In new book, Goh Chok Tong says Town Councils were never meant to disadvantage opposition

Town councils were one of three 'stabilisers' Goh put in to prevent 'freak elections' from happening.

Mothership | October 31, 2018 @ 12:36 pm

Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong story is the biography of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong telling the story of Goh’s life and political career.

The book is written by ex-Straits Times editor Peh Shing Huei and published by World Scientific. You can buy a copy here or at all major bookstores.

An excerpt from one of the chapters in his book, “From Nanny to Buddy”, is reproduced here:


By Peh Shing Huei

And off Goh went.

After the Feedback Unit, he introduced a spate of major policies in the late 1980s, giving a sneak preview of the participatory democracy which his premiership would later be known for.

In particular, three new ideas would overcome initial controversies and resistance to become entrenched as accepted norms in Singapore’s political system.

The first is the town councils.

The background to town councils

For some years, Goh had felt that having the HDB as both the developer and estate manager of all public flats was an unsustainable arrangement.

As the number of Singaporeans in HDB flats grew to above 2 million by the 1980s, there was too much for HDB to handle. Centralised control was slowing initiatives on the ground.

“On the ground, as an MP, when I wanted something done, HDB would say it is a good idea,” he looked back. “But if you change this year, it must be applied to all the HDB flats in Singapore. Therefore, please wait until we are ready.”

Inefficiencies with having a central agency

The snail’s pace frustrated him.

While the HDB has discharged its responsibilities admirably, it has done this at a price.

“This price is uniformity and a rather inflexible set of rules,” he said in Parliament in 1988.

“A central agency must be strict and must be uniform in its decisions. It cannot exercise flexibility nor make quick decisions at the constituency level. If it is generous to one constituency, other constituencies will immediately demand equal treatment.”

He wanted to replicate what he did in health with housing. Just as he decentralised public hospitals to improve efficiency and service standards, he had a similar plan with public housing.

Devolving power to improve efficiency

Instead of HDB running estates, it would be devolved to each town to manage its own homes day-to-day. In this way, he hoped that people would be less dependent on the government.

In 1988, he said:

“The more HDB decides for the people, the less the people know how to do things for themselves. This is not conducive to developing self-reliant communities and community leaders. It certainly does not foster the development of a vibrant and creative people.”

The idea evolved gradually, from a concept paper in 1984 to a pilot in central Ang Mo Kio town two years later.

By 1988, it was implemented nationwide, with each town council having three MPs, one of them acting as the chairman. Goh did not shy away from saying the policy had a strong dose of politics in it.

Town councils as a stabiliser

After the 1984 election, he was keen to put in what he called “stabilisers” in Singapore politics. It was to address a peculiar electoral behaviour which was emerging in the country then.

While the voters wanted the PAP as the government, they also wanted to vote in some opposition to check the ruling party. Such a scenario might lead to a freak election when the PAP was voted out when in fact few intended for it to happen.

The town council was one such stabiliser.

By giving more power to MPs, Goh hoped that voters would be less cavalier with their ballot slips.

Town councils not to disadvantage opposition

But he insisted that the policy was never meant to disadvantage the opposition.

He said in 1988:

“Town councils will make it harder for weaker candidates to win, whichever political party they come from. It will not prevent the stronger ones from winning. They will, in fact, help opposition parties if they are able to assemble strong candidates.”

He likened it to flying a plane.

“If (a new party in Singapore) finds itself unexpectedly in government, it would be like an aspiring pilot taking over the controls of an SIA jumbo in mid-air, before he has flown solo in a Cessna,” he said.

“This cannot be in the interest of passengers in the jumbo. If any party aspires to displace the PAP government, its first step must be to try and acquire some experience in a town council. Town councils are the Cessnas of our political system. In the interest of Singapore, any party which wants to form the government should prove it can run town councils first.”

Opposition who have shown to run town councils

Looking back, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, Goh believed his argument still stands.

“Does it favour the PAP or the opposition? My thinking then was that it was neutral,” he said.

“It was probably in favour of the PAP at that time, on the basis that we could do a better job than them… But once they won over Potong Pasir and Hougang, and showed they could run it, then it becomes double-edged.”

Time has proven him right.

The Singapore Democratic Party built on its management of Potong Pasir to win two more seas in the 1991 general election. Similarly, the Workers’ Party used its sound work at the Hougang town council to land a breakthrough win at neighbouring Aljunied GRC in 2011.

“They said, ‘Look, I can run a town council very well. Next election, let me have another one’. So, it is not static. The balance is dynamic. In the first part, we had the advantage. But over time, the advantage is lost and they can build on their track record.”

Top photo via MParader Facebook page & Wikimedia.


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