Central Singapore District Mayor Denise Phua yesterday 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 voucher scheme is belittling the CDCs and our partners," she said during the debate on the Budget.
"There is nothing to be ashamed about making sure one is always relevant," she added, outlining 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 those in need.
Under the latest voucher scheme announced by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in the Budget on Feb 16, all Singaporean households will get $100 worth of CDC vouchers for use in heartland shops and hawker centres. The five CDCs are still working on the details of the $150 million scheme.
Their function in the voucher scheme is clear, said Ms Phua. "We organise the resources, communicate the scheme, and get as many merchants as possible to sign up and make full use of this wellintended help scheme," she said.
In his speech at the start of the Budget debate on Wednesday, Mr Singh, who is Leader of the Opposition, said 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, 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 yesterday, Ms Phua cited how Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had, after the election, "graciously" created the role of Leader of the Opposition, to Mr Singh's surprise.
She said: "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 they made was not to have better publicised their work.
CDCs were mooted by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1996 to complement other grassroots groups and help manage programmes to bring people in the community together.
Their roles have evolved, Ms Phua noted, citing how they used to administer national financial assistance schemes, a role now done by Social Service Offices. But given their size, CDCs continue to play a role in national initiatives such as SkillsFuture.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, they brought together resources to help residents find training and jobs. The mayors also helped ensure students who used to get free meals in school continued to get e-vouchers for meals during the circuit breaker, Ms Phua added.
"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 ministry."
Mr Singh had suggested that citizens' consultative committees (CCCs) in the constituencies could administer the voucher scheme.
To this, Ms Phua said the CCCs do not always have market and shop representatives, whereas the CDCs tap a network that includes volunteers and national bodies such as the Federation of Merchants' Associations, Singapore and its subsidiary, the Heartland Enterprise Centre 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.
Ms Phua added: "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."
Replying yesterday, Mr Singh clarified that he did not harbour any personal vendetta against mayors. He was trying to ask if there is still a need for them to be full time, given how roles they had are now done by others.
Mr Singh cited how when CDCs were first formed in 1997, mayors were part-time until after the general election in 2001. "That is because the trajectory of the government thinking at that time was that government programmes... would go through the CDCs."
He cited the Hansard to illustrate how the councils' budgets were increased, from $19 million in 1997 to $153 million in 2001, and said this evolution of the councils' role was best encapsulated when then Community Development Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said around 2010 that all government schemes go through the CDCs.
"Is that the case today? A lot of roles have devolved," Mr Singh said, adding that as many functions are now not in the CDCs' hands, their budget has been reduced significantly.
"Is it still viable for mayors to be full time?" he asked.
In reply, Ms Phua said she was the only full-time mayor. "That is, I think, because the Prime Minister feels I am running the largest district here - 23 divisions. My fellow mayors are all double-hatting or triple-hatting sometimes," she said. "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."
South West District Mayor Low Yen Ling is minister of state at two ministries, 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.
Mr Singh also said the issue Ms Phua made about public mindshare and CDCs has been a problem for the longest time, in his view.
"Nobody is questioning the projects the CDC runs. The question is, is it... possible that these projects could also be carried out with charities, some of whom have a huge footprint?" he added.
On mayors, Mr Singh said: "I have made my point, and it is now really in the Government's hands."