Mayors galvanise support to meet needs on the ground

Goh Yan Han speaks to the five mayors on their plans and the role of CDCs

MAYORS ON A MISSION: From left: Mayors Desmond Choo of North East District, Alex Yam of North West District and Fahmi Aliman of South East District. All three are committed to serving their districts with special focus on different areas, from creating jobs and linking residents with opportunities to encouraging a healthy lifestyle and promoting interfaith dialogue. ST PHOTOS: KHALID BABA, ALPHONSUS CHERN
Ms Denise Phua's biggest wish as mayor of Central Singapore District is for its residents to have a better life. From left: Mayors Desmond Choo of North East District, Alex Yam of North West District and Fahmi Aliman of South East District. All three
MAYORS ON A MISSION: Ms Denise Phua's biggest wish as mayor of Central Singapore District is for its residents to have a better life. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

When rolling out initiatives for residents, sometimes size matters.

That is why mayors, who helm districts that cover large areas, can pull together resources and roll out initiatives that may be a stretch for MPs in their constituencies.

They are also able to quickly to pick up on emerging needs and implement solutions quickly and more nimbly, said the five newly sworn-in mayors in interviews with The Straits Times.

Ms Denise Phua, Ms Low Yen Ling and Mr Desmond Choo have been reappointed, while Mr Alex Yam and Mr Fahmi Aliman are new to the job.

Ms Phua, mayor of Central Singapore District, said people often have questions about the role of mayors and Community Development Councils (CDC).

First, mayors identify the needs of residents, she said. They bring together resources and tap a network of corporate allies, social service agencies and others. Then, they create and roll out initiatives to meet residents' needs, she added.

Mr Choo, serving a second term as North East District mayor, said they can take a broader perspective on resources and what is needed on the ground. For example, tertiary students who rely on casual jobs have struggled during the pandemic as there are no banqueting jobs and fewer part-time roles at cafes.

"We are able to see these needs, and able to create pilots quickly and tackle problems. It took us six weeks, from firstly encountering the problem, assessing it, putting together a sum of money, to then rolling it out," said Mr Choo.

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New mayors, Mr Alex Yam of the North West District and Mr Fahmi Aliman of the South East District, share their plans for their respective districts.

North East CDC's Tertiary Student Transport Scheme provides $150 or $300 to eligible students.

When CDCs were first formed in 1997, they provided social and employment assistance, said Ms Low. These functions were later given to the Ministry of Social and Family Development, and Workforce Singapore - then known as the Singapore Workforce Development Agency.

But some aspects of CDCs remain unchanged, said Ms Low. These include their ability to respond quickly to a crisis, such as Sars and the global financial crisis, as well as to galvanise local support.

Also unchanged is their role to promote social cohesion in multiracial and multicultural Singapore, and deliver social and community programmes for vulnerable families in the district, she added.

When needed, the five CDCs, which each runs its own initiatives, come together to launch nationwide programmes, such as the CDC Vouchers Scheme and Student Meal Scheme amid the Covid-19 pandemic, said Ms Low, who is chairman of the mayors' committee. Their flexibility allows them to give out assistance faster than state aid from the Government, which tends to be more careful, given that tax dollars are involved, she added.

When the mayors developed the Student Meal scheme, they discussed plans daily via Zoom for about 10 days, said Ms Phua. "The beauty of the CDC is that we have some flexibility in this middle office, to build and tap the vast corporate and ground network that we have in our districts, and respond... in a more nimble and responsive way, of course always within our resources and constraints."

Mayors and CDCs are no replacement for the role played by MPs and grassroots advisers, and ministries and other help groups on the ground. Instead, CDCs play a supporting and connecting role, like an "invisible hand", said Ms Phua.

Mr Fahmi, a newly elected MP, said he wondered at first how he could connect with stakeholders in his constituency. "When I stepped into the CDC, I realised they have all this information. They're very connected with all the stakeholders, corporate partners, schools, services."

Cultivating relationships and linking up those who need help with the right resources on his own would have been "a bit tough" since he is new to the job, said Mr Fahmi.

Mr Yam said the CDC, at its best, plays the role of an enabler, helping those on the ground with initiatives by providing resources and a wide network of partners.

"So for us, it's not a matter of too many people using our resources. That's always a happy problem. What we don't want is a situation where people don't understand or are not aware of the schemes that we have, and therefore they're underutilised," he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2020, with the headline Mayors galvanise support to meet needs on the ground. Subscribe