Budget debate: Mayor Denise Phua rebuts Pritam Singh on relevance of CDCs and mayors

Central Singapore District Mayor Denise Phua thanked Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh for raising the subject of CDCs.
Central Singapore District Mayor Denise Phua thanked Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh for raising the subject of CDCs.PHOTOS: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - Central Singapore District Mayor Denise Phua on Thursday (Feb 25) roundly rejected the suggestion by Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh that a voucher scheme in this year's Budget was aimed at making Community Development Councils (CDCs) relevant.

"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.

"There is nothing to be ashamed about making sure one is always relevant," she added, giving an overview of the work of the five councils in assisting citizens who need help, supporting national initiatives like lifelong learning, and mobilising resources from businesses and the community to help residents in need.

Under the latest voucher scheme announced by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in the Feb 16 Budget to help households, all Singaporean households will get $100 worth of CDC vouchers for use in heartland shops and hawker centres.

This would help them defray the cost of living and support local businesses affected by the pandemic.

The five CDCs are still working on the details of the $150 million scheme, and will announce them once ready, Ms Phua said.

Their function in the voucher scheme is clear, she added. "We organise the resources, communicate the scheme, and get as many merchants as possible to sign up and make full use of this well-intended help scheme," she said.

In his speech at the start of the Budget debate on Wednesday, Mr Singh, who is Leader of the Opposition, noted that the CDCs came under the spotlight after last July's general election, with some viewing the salaries of mayors as outrageous.

He said the need for CDCs and full-time mayors continues to be widely questioned, as their work could be done by other agencies, and that their role in the voucher scheme was "potentially superfluous".

"It would appear to me as if the Government is trying to find some way to make the CDCs relevant in view of their relative absence in the public mindshare," Mr Singh had said.

In rebutting these points on Thursday, Ms Phua cited how Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had, after the election, "graciously" created the role of Leader of the Opposition, much to Mr Singh's surprise himself.

She added: "Did Mr Singh not accept the role when asked - and the office, and the research assistant, and the salary - and try his best to be relevant too? Singaporeans too ask what the role of the Leader of the Opposition in our Parliament is."

Ms Phua also thanked Mr Singh for raising the subject of CDCs, adding that perhaps the biggest mistake the councils made was not to have better publicised the work they do.

CDCs, which were mooted by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1996 and established in 1997, complement the work of other grassroots groups and help manage programmes to bring people in the community together.

Their roles have evolved over the years, Ms Phua noted, citing how the administration of national financial assistance schemes which they did for many years has since been taken over by social service offices in over 20 towns.

But because CDCs operate at the district level, they continue to support national initiatives such as lifelong learning and SkillsFuture, she added, noting that in the last three years, the five councils ran 4,819 SkillsFuture Advice workshops that reached over 127,000 participants in the last three years.

And during the Covid-19 pandemic, they brought together resources from various agencies and private training companies to help residents find training and jobs. The mayors also got together soon after the circuit breaker began to garner resources and ensure students who used to get free meals in school continued to get e-vouchers for meals, she said.

"The value of the CDC structure... is its relative agility and ability to respond and develop programmes in the district faster than a bigger government machinery," said Ms Phua.

Mr Singh had also suggested that Citizens' Consultative Committees (CCCs) in the constituencies could administer the voucher scheme instead.

To this, Ms Phua said that local bodies like the CCCs do not always have market and shop representatives sitting in the committees, whereas the CDCs reach out to merchant and hawker associations by tapping a network that includes volunteers and national bodies such as the Singapore Federation of Merchants' Associations and its subsidiary, the Heartlands Enterprise Singapore.

"Mr Singh's suggestion to have the CCCs or grassroots volunteers run this multi-million help scheme is either ignorant of or insensitive to the reality on the ground," she said.

Responding to Ms Phua on Thursday, Mr Singh clarified that in calling for a review of full-time mayors, he did not harbour any personal vendetta against mayors and was not trying to indict the CDCs' programmes. Instead, he was trying to ask if there is still a need for them to be full-time, given how many roles they once performed are now handled by different bodies, like social service organisations.

Ms Phua replied that she was the only full-time mayor.

"And that's, I think, because the Prime Minister feels that I'm running the largest district here - 23 divisions. My fellow mayors are all double-hatting, or triple-hatting sometimes," she said. "But I do know that they only get one pay."

South West District mayor Low Yen Ling is a minister of state, North East District and South East District mayors Desmond Choo and Fahmi Aliman are with the National Trades Union Congress, and North West District mayor Alex Yam is executive director of the People's Action Party.

Ms Phua said the CDCs should be assessed by the work they do on the ground and residents they benefit: "Would Singapore society be worse or better off without the CDCs? This is a question that is best answered by the beneficiaries of the work done by the CDCs."