The Two-in-One MP
What should one look for in a Member of Parliament? A fiery temperament? A staunch commitment to principles? A strong motivation to fight for a cause?
How about the skill to balance accounting books and deal with cracked walls and unwashed ceilings?
In Singapore, MPs have dual roles: not only are they legislators debating and voting on laws in Parliament, they are also town council chairmen, overseeing the running and proper maintenance of the public housing estates in their constituencies.
This was not always the case; town council management was only added to the list of MP duties with the passage of the Town Councils Act in 1988 after three town councils had been set up in Ang Mo Kio as part of a pilot project in 1986. Previously, all housing estates were managed by the Housing Development Board (HDB), which was reported to have made the system inefficient and the estates monotonous. The idea of establishing town councils under the purview of the MP, then, was to allow residents more say in the running of their neighbourhood estates.
The Westminster system – on which Singapore’s system of representative democracy is based – does not marry the roles of town councillor and MP. Instead, separate elections allow voters to choose MPs and councillors. While the MPs represent the constituency in Parliament to debate and vote on national issues such as education, defence, foreign policy and economic policy, councillors work on local issues, holding surgeries (not unlike Meet-The-People Sessions in Singapore) where residents are able to approach them about matters related to the local area. There is nothing stopping voters from choosing a representative from one political party to be their MP, and someone from another political party to be their councillor.
Merging the roles of town council chairman with that of MP has had the effect of making general elections in Singapore hyperlocal. Instead of focusing on big issues such as inequality, discrimination or even free-trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, aspiring MPs are more likely to talk about having “heartware”, expressing the desire to create local bursaries and build more covered walkways. Even a journalist from the local broadsheet The Straits Times – not known to be the most politically critical publication – got tired of such motherhood statements, and wrote a column pointing out that MPs are not meant to be social workers, but legislators.
The emphasis on town council matters also gives the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) the upper hand. As the incumbent in most constituencies in Singapore, the PAP is the only party that can repeatedly promote its track record in town council management. Most opposition parties have never had the opportunity to run a town council, and this inexperience is used against them.
The interweaving of town council issues into the general election also allows the incumbent to trot out the ‘carrots’ – promises of upgrading and development in one’s neighbourhood if one voted them back in again.
Just one day before Nomination Day the PAP’s team for Chua Chu Kang GRC announced a S$385 million (approx. US$273 million) masterplan for the constituency. The plan covered everything from cycling paths to two new community clubs. When Zaqy Mohamad, one of the incumbent PAP MPs, was asked if this plan would still go ahead if they lost the election, he said, “A lot of these plans are on the assumption that (residents) put a good team in place that can deliver them on time and on budget.”
That's not something one can expect of an opposition team, as it has already been openly acknowledged that PAP wards are favoured when it comes to upgrading.
When the opposition does win a constituency, though, managing a town council can be a tricky business. During the last general election in 2011 the Workers’ Party (WP) became the first opposition party to ever win a Group Representation Constituency (basically a mega-constituency made by putting three to six wards together and getting the candidates to run as a team), but taking charge of the town council proved harder than it initially appeared.
The party first had to replace the town council’s managing agent, and only one managing agent bid for the job; for some reason, none of the companies that managed PAP town councils wanted to take the task on. The contract to use a computer system that had been used in the running of the PAP town council was terminated. The company that owned the system was later discovered to be a PAP-owned enterprise; after 14 town councils had developed the software, it was sold and leased back. (The Ministry of National Development Town Council Review Team concluded that there was no misuse of funds or conflict of interest.)
WP later ran into problems with an audit of its town council, and the PAP has gone to town with it, accusing them of ripping the constituents off and alleging that the managing agent had been "grossly profiteering". They've since consistently emphasised the need for integrity and competency, with the message being that only the PAP can run a town council properly. No amount of explaining by the WP will do; voters are likely to have to deal with the to-and-fro of arguing over town council management for the rest of the election period.
What does this really do for Singapore, and the need to have good representatives in Parliament when it comes to debating policy and voting on legislation? This focus on hyperlocal issues means that most of what we know about candidates – and there is precious little time to know more – is that they really have a heart for residents and will shake as many hands and hug as many babies as it takes to get that message across. Many will promise to champion bread-and-butter issues such as housing, transport and population, and while these issues are undoubtedly important, voters are still left with little idea of how these candidates will fare if faced with bigger questions related to foreign affairs or political rights.
The two-fold nature of being an MP in Singapore is not a natural feature of a democratic system. It has not always existed in Singaporean politics, but was added over two decades after independence.
Some will say that the Town Councils Act which turned MPs into estate managers was a clever piece of political manoeuvring, while others might feel that the original idea of giving residents more say in the way their neighbourhoods are managed was a good idea.
Yet what we now see is that the addition of town council management has muddied the waters when it comes to parliamentary elections, shifting the focus away from important national issues to local concerns. It also skews the way we judge our candidates; instead of looking for principled individuals whose values align with our own we end up going for dedicated estate managers and well-meaning community organisers.
It makes far more sense to separate the role of town council chairman from that of an MP. Perhaps Singapore too could hold separate elections for councillors, thus making sure that we find the right people for what is essentially two very different jobs.