Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Grassroot Organisation Advisers, PA and politics

I was surfing the web to find out more about what CDCs are, and came upon the following pages:

Interesting. The CDCs are government organisations, and the list of the other advisers on the first link are the MPs of the respective constituency. The odd thing is that the adviser for Potong Pasir is Mr Sitoh Yih Pin. Same oddity is observed in the second link. From the Northeast CDC web site, when I clicked on the link for Hougang SMC, I expected to see the website of the Hougang Town Council. Instead the page that was loaded was the Town Portal, and the adviser in Hougang is Mr Eric Low.

The conventional wisdom would lead me to think that since the advisers for the rest of the constituencies are the respective MPs, the advisers for Potong Pasir and Hougang should be Mr Chiam See Tong and Mr Low Thia Kiang respectively.

To understand why there exists the gap in my thinking and the current reality, I took some time to search and read up on RCs (known as Grassroot Organisations GRO), which come under their respective CDCs, which in turn come under People's Association.

The answer was finally found in the Singapore Parliament Hansard report for 23 May 2002. Mr Steve Chia asked a question:

Sir, the People's Association is a statutory board, a public body funded by the people through the State. As Mr Charles Chong has said, it has been passed between the Prime Minister's Office to the MCDS and now back and forth. Officially, its objective is to promote racial harmony, social cohesion and community bonding through its many CCs, CCCs and RCs. The People's Association is a public body and it should be politically neutral.

Yet, ever since its establishment in the mid-60s, the PA has played a very important role in rallying grassroots support for the PAP. This is not right, Sir. Can the Minister clarify if this is not an abuse of State funds? If the real objective of PA is to serve the people, then why did the PAP Government deny legally elected MPs from serving their wards by appointing PAP candidates who lost in the elections as grassroots advisors? It is so strange that all the grassroots advisors are all Members of Parliament, except in Potong Pasir and Hougang constituencies. Can the Minister justify why the PA is not appointing Mr Chiam, Member for Potong Pasir and Mr Low, Member for Hougang, as the official grassroots advisor respectively? Can the Minister explain why he allowed the PA to appoint the losers in the general election as grassroots advisors instead?

A few other MPs raised other questions, which were answered altogether by Mr Chan Soo Sen. The relevant part of his answer is:
Mr Steve Chia asked a question on PA that any Opposition Member would ask. He asked probably on behalf of Mr Chiam and Mr Low, but I think both have asked this question many, many times, and the answer is still the same. He got it right. The People's Association is a Government statutory board. It is not part of the PAP. The PAP MPs draw a very, very clear line between our PA activities, as well as our PAP branch activities. We do not hold our branch activities in the community centres. I can assure him of that. We are very professional about it. And since it is a Government statutory board, members of the public can come and use the facilities and take part in the programmes, regardless of political affiliation. But, when it comes to picking the people in charge, the Government, like picking people in charge of other Government agencies, will have to look for people who have the same vision, share the same objective, in order to do this job of leading the various grassroots organisations.

If we put the Opposition Members as the Advisors of the grassroots organisations, we can be sure that the grassroots organisations will be politicised. There will be no end of quarrels between the People's Association, who is supposed to be a Government body, and the ward which is with the Opposition. This will not serve the objective of achieving social cohesion. We owe it to the residents to ensure that politics stays out of our community centres. That is why PAP stays out of the community centres and we appoint people in charge to make sure that politics stays out of the community centres and the grassroots organisations.

Mr Chan Soo Sen went on to answer questions from other MPs. At the end of his answer was the following exchange:
Mr Steve Chia Kiah Hong: Sir, I have three clarifications for the Minister of State. What vision and what objective are the Minister referring to? Has he tried any of the Opposition MPs to realise that their vision and objective are quite close to the PA?

Second clarification. Just because it is an Opposition MP, the grassroots organisations become politicised. It would not be politicised when the PAP candidates are appointed as grassroots advisers. Is that the case?

Third clarification. If the Minister wants politics to stay out, should not the elected MP stay in as the grassroots adviser instead?

Mr Chan Soo Sen: Sir, that is why the PAP MPs are the grassroots advisers, not the head of the grassroots organisation. We are only there to advise. So he got it right there.

Mr Low Thia Khiang: The MOS, in his answer, says the PA's objective is social and community bonding. CCCs, RCs, the community centres are non-political. And he said, "We draw a very clear line." I want to know from him how clear the line is, and how sure he is about what he says.

Mr Chan Soo Sen: Sir, I think I have not answered Mr Steve Chia's questions completely. So I shall answer his questions first.

I did not say that the Opposition Members do not share the objective of, for example, social cohesion. I am just saying that Opposition MPs, by their nature, would have to oppose some of the Government policies, and that would include some of PA's programmes and the methods of implementation, and so on. In doing so, bearing in mind the kind of passion that I hear when this subject was discussed in the Committee of Supply, we risk getting the grassroots organisations from opposition ward into political conflicts with the People's Association, rather than concentrating on helping the residents improve their lot. That basically is my point.

We, the PAP, are very clear about this point. Therefore, we draw a clear line. All Government programmes can be political to the extent that if we do a good job in any Government programme, for example, in education, or transport, we will get greater support in the next General Election. So if we do a very, very good job in achieving social cohesion, racial harmony, and we achieve better support in the next General Election, I would say that there is nothing wrong, Sir.

Mr Low Thia Khiang: The Minister of State seems to be confused with social cohesion, community cohesion and support for the nation to one that is ensuring bonding with the PAP. Would he clarify that?

Mr Chan Soo Sen: Since when did I say "bonding with the PAP"? I said anybody, regardless of political affiliation, could come and take part in PA's activities because PA is a statutory board and the community centres are public places. But when it comes to appointing people to lead these organisations, like all Government agencies, all Government statutory boards, Government will be responsible for those appointments, and Government has got the responsibility to ensure that the people appointed would have the ability to carry out the task that the agency is supposed to carry out.

Mr Steve Chia Kiah Hong: Sir, if I may clarify with the Minister. Are not elected MPs part of the Government service, as the elected MPs are elected by the people? We are here [Interruptions] not as Government, but as part of the body where we actually do this service to the people. Specifically, the Minister said that Opposition MPs are always opposing. Can the Minister give specific examples of what the Opposition MPs are opposing for the sake of opposing? Is it not the case that the PAP MPs nowadays are actually even more opposing than the Opposition MPs?

Mr Chan Soo Sen: So you are saying the Opposition MPs are now irrelevant?

The Chairman: Mr Charles Chong, could you withdraw your amendment?

Mr Low Thia Khiang: Sir, can I have a clarification?

The Chairman: Mr Charles Chong, please.

Mr Charles Chong: Sir, I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for the responses and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

I am not too sure of how Parliamentary debates like these (this is a debate on ESTIMATES OF EXPENDITURE for a certain year) are supposed to be structured, and am not clear what is the amendment to be withdrawn. Maybe there is some form of limit in terms of the number of clarifications for each question, or it is the case that only the person asking the original question can ask for clarification. So maybe the way the debate ended was according to the protocols of Parliament.

Regardless of the way the debate was ended, the exchange still did not address and explain the basis of appointing advisers, especially the appointments of the two gentlemen for PP and Hougang. For the man-in-the-street like me, if PAP really wants to draw a very clear line, then at least the advisers for these two Constituencies should not be the very same person they fielded for the elections.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Market Subsidy

After some searching and careful reading, I was finally able to extract the following from the debate held on 3 March 2006 on the Budget 2006 debate for the Ministry of National Development, Mr Mah Bow Tan's reply to a query from Dr Amy Khor :

The third point Dr Amy Khor raised was this issue about implicit subsidies. How do we price our flats? The most important criterion in pricing of new HDB flats is affordability. We track affordability very closely. We track what are the various household incomes at various percentiles. We also track the market prices. We ensure that the price of a new flat is always at a discount to the market price of that similar flat, as far as possible. She knows, as a valuer, that it is not possible to have everything exactly the same. But as far as is possible, as far as the valuers can advise, we try to price the new flat at a subsidy to market price of a comparable flat.

What is the amount of this subsidy? It varies from place to place. It varies from time to time. The important criterion, as I said, is to ensure that there is affordability at various price points and at various flat types. And that is the reason why it is not possible for me to name a certain amount as the subsidy of the flat.

The above answer gives us confirmation that the price of HDB new flats are derived by the following process:
  1. Choose a comparable private flat
  2. Take the market price of the private flat
  3. Apply some sort of formula
  4. Arrive at price of new HDB flat
  5. The subsidy is the difference between the market price of the prviate flat and the selling price of the HDB flat

This leads to a few questions:
  • Based on what criteria is the comparable private flat chosen?
  • What is the formula applied?
  • Is the resultant Price of the new HDB flat higher or lower than the Break-even Cost of the flat?
The key point of contention is that, if the Price is a lot higher than the Break-even Cost of the flat, then the people will feel gross disjustice because we have to pay too much for the flat, while being told that there are heavy subsidies on the flat. However, the Break-even Cost of flats is not publicly available.