SINGAPORE - As a statutory board, the People's Association (PA) supports the elected government of the day in implementing its policies and programmes, and this includes explaining difficult and sometimes unpopular policies, said Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing on Thursday (March 8), as he explained why opposition MPs are not appointed as grassroots advisers.
"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," he said.
But he stressed that government agencies, including grassroots organisations under the PA, would work with both grassroots advisers and opposition MPs "on matters related to their respective roles".
Mr Chan, who is deputy chairman of PA, was responding to Workers' Party (WP) MPs Pritam Singh and Faisal Manap, who raised concerns about the politicisation of the grassroots, because of the links between grassroots organisations and the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).
During the debate on the budget of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC) noted that all PA grassroots advisers are from the PAP, even in opposition-held constituencies.
He asked whether this policy of working with PAP MPs also extended to community development councils (CDCs).
To this, Mr Chan said grassroots advisers are appointed by the Government to guide the PA grassroots organs in carrying out their mission - promoting social cohesion and racial harmony, and connecting the people and the Government.
"The key criterion is that we believe that the person can help contribute to the mission of the PA, which is to bond our people and to help the government of the day to govern the country to make us a much more responsive Government," he added.
Citing the planned hike in goods and services tax (GST), he said he did not presume that the WP would want to work with the Ministry of Finance to explain the measure.
The WP had said that it voted against the Budget statement for the sole reason of not supporting the GST hike, which will take place some time between 2021 and 2025.
Said Mr Chan: "(Doing so) will put you in a very difficult position. So we perfectly understand that. So where it's appropriate, the agencies will work to serve the community."
On whether CDCs, which come under the PA, would work with opposition town councils, Mr Chan said government agencies "will not do and conduct any activities with any political party for political outreach".
"I think let's separate the government duties from anything that connotes political outreach. The government of the day must be very careful that whenever it spends its money, whenever it does its outreach, it does not overstep its bounds to the political realm. We keep these two functions very separate," he said.
However, Mr Singh said he had seen banners put up in celebration of particular festivals which carried both the logos of a CDC and a town council.
Saying that this was not considered political activity, he asked if CDCs would similarly be willing to work with the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang Town Council.
Mr Chan, noting that government agencies have worked with opposition town councils in the past, said Mr Singh should approach the respective CDCs.
During the debate, Mr Faisal asked if a non-PAP candidate, such as a retired public servant, can take on the role of grassroots adviser in an opposition ward to prevent politicisation of the role.
It is "not right" for a PAP candidate to take on the role of adviser, he said, as Meet-the-People Sessions by such grassroots advisers are held at the PAP branch, and appeal letters are signed off by them in their capacity as party branch chairman and also bear the party letterhead.
In response, Mr Chan said residents living in opposition wards are told that they should first approach their MP.
But if the resident still wishes to seek help from the PAP branch and grassroots adviser, the PAP branch chairman can draft, sign off and send the letter, he said.
Even then, said Mr Chan, "I'm sure the agencies will know who is the elected MP in that constituency... and the agencies will give the appropriate due consideration for the matter at hand".
"Many of us have multiple capacities. We sometimes write letters to our own ministries, but there's a clear difference. When you write a letter as an MP, you're performing your political role. If you're the minister in charge of that ministry, you have to consider and let your staff consider the merits of the case based on that," he added.
Asked by WP chief Low Thia Khiang about whether PA activities are considered political outreach, given that they are headed by grassroots advisers who are also PAP MPs or candidates, Mr Chan said there is a distinction between "political outreach" and "political impact".
"All government statutory bodies, when we execute our duties, will be serving the government of the day to... fulfil the agenda for the government of the day," he said.
"Then you ask when the statutory boards and the government agencies do their work properly and do their work well, does it have a political impact? The answer is obvious."
He added that it is the job of the elected government of the day to run the country and do its best for the citizens.
"That is why we select people to help the government of the day to make sure that we can connect... the people with the Government, so that we can become a more responsive society and more responsive government. There's no contradiction in that," he said.