Shamsul Kamar, part of the People's Action Party (PAP) team who contested Aljunied GRC unsuccessfully in 2015 and 2020, said recently that he would "give space to the Workers' Party (WP)".
Shamsul said that he would be reducing his involvement in "the ground work and day to day running of things", referring later in his post to "ground work we have done for the last 5 years especially for the elderly and low income families".
What, however, was the previous place Shamsul occupied, that requires him to now "give space"?
Shamsul is the Grassroots Adviser (GRA) for the ward of Kaki Bukit, which falls within Aljunied GRC.
Much has been said of his appointment to the GRA role, and the similar appointment of other unsuccessful PAP candidates as GRAs in the constituencies they contested.
"Divisive approach" and "violation of fair play"?
The WP, who won the election in those constituencies (Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC), has said that GRAs in the wards under the WP are reflective of a "divisive approach to politics".
While it might be less of a controversial issue in PAP wards, it has certainly been a long-held grouse for opposition candidates.
Why do GRAs have such a prominent role in community? And is it unfair to have an electoral advantage, if any, as GRAs?
What makes unelected PAP candidates the top choices to represent of the government of the day?
In this article, we set out the background about GRAs (their roles, how they are appointed), potential problems with the current arrangements, as well as possible alternatives.
What is the role of a GRA?
GRAs help with communicating government policies to the people, as well as gathering feedback from the people to reflect it to the government.
Communicate and implement government policies and programmes
According to Minister Chan Chun Sing, Deputy Chairman of People's Association (PA), on behalf of MCCY, one aspect of GRA's roles within the PA was said to be to:
"...guide its grassroots organisations (GROs) in communicating and implementing the policies and programmes of the Government of the day."
Communicate residents' grouses
PA's 2014/2015 annual report states:
"GRLs and Advisers stay connected with the community and can reflect residents’ feedback and aspirations to the Government on community and national issues, including through public consultations and dialogue sessions, as well as forum letters."
In short, GRAs help the PA fulfil its role of helping the government "keep in constant touch with the people".
How are GRAs appointed?
It appears that GRAs do not come under the PA's organisational structure, as there are no entries for GRAs in the government directory under the PA.
Nonetheless, it has been clarified in Parliament that GRAs are appointed by the PA. It can also be observed that GRAs typically comprise:
- PAP MPs, in the PAP wards where they were elected
- Unelected PAP candidates, in opposition wards where they contested
While this is not a documented practice on the part of the PA, it has been brought to prominence by recent events, such as a statement to Yahoo News Singapore by WP candidates in Marine Parade GRC.
The WP candidates said that Marine Parade voters would enjoy the support of "two sets of people", if they voted for the WP, since the losing candidates would be appointed as GRAs in the constituency.
GRA and MP roles: similar and complementary, but distinct
The role of a GRA is rather similar to the role of an elected MP in terms of connecting with the people.
The similarities extend to GRAs being recognised as constituents' representatives, with the police putting GRAs in the same category as elected MPs when it comes to considering appeals that they receive.
The key difference, however, is one of objectives.
- Elected MPs connect with the people for the primary purpose of being their voice in Parliament, to ensure that the people's concerns are factored into the process of lawmaking.
- GRAs, on the other hand, are tasked to connect with the people on behalf of the government, so as to implement and get feedback on government policies.
GRAs also connect with their constituents in very much the same ways as elected MPs, employing methods such as house visits, grassroots events, and sharing sessions, among other methods listed in the PA's 2014/2015 annual report.
The complementary roles of MPs and GRAs likely explains why elected PAP MPs are chosen as the GRAs in their constituencies.
They serve as PAP MPs, who run under their party banner in elections, and as GRAs, representing the PA and the government of the day.
However, little is known about the PA's thinking in selecting its GRAs for opposition constituencies.
What are the potential problems with the current arrangement?
The main problem with the current arrangement of how GRAs are appointed is the potential for confusion because the same people play multiple roles. This, in turn, gives rise to claims of unfairness.
Another problem is that the multiple roles played are in fact distinct, and may clash at times.
Seen as unfair by opposition
The overlap between multiple roles not only creates possibility for confusion, but also perceived unfairness.
WP chief Pritam Singh has repeatedly called attention to the fact that his political opponents from the PAP get to perform the following functions as GRAs:
- Having a say in the dispensation of government funds for upgrading projects
- Presiding over citizenship ceremonies for new voters, including presenting them with their pink ICs
- Appointing GRLs in opposition wards
This, he said, constitutes "violation of fair play" when it comes to elections, since the PAP candidates are afforded visibility and opportunities to interact with residents.
When it comes to appointing GRLs, Pritam pointed out that WP MPs do not have the same opportunity to recognise their grassroots volunteers.
Multiple roles may clash at times
Misunderstandings and misinterpretation of one's intentions may occur when beneficiaries do not know which hat you are wearing.
Presumably, to prevent such misunderstandings, there was a "code of fair conduct" enforced by the PA.
In former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's biography, Tall Order, Goh shared how the PA enforced rules like forbidding politicians to visit CCs in party colours, to the "inconvenience and unhappiness" of PAP MPs.
However, even the best of intentions can still lead to confusion when the same person wears two hats, as was the case for Aljunied GRC's PAP candidate, Shamsul Kamar, during the recent election.
He had to clarify that a food distribution event for lower-income, Malay-Muslim families, sponsored by Texas Chicken and fronted by Shamsul as Kaki Bukit's GRA, was not done in his capacity as a PAP candidate.
Thus, requiring PAP candidates to also take on the role of GRAs may hinder them in performing their roles effectively.
Even though the planning for the event started before the election was called, Shamsul shared on Facebook that it would be postponed till after the election, presumably to put an end to allegations that the event was an attempt at "luring people to vote by providing them with free food".
And it wasn't just fried chicken that had to be postponed, but other events as well, including the "North East CDC Jobs Fair, Kaki Bukit Covid-19 Care Voucher distribution and hot meals distribution", owing to Shamsul's involvement in them.
Potential alternative solutions
Let opposition MPs be GRAs?
A Straits Times forum letter writer proposed that all elected MPs, including opposition MPs, should be allowed to be GRAs in their constituencies.
However, this has been ruled out, given that GRAs would at times need to communicate, and facilitate the implementation of "difficult and unpopular policies", Minister Chan Chun Sing said, such as:
"CPF cuts during the 1986 recession, the increase in retirement age and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA)."
This, Chan explained, could not be expected of opposition MPs.
For instance, all nine opposition parliamentarians voted against the POFMA legislation.
Allowing opposition MPs to be GRAs means that the opposition Hougang MP would have had to explain the benefits of POFMA to his constituents, notwithstanding the fact that he or she had voted against it.
As it was, however, the role was played by Hougang GRA Lee Hong Chuang instead:Letting opposition MPs play a bigger role in the grassroots is not a new idea.
At one point, this approach had support from no less than former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.
Goh said in Tall Order that he had advocated for an "accept it and shake his hand" approach toward losing a parliamentary seat, which would mean relinquishing control of the ward's Community Centre (CC), and grassroots organisations, to the winning opposition candidate.
However, this thinking was rejected for fear of letting the opposition (which, at that time, comprised a lone WP MP, JB Jeyaretnam, in the ward of Anson) get "entrenched".
A further consideration was that the CC was part of the government. As Goh wrote:
"We were justified that the CC cannot be given to JBJ because it was part of the government. Therefore, it should not be given to the PAP too -- you could not. It must be even-handed."
In today's context, given that the PA (and its GROs) are an institution of the government, it would be inappropriate for it to be subject to influence from a non ruling political party, which is why opposition MPs cannot be GRAs.
GRAs' roles to be played by GRLs?
Had the pre-polling day events in Kaki Bukit been organised by a GRL who was not running for election, with PAP candidate Shamsul out of the picture, they may have been able to go on as planned.
Could the GRA role be dispensed with? There is some evidence that the answer is yes.
GRLs have in fact been appointed as GRAs, as was the case in 2014:
In 2014, Ong Ye Kung and Desmond Choo moved out of Aljunied and Hougang to work in the grassroots in Sembawang and Tampines (where they were both elected as MPs in GE2015), after handing over their GRA roles to senior GRLs.
Furthermore, mentions of GRAs in PA's annual reports is alongside GRLs, presumably indicating that their roles overlap quite substantially.
PA's 2014/2015 annual report states:
"GRLs and Advisers stay connected with the community and can reflect residents’ feedback and aspirations to the Government." [emphasis ours]
Entirely depoliticise the PA?
Taking this idea even further, former nominated member of parliament (NMP) and prominent Oxford graduate Calvin Cheng has proposed that GRAs (and the entire PA, for that matter) should be entirely depoliticised, in a Facebook post on July 23.
Depoliticising the PA means that it would not be as closely linked to the PAP, or any other political party.
Instead, the PA could solely be a government body, in the way that other statutory boards such as LTA, HDB, or NEA are government bodies which report to their respective ministries, and the Cabinet.
Depoliticising the PA would likely also mean that those involved in the PA (including GRAs) would likely be required to step down from their positions before being allowed to contest in elections.
This was the case with civil (or public) servant-turned-PAP candidate, such as Tan Kiat How, who relinquished his role as chief executive of IMDA prior to running in GE2020. Another example is the former PA chief executive director himself, Desmond Tan, who left his organisation and the civil service on June 15, to enter politics.
Taking a step this drastic would no doubt be the disruptive to the status quo, but would arguably allow for the PA, and its GRAs to perform its stated function with less misunderstandings than at present.
Mothership Explains is a series where we dig deep into the important, interesting, and confusing going-ons in our world and try to, well, explain them.
This series aims to provide in-depth, easy-to-understand explanations to keep our readers up to date on not just what is going on in the world, but also the "why's".
Top image via Kaki Bukit CC on Facebook