Veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon has expressed his belief that Members of Parliament (MPs) should not be required to manage the everyday municipal affairs of their wards and that the role of the MP should be to represent his constituents’ views in Parliament and enact laws as a legislator in Parliament.
In a Facebook post published on Monday (18 Nov), Mr Tay said: “The role of an MP is primarily that of a legislator in Parliament to enact laws. His role in his constituency is to learn and reflect the views of his constituents regarding the laws of the land.
“There has been a great misunderstanding of this role as it evolved over the years. The MP is not and never meant to be the manager of the everyday municipal affairs of his constituency. This is and should be done by full time managers employed for this.
“As legislator he will of course want to seek out the views of his constituents on the laws and regulations that affect the country and also his constituents. Laws such as disallowing PMDs on footpaths or CECA or foreign policy relations with China and USA. His meet the people sessions is for this.”
Alluding to the recent fire hose reel saga in Bukit Batok and the visits food delivery riders have been paying to MPs’ meet-the-people sessions following the Personal Mobility Device (PMD) ban, Mr Tay opined:
“To demand that an MP be responsible for a locked firehose in a fire is totally wrong. Unfortunately the meet the people’s sessions which were intended to get political and law feedback turned into micro management sessions and for the MP to serve as the intersessor on behalf of citizen with the bureaucracy.
“While this may serve useful feedback that can ultimately serve to improve legislation and administrative rules and procedures it is not the key function if an MP.”
Mr Tay said that he believes the Government should create a separate role, such as a “citizens’ representative council” to be accountable to residents for municipal issues so that the MPs can focus on representing constituents’ concerns about laws and regulations in Parliament instead of having to deal with estate management matters.
He added: “It may well be that the perceived weakness of the legislative performance of MPs in Parliament may be due to their misplaced role in practice.”
It was the People’s Action Party (PAP) Government that enacted the Town Councils Act in 1988, making elected MPs oversee municipal matters.
The Act established town councils to “to control, manage, maintain and improve the common property of housing estates of the Housing and Development Board” and made town councillors in charge of keeping the housing estates “in a state of good and serviceable repair and in a proper and clean condition”.
The Act specified that elected MPs should be part of the Town Council management and that an MP must assume Town Council responsibilities upon being elected as MP. Elected MPs cannot resign or vacate their posts as town councillors and can only vacate their office if they cease to be an MP for his ward under the Town Council.
In 1988, then-first Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Goh Chok Tong, explained why the bill devolved authority in municipal matters from the HDB to elected MPs, in Parliament:
“First, it transfers some power from the HDB to the MPs and grassroots leaders. It gives them, and the residents, greater power and responsibility to manage their own affairs and to participate in their estate’s development.
“Second, because MPs will have increased authority and responsibility, voters will be more likely to vote carefully and sincerely, and to choose honest and effective MPs.
“Town Councils will make it harder for weaker candidates to win, whichever political party they come from. But it will not prevent the stronger ones from winning. They will, in fact, help opposition parties if they are able to assemble strong candidates. By getting voters to vote according to their true preferences, Town Councils will add ballast and stability to our political system.
“This Bill gives more power and responsibility to MPs, and also to the grassroots leaders who become Town Councillors. After the Bill is passed, they, and not the HDB, will be responsible for managing the social and physical environment of their constituencies.”
Claiming that making elected MPs town councillors will make MPs more relevant to voters, Mr Goh added:
“With Town Councils, it will matter more to the voter who his MP is. His MP will head the Town Council which looks after his living environment. Because of this, voters will have a stronger incentive to vote carefully and sincerely, ie, for the person and the party who they think they can depend on to manage their constituency and look after the country as well, whether it is the PAP, the SDP or the Workers’ Party.
“If they have confidence that the candidate can look after their constituency, they are more likely to have confidence that the candidate’s party can form the next government of Singapore. Certainly, if the voters cannot even trust a party to run their constituency, they will surely not want that party to form the government. They may be right or wrong in their choice, but at least they will vote in accordance with their belief that their constituency and national interests are better served with a particular candidate or a particular party.”
Mr Goh painted Town Councils to be beneficial for the opposition. When veteran opposition politician Chiam See Tong asked whether his Potong Pasir ward would have a town council, Mr Goh replied: “Mr Chiam’s authority is now limited in Potong Pasir. With Town Councils he will have more authority plus the opportunity to demonstrate his ability.”
Mr Goh subsequently made a dig at Mr Chiam’s promise during the 1984 election that he would make Potong Pasir a model constituency and criticised that he had not heard that the opposition MP has succeeded.
When Mr Chiam countered that he needs time, Mr Goh replied: “He will doubtless blame that his hands are tied, and put the blame on the Government. He will blame his lack of success on the Government.”
Mr Chiam pointed out how opposition politicians cannot even plant a tree in their ward (Mr Chiam had he tried to grow a tree in front of his party office in Potong Pasir in the ‘80s but was not allowed to do so), Mr Goh shot back:
“He could not plant a tree. With Town Councils, he will have his chance to plant his tree, to prove himself, provided he wins the next elections. And if he proves himself, his party may be able to convince other constituencies to vote for it at subsequent elections.”