SINGAPORE: Mayor of Central Singapore District Denise Phua on Thursday (Feb 25) rejected comments by Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh who questioned the relevance of the Community Development Councils (CDCs).
The Workers' Party (WP) chief said in Parliament on Wednesday that it appears the Government is "trying to find some way to make the CDCs relevant" by placing them in charge of a voucher scheme in this year's Budget.
He also questioned the need to have full-time mayors heading the CDCs.
"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 their partners," said Ms Phua (PAP-Jalan Besar) on Thursday.
Giving an overview of the work they do, Ms Phua said although CDCs function under the People’s Association, their value is in their “relative agility and ability to respond and develop programmes in the district faster than a bigger government machinery”.
“CDCs work at the district level, complementing the work of the grassroots, but more importantly in the non-grassroots space. CDCs keep in regular touch with non-grassroots players like the district’s business and corporate community, the social service agencies, schools and institutions of higher learning,” she added.
These networks have allowed the five CDCs - Central Singapore, North East, North West, South East and South West - to roll out 70 local district initiatives that served more than 676,000 beneficiaries between February and October last year, she noted.
CDCs were set up in 1997 to build a “cohesive, compassionate and self-reliant community” in Singapore, according to the People’s Association.
Mooted by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1996, Ms Phua noted his vision of a "tightly-knit, compassionate and self-reliant community in Singapore, with the more able in society helping the less able".
“For many years, CDCs focused primarily on ‘assisting’ and are known mostly to lower-income households for administering the Government’s financial assistance schemes,” she said.
Although this function has since been taken over by Social Service Offices under the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), CDCs continue to assist in other ways, said Ms Phua. She added that these include aggregating needs and resources at a district level, building capability and connecting the community, which grassroots bodies and government ministries are “not quite set up to do”.
As for the CDC voucher scheme that was announced in the Budget speech last week, Ms Phua said the function of the CDCs in the scheme is "clear".
"From scratch, the teams 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,” said Ms Phua.
READ: Heartland shops welcome CDC vouchers, but experts say long-term solutions needed to revitalise business
She told the House that Mr Singh's suggestion that CCCs or grassroots volunteers could run the voucher scheme was “ignorant of or insensitive to the reality on the ground”.
“Grassroots CCCs are not set up to run schemes of this magnitude,” she said, adding that CCCs do not always have market and shop representatives sitting in the committees.
"Instead, merchant and hawker associations are reached by tapping on a network organised by the CDCs that comprise CDC and CC staff, contract staff, grassroots volunteers and national bodies such as the Singapore Federation of Merchants’ Associations and its subsidiary, the Heartland Enterprise Centre Singapore."
It was announced last week that all Singaporean households would receive S$100 in vouchers to be used at participating neighbourhood shops and hawker centres, which would be given out by the CDCs.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat also said in his Budget speech that a S$150 million grant would be given to the CDCs to support the voucher scheme.
Responding to Mr Singh's comments about the relevance of CDCs, Ms Phua said: “There is nothing to be ashamed about making sure one is always relevant.
"When Prime Minister Lee graciously created the role of the Leader of the Opposition, much to Mr Singh’s surprise himself, did Mr Singh not accept the role when he was asked - and the office, research assistant and salary - and try to do his best to be relevant too?
“Singaporeans do also ask what the role of the Leader of Opposition in our Parliament is, under the circumstances that all nine of the elected opposition MPs are from one single party."
She added that the biggest mistake the CDCs made was not to have better publicised their work, although she noted that the “real work” was in what they did to benefit others.
"The real work is in the work and the people we benefitted. Do not politicise the good work of the CDCs and our partners," she said in rounding up her speech.
“Would Singapore society be worse or better off without the CDCs? Sir, this is a question best answered by the beneficiaries of the work done of the CDCs."
FULL-TIME OR PART-TIME MAYORS?
Mr Singh thanked Ms Phua for her response, saying his suggestion for the role of mayors to be reviewed was not part of a personal vendetta against current or former mayors, or an indictment of CDC programmes.
The WP chief noted that the role of mayor was not a full-time appointment when CDCs were formed in 1997, only becoming such after the 2001 General Elections when it was decided that government programmes such as ComCare assistance would go through the CDCs.
“Is that the case today?” Mr Singh asked, pointing to the current administration of ComCare through the SSOs.
Ms Phua said she is the only full-time mayor, adding that others were “double hatting or triple hatting”.
South West District Mayor Low Yen Ling is also Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth as well as Trade and Industry.
North East District Mayor Desmond Choo, South East Mayor Fahmi Aliman and North West District Mayor Alex Yam also have positions with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).
“I don’t know whether you consider them full-time mayors or not,” she said, adding that contrary to reports suggesting that mayors receive an allowance on top of what they get as MPs, mayors only receive “one pay”.
Mr Singh said he had put forward his concerns and that it was now up to the Government to decide whether the role of mayor should be a full-time or part-time one.
He cited comments by former North East Mayor Zainul Abidin Rasheed, who in 2002 said that he was surprised that many residents remained unaware of what CDCs did or even who their mayors were, despite the work they did.
“I think the point here is nobody is questioning the projects that the CDCs run, the question is, is it ostensibly possible that these projects also could be carried out with charities, some of whom have a huge footprint not dissimilar to very worthy initiatives that Member Denise Phua herself helms like Purple Parade?” he said.
Responding to Mr Singh, MP Carrie Tan (PAP-Nee Soon) - who founded charity Daughters of Tomorrow which works with women from underprivileged families - said the capacity of charities is limited, with many organisations wanting to focus their resources on the work that they do.
The value of CDCs has been in helping charities, by reaching out to corporations and others to pool resources and support for charities and their work, said Ms Tan, adding that charities have benefited greatly from such support.