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Pritam Singh ‘belittling’ CDCs by asking if their role in voucher scheme is a way to ensure their relevance: Denise Phua

SINGAPORE — Member of Parliament (MP) Denise Phua, who is also a mayor, said on Thursday (Feb 25) that Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh was belittling Community Development Councils (CDCs) when he questioned the institution’s relevance.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (left) and Member of Parliament Denise Chua speaking in Parliament on Feb 25, 2021.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (left) and Member of Parliament Denise Chua speaking in Parliament on Feb 25, 2021.

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  • Mayor Denise Phua said that Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh was belittling Community Development Councils (CDCs)
  • He had questioned their relevance in Parliament a day before
  • His idea for other groupings to handle a voucher scheme showed he did not know the realities on the ground, she said
  • Ms Phua went through a long list of CDC’s initiatives in a lengthy defence of its structure
  • In response, Mr Singh stands by his query on whether mayors should still be full-time positions


SINGAPORE — Member of Parliament (MP) Denise Phua, who is also a mayor, said on Thursday (Feb 25) that Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh was belittling Community Development Councils (CDCs) when he questioned the institution’s relevance.

Mr Singh, who was the first to speak when the annual Budget debate kicked off in Parliament on Wednesday, questioned whether the Government was "trying to find some way to make the CDCs relevant" by placing them in charge of a voucher scheme.

Mr Singh also asked whether other organisations, such as the Citizens’ Consultative Committee (CCC), would be more suitable to take charge of this programme given that it is a grassroots organisation and should logically be more closely connected to the ground than the CDCs.

Ms Phua, who is the mayor of Central Singapore CDC, as well as MP for Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency (GRC), said that Mr Singh’s suggestion “is ignorant of or insensitive to the reality on the ground” as CCCs are not set up to run large-scale programmes.

“Mr Singh’s accusation, that the Government is trying to find some way for the CDCs to be relevant by asking them to manage the CDC vouchers scheme, is belittling the CDCs and our partners,” she said.

After Ms Phua’s lengthy defence of the CDC structure, Mr Singh rose to say that he expected a “robust response” to his speech and her comments are “not surprising”.

Mr Singh, an MP for Aljunied GRC, also said that he did not have any personal vendetta against any of the mayors nor was he indicting any of the CDCs' schemes.

However, given that the role of the CDCs has changed over the years, his question of whether the five mayors, who each head one CDC, should be full-time positions still remains, he said.


CDCs are grassroots bodies formed in 1997 under the People’s Association (PA) to strengthen community bonds and foster social cohesion.

While the CDC’s initial function of assisting lower-income households has largely been replaced by social service offices, Ms Phua said that the councils still play an important role in supporting national movements.

One example she cited was how the CDC network helped government agencies reach out to residents and get them to attend SkillsFuture workshops online during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over the last three years, more than 4,800 SkillsFuture Advice workshops reaching more than 127,000 participants were run by the five CDCs, she added. The one-hour webinar or workshop offers information to residents on SkillsFuture programmes and how they may go about developing resilience and taking up courses to upskill or reskill.

At the district level, Ms Phua said that CDCs worked with corporate partners to organise an initiative where vulnerable students in rental flats were provided with e-vouchers, because they may not have been able to have their free meals at school during the two-month partial lockdown due to Covid-19 in April and May last year.

“The agility and ability to garner resources is one of the CDCs’ uniqueness. Because we are not part of the big ministry and we are on the ground with a small team, that's how we remain agile,” she said.

Setting out a lengthy list of the several initiatives that the CDCs have started, Ms Phua said that this is how the councils have tried to stay relevant and add value even though their role has changed.

She said that Mr Singh himself had tried to stay relevant when the Leader of the Opposition office was “graciously created” by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Ms Phua asked: “Did Mr Singh not accept the role when he was asked, and the office and the research assistant and his salary? And try to do his best to be relevant, too?”

“Singaporeans also ask what the role of the Leader of the Opposition in our Parliament is, under the circumstances that all nine of the elected opposition MPs are from one single opposition party, what has been different?”

Mr Singh did not respond to that line of questioning from Ms Phua.

To his remark on Wednesday of the CDC’s absence in public mindshare, Ms Phua said that CDC’s biggest mistake is perhaps not generating better publicity of the work it does.

“But the real work is in the work. How much publicity does one have to put out just to justify one’s existence and to prove one’s value-add? The real work is in the work and the people (who have) benefitted. So I hope that (there would be) no attempts to politicise the good work of the CDCs and especially our partners,” she added.

Speaking after her, Mr Singh said that Ms Phua did not give a complete picture on the evolution of CDCs even though she did briefly share the origins of the scheme and how its role of assisting lower-income households has largely been taken over by social service offices.

Mr Singh said that when the CDCs were first launched, mayors were initially all serving on a part-time basis. They became full-time positions after the 2001 General Election (GE).

The budget allocated to CDCs was also increased in 2001 because the Government intended for all assistance schemes to be administered by the CDCs.

“Is that the case today? Many roles have evolved... Many other functions are now not in the hands of the CDCs anymore, and concomitantly, the budgets of the CDCs have reduced significantly. So I think the question that member Denise Phua did not answer is: Is it still viable for mayors to be full-time? I’d like to hear her reply to that,” Mr Singh said.

Ms Phua then replied that she is the only full-time mayor among the five of them probably because she is running the largest district, the Central Singapore CDC.

“My fellow mayors are all double-hatting or triple-hatting sometimes. And so, I don't know whether you consider them full-time mayors or not. But I do know that they only get one pay,” she said.

Currently, each of the five CDCs is headed by a mayor, all of whom are elected MPs:

  • Ms Low Yen Ling (South West CDC)

  • Ms Denise Phua (Central Singapore CDC)

  • Mr Desmond Choo (North East CDC)

  • Mr Alex Yam (North West CDC)

  • Mr Fahmi Aliman (South East CDC)

Based on a 2017 review of salaries for political appointment holders, mayors are paid S$660,000 a year, inclusive of variable pay and bonuses. This is on top of their annual MP allowance of S$192,500.

Mr Singh had said on Wednesday that there is scope for a serious review of the need to have full-time mayors. The role of CDCs has come into the spotlight after last year's GE because many Singaporeans feel that the salaries of mayors are “outrageous” and they think that the pay is not commensurate with the mayors' roles and functions, he added.

On Thursday, Mr Singh repeated the same question.

“I’ve made my point and I think it’s now really in the Government’s hands,” he said.


Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced last week in his Budget speech that all Singaporean households would receive S$100 worth of vouchers each to be used at participating neighbourhood shops and hawker centres and these vouchers will be administered by the CDCs.

A S$150 million grant will be given to the councils to support the voucher scheme.

In June last year, the CDC launched a voucher scheme, which provides lower-income Singaporean households with S$50 worth of vouchers that they may use at merchant shops and hawker stalls.

Giving an update on the progress of the voucher scheme, Ms Phua said that the first tranche of S$20 million was rolled out last year and a second tranche of the same value was given out in January this year.

The CDCs had to organise the resources, communicate the scheme to residents and get as many merchants as possible to sign up. And this was only possible by tapping the CDCs’ network, which comprises not just its own staff members, but also grassroot volunteers, contract workers and national bodies such as the Federation of Merchants’ Associations, Singapore.

She also clarified that the vouchers cannot be used in large supermarkets such as NTUC FairPrice, Sheng Siong and Giant.

Related topics

Parliament Denise Phua Pritam Singh CDC

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