will never get this money.”

In 2015, then-Minister of State for National Development Mohamad Maliki Osman said in response to queries by Mr Singh that the objective of disbursing CIPC funds this way is to ensure community bonding when funding upgrading projects.

“CIPC… is a community-oriented programme. It is community-oriented because we want to build community cohesion through an upgrading programme. Not all upgrading programmes are just purely upgrading,” Dr Maliki had said.

CCCs decide what should be prioritised as they are “close to the ground” and will be “better able to decide” which projects are most useful to residents, he said. “(The CIPC’s) key objective is to bond residents, working together with their community leaders, to improve the living environment.”

WHAT OPPOSITION LEADERS, NMP SAID

Former Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong broached the topic at least eight times over his 27 years as an opposition MP in Parliament. In 2009, in his last address on the topic, he had called it a “one country, two systems” policy that prejudiced “legitimately-elected” opposition MPs.

In a heated debate in 1995 that lasted about 45 minutes, former WP chief Low Thia Khiang, who was then Hougang MP, had argued that the mechanism serves to deprive opposition wards of funds to improve their estates, so that the PAP can say during election time: “You see, the opposition has not done much to improve your constituency.”

Then-Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong had chimed in on the issue in 2007 in response to an announcement that S$32 million would be made available over five years through the CIPC to implement barrier-free access in housing estates.

He said that the method of disbursing funds is “unhelpful and unfair” to the disabled and elderly folks living in opposition-held neighbourhoods.

“They should not be subject to political considerations such as whether the ward in question is an opposition ward,” he said. “I would suggest that a better way to distribute these funds is to make direct grants to the town councils for their use.”

WHAT ANALYSTS SAY

To address the long-running issue, Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan suggested that non-politicians, instead of the losing PAP candidates, be appointed to the CCC for an opposition ward.

He said the CIPC can also publish its decisions and provide details of all projects approved or otherwise, complete with reasons, along with the quantum allocated for a project to appear fund neutral.

Going forward, National University of Singapore political scientist Terence Lee reiterated the principle that public monies should be used for the construction of facilities, for the benefit all Singaporeans in all constituencies.

Related topics

Pritam Singh Workers' Party Chua Eng Leong PAP People's Association CCC MND

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