SINGAPORE - The People's Action Party (PAP) said on Monday (April 13) it will stop all ground engagements such as market visits, home visits and Meet-the-People Sessions due to the circuit breaker measures put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
"At this time it is critical that, as far as possible, all of us play our part, to protect all of us, especially our seniors," the ruling party said in a Facebook post on Monday night.
"Once this is over we will be out there again, meeting you, organising activities and hosting Meet-the-People sessions. For now please stay home. Stay safe and take care."
The party's post came after Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Chia Shi-Lu drew a barrage of criticism for distributing masks to hawkers at Alexandra Village Food Centre with a grassroots leader who is seen as a potential candidate for the upcoming general election.
A picture accompanying a report in the Chinese evening daily Lianhe Wanbao on Sunday showed the Tanjong Pagar GRC MP giving out masks, accompanied by Colonel Eric Chua, director of the SGSecure Programme Office.
Pictures of the two men wearing masks while speaking to hawkers had led some to question why Dr Chia was meeting his constituents with a potential candidate, when many other activities such as Meet-the-People Sessions have been suspended because of Covid-19.
Former Workers' Party (WP) non-constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong shared the Wanbao report on Facebook and said he hoped leaders from the ruling party could set a "good example" in the fight against the coronavirus, noting that the WP had suspended outreach activities.
Responding to the criticism on Monday (April 13), Dr Chia told The Straits Times he was at the hawker centre on Sunday to encourage hawkers to wear masks, and the group accompanying him was kept small - fewer than five.
The hawker centre was quite deserted and the group did not interact with customers, he said.
"We were not doing a walkabout, we were there to tell people to wear masks when serving and please wear masks, it was more an education thing."
As for Col Chua, Dr Chia said he was "not there to campaign", noting that the former was an active volunteer in the GRC.
"He's been helping out in quite a few areas, in fact he's been helping with some of our food distribution programmes," Dr Chia added.
Under the strict social distancing rules, gatherings of any size are banned. People are allowed out of their homes only to perform essential tasks or to exercise. The rules are aimed at drastically cutting social interaction to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Meet-the-People sessions go online
The National Environment Agency (NEA) last Thursday also informed political parties that Meet-the-People Sessions (MPS) should not be conducted during the circuit breaker month, which began on April 7 and will last until May 4.
"The cooperation of all MPs, volunteers, as well as residents, is required to minimise the risk of transmission of Covid-19 in public spaces," an NEA spokesman told The Straits Times.
Over the past week, MPs have asked residents to send in requests for help online and stay home, instead of going down to the weekly MPS.
Because these sessions are not considered an essential activity, MPs will not be allowed to conduct them in person.
The restrictions present MPs with the challenge of ensuring the needs of residents continue to be met while adhering to circuit breaker rules.
Many MPs, including those from the WP, have posted notices on Facebook telling residents to contact them via e-mail instead.
The WP's Aljunied GRC posted e-mail addresses and phone numbers of its MPs that residents can contact if they need help.
Addressing residents in a Facebook post, WP chief Pritam Singh said: "All the Aljunied-Hougang MPs remain contactable through our e-mail addresses. Please do not hesitate to drop us a note on your pressing matters and we will follow up accordingly."
MPs from the ruling People's Action Party have turned to tools such as online forms, WhatsApp, video and phone calls to keep in touch with constituents.
Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng said he has noticed his "e-mail load" from residents seeking help going up by 10 times in recent weeks as the economic impact from Covid-19 has started to bite. He urged residents to continue to e-mail him or phone in during his Meet-the-People Session hours. He also posted on Facebook an online form they can fill up for help.
For some MPs, this week would be the first time these weekly sessions are switching to a completely remote format. Other MPs whose sessions took place last week after the measures kicked in had already adopted the new format.
"Face-to-face contact is always better - it's easier for us to explain policies and all, but these are difficult times, and we just have to adapt," Mr Ng said, adding that he would personally vet each letter before it is sent out.
Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC's Saktiandi Supaat said the distancing measures are necessary to protect both MPS volunteers and residents.
"Residents don't have to come down to MPS if we can help them electronically, we don't want to expose them to queues and bunching up. This is a very crucial point in our circuit breaker," said Mr Saktiandi.
Both he and Mr Ng say they handle about 40 to 50 appeals for help each week.
But just as how the coronavirus is forcing many businesses to rethink the way they do business, some MPs, like Tampines GRC's Desmond Choo, are wondering if these new measures could spawn more efficient methods of helping residents.
Mr Choo tried out a "call back service" at his MPS last night - instead of having to go to the MPS in person to take a queue number and wait for hours to meet him, residents can text a WhatsApp number to arrange for a volunteer to call them at a convenient time.
"In some ways, this gives residents greater convenience, and we might be able to reach out to them even faster," he said.
"If some of these measures work, we might look at implementing them on a longer term basis as part of the service we provide residents."