Meet-the-People sessions: an old political tradition still going strong

Updated: Mar 29

By Wong Shiying, Thaqif Ismail and Liang Lei

Nee Soon South residents queue for packs of rice given out during MP for Nee Soon GRC Lee Bee Wah's Meet-the-People session at Block 850 Yishun Street 81 on 24 February 2020. PHOTO: LIANG LEI


Every Monday night, the PCF SparkleTots preschool at Block 850 Yishun Street 81 is lit up, and crowded with people outside. That’s because Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah is having her Meet-the-People session in her Nee Soon South ward. It’s the same at Block 545, Bukit Panjang Ring Road on Monday nights, and at Block 46 in Marine Parade on Wednesday nights.


The Meet-the-People session (MPS) is a political fixture older than Singapore; it was started in 1955 by Singapore’s first elected Chief Minister David Marshall, who also founded the Workers’ Party. The PAP adopted this model of retail politics in 1960 and the opposition politicians did the same when they became elected MPs.


Its longevity testifies to its usefulness as a channel for constituents to pour out their grievances or to get their MP’s help to resolve matters that they can’t themselves. For the MPs, it is about administering the human touch and presenting themselves to their constituents as useful, or at least approachable and empathetic.


While our people have a strong sense of self-reliance and family responsibility, we must make sure that people don’t fall through the cracks,” said Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, an MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC in charge of Cashew ward. “We can provide and mobilise appropriate help, including legal services. We must always lend a sympathetic ear to their problems.”


Residents’ woes usually involve personal matters entangled in bureaucratic red tape, which they believe a higher personage would be able to cut through. Roughly the same sort of grievances echo throughout the HDB heartland: housing, employment or financial needs, or even immigration hurdles for family members. They are bread-and-butter issues, common among those who live in the smaller flats, who tend to utilise the MPS more often than the better-off households.

There was, for example, Mr Muhammad Shahrul, 28, who in January visited Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong in the Marine Parade ward to appeal for a job as a security guard. He had passed the training course but failed the screening process, which he thought might have something to do with his criminal history.


It was not his first time seeking an appeal. He had appealed to the Housing and Development Board and the Prime Minister’s Office to secure a two-room rental flat, where he lives alone, he told Class Notes.


Most people do not seek their MPs’ help unless they are really down on their luck. There are those who ask the MPs for help, say, to waive fines – that is, those who try their luck.


But the middle-class residents living on landed property have their own set of grievances as well, over legal matters, like disputes with neighbours and that all-important issue of road-side parking. Class Notes understands that another fairly common request is for the waiver of property cooling measures to allow the residents to purchase HDB flats. This usually comes from young adults who wish to move out of their parents’ home to a HDB flat, but can’t, because they had been listed as co-owners of the landed property.


At one Joo Chiat MPS in January, Class Notes counted about 20 residents and just about as many volunteers and activists. After presenting their identity cards to volunteers, residents sat around in the compound surrounding The Yards, a private event space for art, dance and drama classes. MP Edwin Tong was using its premises temporarily as the usual PCF site was being upgraded.


Residents at a Meet-the-People session in Joo Chiat held by Marine Parade GRC MP Edwin Tong at private event space The Yards on 13 January 2020. PHOTO: DARYL CHOO


Volunteers outnumber residents on most weeks, as residents prefer to send their concerns to their MP through email.


A university student showed up to complain about a vocal Asian Koel — a type of bird — that has been disturbing his sleep at 4 am every morning.


It was a far cry from the rigid atmosphere at the Marine Parade MPS held just 2km away, where residents were called by their case numbers and sternly instructed to wait by the door of the PCF preschool.


COMMON WOES


From what PAP MPs, activists and petitioners told Class Notes during its visits to six MPS sessions over the past two months, Singapore’s immigration rules were apparently too complex for some people, especially if they have foreign partners.


In 2018, a quarter of marriages in Singapore included foreign spouses, who have to reapply every two years for long-term visit passes to stay in the country. These couples may still face housing woes, as they are only eligible for two-room apartments in non-mature estates.


That’s for married couples. Singaporeans with unmarried foreign partners are in more difficult straits as their partners aren’t eligible for the long-term passes. They have to depend on short-term social visit passes that last three months a time.


One Mr Low, a 57-year-old electrician who lives in Bukit Panjang, has been trying to get a long-term visa for his 37-year-old Indonesian girlfriend of 15 years. She had been working as a caregiver for Mr Low’s parents, but her work pass expired a year ago after they died, forcing her return to Indonesia.


Then started Mr Low’s monthly visits to Dr Balakrishnan’s MPS.


“I’m not optimistic, but the only thing I can do is to ask my MP to keep appealing,” said Mr Low, who can afford to meet his girlfriend in Indonesia only once a year.


When he spoke to Dr Balakrishnan, he made sure to mention that he had paid for his four-room flat in full, had no financial issues and had never broken the law.


Dr Balakrishnan, who is also the Foreign Minister, said visa appeals for foreign partners was one of five common issues at his MPS. The other four were traffic offences, financial help, employment difficulties and family problems.


In the Nee Soon Central ward of Nee Soon GRC, MP Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim hears similar immigration issues, although he sees more married foreigners appealing for permanent residence or citizenship.


Employment is another hot-button topic at the MPS sessions. Total employment grew by 57,000 in 2019 — the highest in the past five years — but overall unemployment rate also rose from 2.1 per cent in the previous year to 2.3 per cent. Against this backdrop, some residents turn to their MPs to expedite their job search.


At Dr Lee Bee Wah’s MPS was former head chef George Kanapathy, 41, who had quit his job at an Italian restaurant in Sentosa in 2016 after a bone condition restricted him to a Personal Mobility Aid (PMA) scooter. He told Dr Lee he would be fit to work from the next month, but was concerned his disability would be a hindrance. He lives alone in a studio flat outfitted with disability-friendly features.


This was not his first time at the MPS. A few months ago, he had sought Dr Lee’s help for permission to rent out space in his flat. He was unsuccessful.


MPs will probably be seeing more people asking for help with jobs, given the havoc wreaked by the Covid-19 outbreak on the economy. Manpower Minister Josephine Teo cautioned last week that job vacancies will continue to slide this year, from 63,300 in 2018 and 52,900 in 2019. More retrenchments are expected as businesses battered by the virus struggle to trim costs in the face of declining revenues.


Dr Lee said she hears a fair share of employment concerns during her weekly rounds at nearby kopitiams on Sundays.


“When I sit down and talk to people, topmost in their mind is they worry about retrenchment, because they know that a lot of businesses are not doing well,” she added.


Pointing to a folder on her table, Dr Lee said that she maintains a “mini job bank” for residents who manage businesses to advertise job vacancies. Recent openings include positions for a kindergarten Chinese teacher and a storeman.


There are also those who live so close to the edge that they have to ask their MPs for financial assistance.


At Mr Goh Chok Tong’s MPS was a father in his 50s seeking financial aid. After he lost his full-time job at a marine company last year, he had to juggle two part-time jobs as a dock worker and cleaner. He earns about $50 to $60 on days there is work.


Already months behind with his utility bills, he told Class Notes that he has resorted to stealing milk powder and diapers for his two-year-old son, who lives with him in his one-room flat. He used to receive regular pay-outs from a Social Service Office, but that has stopped since November last year.


Ms Samiah, a 63-year-old homemaker, was at Dr Lee’s MPS to receive her allotment of rice when Class Notes visited in February. Her 73-year-old husband had to leave his supermarket job after he was diagnosed with kidney failure.


Her husband's dialysis treatment could not be paid with CPF and her appeal for help from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore had been unsuccessful. She had previously applied for financial aid from the Community Care Endowment Fund (ComCare), but grew tired of the constant need to renew her application and report her financial status.


“They question you from A to Z on everything before giving the aid. They even asked me why my Post Office account had money in it,” Ms Samiah said.


The latest ComCare figures for 2018 report over 61,000 individuals and 27,000 households on short and medium-term support. Almost 4,500 individuals and over 4,200 households required long-term aid.


Dr Lee said one of her goals for MPS was to help residents beyond the scope of government schemes. She pointed to a Nee Soon South Community Development and Welfare Fund, a welfare assistance scheme set up in 2008 by the local Citizens' Consultative Committee.


Residents eligible for the scheme head down to her MPS on Mondays to collect supermarket vouchers and supplies such as rice, milk powder and diapers. Donors of the fund include temple caretakers in Nee Soon South and grateful residents who Dr Lee had made successful appeals for.


Dr Lee Bee Wah (in red), MP for Nee Soon GRC, hands out packs of rice during her Meet-the-People session at Block 850 Yishun Street 81 on 24 February 2020. PHOTO: THAQIF ISMAIL


However, the system was not good enough for Ms Samiah. “It would be better if they gave food in larger quantities, lasting at least one month, so I don’t have to make so many trips,” she said pointedly at the 2.5kg bag of rice distributed at the drive.


DIFFERENT STYLES


Meet-the-People sessions are not unique to Singapore. The British call their weekly one-on-one meetings with local MPs “surgeries”, while Americans air their grievances to their Congresspeople in district town halls.


Here, most MPS held by PAP MPs are conducted in PAP Community Foundation (PCF) kindergartens. They pay a fee to use the premises.


Class Notes sent queries to some MPs, grassroots leaders and PCF centres about the exact amount of the fee, but did not receive an answer.


At Dr Lee’s MPS, residents first queue at the void deck and fill in their personal details and reason for seeing their MP in a form. They receive a queue number and are sat in chairs neatly spaced out in a kindergarten hall till their turn.


Class Notes saw about 20 people in the hall at around 8pm, with a few loitering outside. Cases are heard in an adjacent classroom, where the petitioner and volunteer “writers” will craft appeal letters to be sent to the relevant ministries. Dr Lee hopped from one table to the next to talk to the residents.


The same arrangement was seen at Dr Balakrishnan’s MPS, except the Foreign Minister had two security officers tagging him as he weaved from table to table. No bigger than a typical classroom, the room was packed with some 20 volunteers — drafting letters and ushering residents. Not all MPS are conducted this way. Older MPs are known to see every resident one-to-one, which usually leads to sessions that can stretch into the night.


Dr Lam Pin Min, an MP for the Sengkang West ward, found that he had to improvise his MPS when food delivery riders affected by new restrictions placed on Personal Mobility Devices flooded his MPS on Nov 12. The Senior Minister of State for Transport, who had the week before announced a ban of e-scooters on footpaths, shifted his venue from the usual kindergarten to a Community Centre badminton hall to house the 300-or-so complainants.


It is unlikely that all of them were his constituents, but it was more a case of reaching the “right’’ person.


Some residents had bypassed their own MPs to seek help from ministers in other wards, on the days Class Notes visited. One Mr Ng, 65, was at Mr Goh’s Marine Parade MPS to appeal for help to lift the suspension on his driving licence that had been imposed for negligent driving.


He had previously seen his own MP, Mr Teo Ser Luck of Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, who told him that he could not interfere with court cases like his. Mr Ng was not allowed to speak to Mr Goh, but a volunteer took down his statement and said he would send a copy over to Mr Teo’s office.

On the flip side, Dr Lee said that some residents from other wards in the GRC visited her MPS because of language barriers with the other MPs. There are two non-Chinese MPs in Nee Soon GRC — Associate Professor Faishal Ibrahim as well as Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.


“The only thing is, I differentiate. I would see my residents first,” Dr Lee said.


There are others who seek out the specific minister whose ministry oversees the concerns they have.


Education Minister Ong Ye Kung told Class Notes that after the release of PSLE, O-level and A-level results, he always sees a surge in the number of parents at his Gambas MPS in Sembawang GRC. Many are from other constituencies, requesting his help to get their children into schools they didn’t qualify for.


“I can’t intervene with the admissions process,” said Mr Ong. “But I can suggest alternatives based on the child’s strengths and interests.”


In Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC, which are helmed by MPs from the Workers’ Party (WP), residents can choose between the WP MPS sessions, or those organized by the local PAP offices.


Or they can go to both, as is the case for Madam Kalima, who lives in Aljunied GRC. She had approached MP Pritam Singh at his MPS for assistance in applying for a job at the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, and asked for help getting her grandnephew into a PCF kindergarten at the PAP MPS.


TOUGH CASES


Of course, not every appeal succeeds even though most MPs try with another letter to the relevant authorities.


Assoc Prof Faishal told Class Notes about the time his team prepared a thick dossier for a resident on death row for drug offences. “Even though the appeal was not successful, the family was appreciative that (we) wanted to help the resident,” he said.


Dr Lee said people who come for help are usually the “difficult cases”, who have already been rejected elsewhere.


“So I will have to dissect, look at it and see whether there’s any other angles that we can appeal (from),” she said.


She recalled a case from years ago, when a woman visited her MPS over a failing marriage. The couple had paid a hefty down-payment for a bigger flat, an extravagant spend that caused many quarrels.


“I kept thinking about that case. A few thousand dollars is a lot of money, and a few thousand dollars to break up a marriage, I find that it’s quite a pity,” Dr Lee recounted.


Although the woman did not ask, Dr Lee penned a letter to HDB to explain the situation and asked if the down-payment could be refunded. A few months later, she received a thank-you letter from the couple — they got their refund and had fixed their marriage.


She revealed that she has an arrangement with ministers: “Anything that I send you in a separate email — those are the cases I feel I want to fight.”


Mr Ong, the Education Minister, said getting a sense of ground-level woes gives policymakers an insight into whether there are gaps to be plugged.


He gave the example of someone who had missed out on the opportunity to study in a polytechnic when he was younger but had 10 years of industry experience under his belt. He wanted to obtain a diploma to advance his career but was not able to gain admission into polytechnic due to certain academic restrictions. Mr Ong said it reflected “a lack of flexibility in the admissions process” which can be more inclusive towards people of different backgrounds.


Some heartrending cases of people facing extenuating circumstances also compel MPs to bypass the bureaucratic red tape and fork out money from their pockets to help them tide through short-term financial difficulties.


Some MPs use Parliament as a platform to share cases they encounter to shed light on policy gaps that disadvantage certain groups of people.


During the Budget debate in February, MP for Hougang Png Eng Huat noted that single fathers are not entitled to the Foreign Maid Levy Relief if they hire foreign domestic helpers to look after his young children. He said he was prompted to raise this gender disparity in Parliament after a single father shared his financial struggles raising two young children and providing for his elderly parents, but who could not claim levy relief simply because he is male.


Mr Lawrence Wong, in his capacity as Second Minister for Finance, responded to Mr Png’s question stating that the Foreign Maid Levy Relief was “specifically granted to encourage married women to continue working”. He said the government will review the policy.


Mountbatten SMC MP Lim Biow Chuan asked the government to consider allowing elderly singles who are estranged from their family to rent one-room flats. Currently, the Public Rental Scheme does not allow elderly with children that can house them in their own homes to rent a flat, but a problem arises when the relationship between parents and children sour. Mr Lim said some of these seniors have approached him at his MPS, saying they “desperately need” a rental flat to avoid conflict with their families.


Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee responded to Mr Lim’s question saying the government “would, in fact, very much like to accomodate all of these requests”, but it is difficult to meet the demand for rental flats because of constraints in land supply.


At the end of the day or, rather, night, some residents walk away happy, but many have to go home with little more than comforting words.


Mr Shahrul, the man who was at Mr Goh’s MPS looking for work as a security guard, said he didn’t have high hopes when he left the MPS. Others have gone public over their frustrations with MPS sessions. In 2018, Dr Lee found herself in the news after a gay-rights advocate accused her of slighting him during an MPS.


Then there’s 60-year-old Mr Teo, whom the branch volunteers familiarly call “Ah Wu”. He was at Dr Balakrishnan’s MPS to complain about his neighbours. He brought along a few boxes of oranges to thank the MP for helping him with accident claims in the past.


For others, a listening ear was all they requested of their MPs.


Dr Lee said she once had a man who came to her because he had difficulty maintaining an air of normalcy with his family, who didn’t know his business had crumbled.


“Very seldom you see a man cry, right? He cried,” said Dr Lee.


“I don’t think you can help me to do anything,” Dr Lee recalled him saying. “But I need somebody to talk to, that is why I came to see you.”


Daryl Choo, Val Alvern Cueco Ligo and Lauren Ong contributed to the reporting.


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