Involvement of grassroots, civic and business organisations in politics – a cause for concern?

Straits Times, 2013
Letter to Straits Times, 2013, by Mr Ho Ka Wei, director of Corporate Communications, MCCY

The 5th election in 6 years will take place in Bukit Batok on 7 May 2016 – and it looks like it is not going to be a fair fight between the candidate from the People’s Action Party (PAP), Murali Pillai, and Dr Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

Well, fair fights in Singapore’s elections (whether general, presidential, or by-elections) are rare, given how the ruling PAP controls all aspects of the propaganda machine – especially the mainstream news media. While Nomination Day is still a few days away, you see the news being quite fair for the moment, but as is always the case in Singapore, once the election proper kicks in, all sense of fairplay goes out the window.

The PAP’s candidate, no matter who he or she is, will always be given the better part of the (positive) coverage by the media here.

Be that as it may, and it is a hurdle which all opposition candidates have to overcome, another aspect of elections in Singapore is becoming a serious worry – the involvement of grassroots and civic organisations, and grassroots leaders themselves.

The case of Victor Lye, a CCC chairman and candidate for the PAP in 2015, is a recent one that comes to mind. Lots were written about this but the mainstream media have not questioned the wisdom of allowing the intertwining of roles from those such as Mr Lye.

And then there was the involvement of the Federation of the Tan Clan Associations endorsing the PAP-backed former PAP minister, Tony Tan, in his bid for the presidency in 2011.

“I would strongly urge all chairmen of Tan clan associations to call on their members to support and vote for (him),” the federation’s secretary general told the media then.

And again, the mainstream media and the PAP/Government kept a complete silence on the matter.

Now pause for a moment and consider the PAP reaction if the Tan clan had expressed its support for any one of the other presidential candidates (who were all also named “Tan”.)

How would the PAP have reacted? You can probably guess.

And in last year’s general election, the PAP Sembawang GRC team held its press conference at a home for the aged – the SWAMI Home – when introducing its candidates, even though the home’s constitution does not allow for such political activities on its premises.

And so, we now come to the by-election in Bukit Batok and how one merchants association has stepped in to apparently help the PAP candidate, Murali.

On 17 April, after the Prime Minister had said he would call a by-election in the constituency and after Murali was named as the PAP’s candidate for the contest, the news reported that the Bukit Batok West Merchants Association had helped organise a community event with Murali.

Ong [screenshot from The Independent]
Ong [screenshot from The Independent]
The event – a carnival – saw grocery being given out to needy residents.

It soon emerged that the president of the merchants association – one Ong Gee Hong – was also the chairman of the Bukit Batok Zone 5 Residents Committee, an offshoot of the People’s Association, the umbrella grassroots organisation which oversees more than 1,700 grassroots units.

While one might feel that Mr Ong should know better and should have kept himself and his association out of such a community event at such a politically sensitive time so as to avoid any accusation of the grassroots being involved in partisan politics, he might be forgiven for being overly enthusiastic in wanting to do his part to help the needy.

But what one fails to understand is how a would-be Member of Parliament such as Murali, who incidentally is also a lawyer, did not see the potential disrepute which the grassroots would be brought into at this moment in time if he accepted to collaborate with Mr Ong and the association, given Mr Ong’s position in the grassroots.

And Mr Murali would know about Mr Ong’s background as he (Murali) claims to have been working the ground in Bukit Batok for not a few years.

So, why do it? Why accept such a collaboration at such a time?

One would also ask the same question of Dr Tony Tan, and Mr Lye as well.

In fact, one would also pose the question directly to the PAP Government: Are civic and business organisations allowed to be involved in or participate in the promotion or endorsement of political parties during an election?

If it is, then I think we need to be clear of the consequences – and the incident involving the Federation of the Tan Clan Associations’ public endorsement of Dr Tan needs to be very carefully evaluated.

clans

As I wrote then:

The most disturbing issue here is this: That a federation, which naturally has as members people who are named “Tan” who are also naturally Chinese, should see it fit to openly and proudly give its endorsement to a presidential candidate who is also of the same ethnic decent.

No non-Chinese presidential hopeful has stepped forward in this latest presidential election, even though there are six hopefuls.

The issue becomes more stark – and worrying – if there were.

Imagine a non-Chinese hopeful contesting Dr Tony Tan – and the Tan federation lends its support to Dr Tan.

This would mean the election becoming polarised along racial lines, not to mention highly divisive.

The non-Chinese candidate might well have to then seek open support from his own “associations”.

Singapore would go down the drain in a heartbeat. The People’s Action Party government has always abhorred politics along racial, ethnic or religious lines.

So, let’s play fair – and be mindful of the consequences for the country. Don’t abandon common sense for political expediency or political opportunism.

And when candidates take the low road in their desperate bid to win a parliamentary seat, we need to and must call them out.

In fact, the government itself had cautioned against this, as the following shows.

In a letter to the Straits Times forum page in 2013, Mr Ho Ka Wei, the Director of Corporate Communications, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), explained the danger in this:

“If any ethnic community were to organise itself politically, other communities would respond in kind. This would pull our different communities apart and destroy our racial harmony.”

And most importantly:

“The rules are indeed the same for all. The Government supports many NGOs and VWOs. Government MPs who serve with them, as well as everybody else, must be clear that their role is to help achieve the particular social, cultural or educational goals of these bodies, and not to exploit these bodies for their own political ends.

On 4 May 2013, the Minister of MCCY, Lawrence Wong, reiterated the point.

“Similarly, while individuals in the NGOs are free to express their views, they should not use their organisations to pursue a partisan political agenda. Otherwise we may end up with religiously based VWOs or ethnic-based groups being used for political purposes. That’s something we cannot afford to risk in Singapore.”

So, why did the government not say anything when the Tan clan association publicly endorsed Dr Tony Tan in 2011?

And in the same spirit of keeping politics only for political parties – which is the PAP government’s own position for many years – the grassroots and business organisations should also be subject to the same.

And thus, accordingly, those who hold positions in these organisations should resign their positions before they actively get involved in politics.

Alternatively, the government can declare the opposite – that it is now open season for one and all to be involved in politics – but it cannot ban others form being involved in politics while it hypocritically engages in the same behaviour.


NOTE:

On 1 May 2013, I emailed Mr Ho to seek clarification on the Government’s position on the Tan clan association’s support for then-presidential candidate Tony Tan’s campaign.

“During the presidential elections in August 2011, it was reported by the media that one of the presidential hopefuls, Dr Tony Tan, was being ‘endorsed by the Federation of Tan Clan Associations, which has over 10,000 members, in his bid to become Singapore’s third elected president.’

“I would like to ask how the Government – or MCCY – sees the endorsement of Dr Tan by a clan association which represents an ethnic community (namely, Chinese), and if this endorsement goes against what you stated in the letter on 29 April vis a vis the Nizam Ismail saga.”

I did not receive any reply or response from Mr Ho.

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