by Chris Davies
The recent controversy regarding meet-the-people sessions (MPS) has been making its rounds, with a former district judge elucidating Lee Kuan Yew’s decision regarding Members of Parliament’s (MP) letters. This has probably given MPS a bad reputation; some netizens have commented how it is used as a vote-winning tool, or worse, as a means of indoctrination, by the PAP. Others have noted how it threatens the separation of powers.
These views deserve careful scrutiny. MPS is a crucial framework within Singapore’s large grassroots sector. Many scholars (Singh 2017, Paul and Tan 2010) have investigated the role in which the grassroots support local democracy, policy transfer, and feedback. Of these scholars, Bilveer Singh summed it up best that it is “an ear on the ground to the electors”. Hence, when we start limiting what MPS can and cannot do, we should be cautious that we do not deafen the ear.
The recent fracas between the courts and MPS has left a question: when does one go to his / her MP? Additionally, what are the limits of MPS?
MPS it is meant for individuals to voice their opinions to their representatives, to seek redress from decisions made by the government, or to seek out financial aid.
Why then is MPS so controversial? Perhaps it is because there are no legislative rules – in fact, there is no form of clear black and white at all – on what MPs can and cannot do. MPS differs by constituency and varies in its involvement with political parties, though the PAP whip has considerable say over what MPs can and cannot craft.
I would argue, that notwithstanding the issues concerning the separation of powers, by insisting that MPs should not interfere with certain issues that concern the electorate we could be undermining the impact and purpose of MPS.
MPS is uniquely Singaporean. While other citizens in other countries contact their representatives by letter or email, only in Singapore is the option open to meet face-to-face (and where there is a grassroots framework to support this).
Not a product of the PAP, but a democratic platform
Some might view MPS as a product of the PAP. In fact, our first Chief Minister, David Marshall (who was from the Labor Front and later the Worker’s Party) formulated MPS during his tenure at Anson. With this in mind, we should not just simply stereotype MPS as a platform for the PAP.
As MPS is a framework and not an institution, it is difficult to ascertain how many Singaporeans utilise MPS. However, the fact that an MP letter can provoke a reaction from the judiciary demonstrates the weight and importance of MPS.
Separation of powers and an equal playing field
What about the issues surrounding the separation of powers? One might argue that MP letters do not necessarily represent an infringement of the legislative into the judiciary since they are merely petition letters with no legislative power. The judge could have just ignored the letter, and rightfully did so.
Furthermore, if we are to discuss the independence of the judiciary or the executive from influence in the context of the separation of powers, should we not be equally concerned with any form of influence from the executive or even the bureaucracy? Yet, we accept that government ministers are both members of the executive and judiciary, and we accept that the legislature can make laws which bind the judiciary. Hence, what is wrong with MPs writing letters to a government department, or in cases where people are unable to afford legal representation, to the courts?
While Low Wee Ping’s view is understandable, we should be cautious from assuming the logic remains in our modern world, or that a complete ban on letters to judges is warranted. Rather, we should remember that in today’s world we need dynamic governance with its ear on the ground and mouth at the top.
Certain members of the courts have highlighted that LKY ordered the courts return MPS letters. Those were different times, where perhaps more Singaporeans could use proper channels on an equal playing field. However, today, we are living in a society where there is growing disparity and divide, where some in the lower echelon of society need to have a platform where they can voice their opinions directly.
Think about it: is it fair that an educated middle-class Singaporean can afford a lawyer to appeal against a fine levied by a ministry, or alternatively, represent herself eloquently in court, while a less educated, working-class counterpart in the same position has no such opportunities, and has to pay that fine or face prosecution?
With growing inequality, MPS allows MPs to hear the views of every member of their electorate. Give them a voice and a fighting chance in the monolith of Singapore’s political system.
Problems with over-regulating MPS
One Straits Times forum writer has called for the clarification of the boundaries of MPS. It is argued that if such boundaries are drawn, they should not be drawn too narrowly. Why? Consider the perspectives of the various actors: the people, the grassroots, and the state.
If we start to restrict the framework of MPS, citizens may start to perceive MPS as a talk shop, rather than a means to highlight and solve their problems. Restrictions may send a signal to citizens that seeking help from your representative might be futile, thereby disillusioning them from the benefits of MPS, which could potentially lead to a decline in its use.
This decline may, in turn, affect the level of activity among the grassroots, which may consequently affect the ability to build local networks. How will grassroots leaders survey and provide services to individuals, or act as a bolster in total defence, if they do not know the people on the ground?
The state will become unable to respond to their constituents and be prevented from understanding the perspectives of the people on the ground.
Ultimately, Singaporeans need to understand that while some might view MPS incorrectly as some form of ostensible indoctrination by the PAP, it is more complicated than that. If we adopt that view, we will end up eliminating a useful grassroots framework which helps citizens access their representatives. We should also consider the lower echelons of society, who rely on the financial assistance and advice which MPS provides access to.
By Chris Davies
The writer is currently a Public Policy & Global Affairs student at Nanyang Technological University
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Photo credit: Lee Hsien Loong (Facebook)
 Bilveer Singh, Understanding Singaporean Politics, 2017, P 46.
 This question was conveyed at a lecture from Prof Woo Jun Jie