What happens behind these closed (and opened) doors?
For those readers who are unfamiliar with the Meet-the-People Sessions (MPS), maybe I can help to shed some light on this political pillar of the PAP. For every constituency in Singapore, the Member of Parliament (MP) for that area will “meet the people” on a particular day every week at the void deck or at the PAP centres. For example, people staying in Teck Ghee (Ang Mo Kio) may have some problems and wishes to meet their MP (which is PM Lee), can meet him on every Thursday night at Block 322 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3, PAP centre. Thereafter, the MP will write a petition letter to whichever Ministry, Statutory Board or any concerned parties to appeal on behalf of the resident. A list of MPS and MPs is available here.
PAP places great importance in their MPS sessions and mandated that all MPs (less the PM, SM and MM) are required to attend the MPS sessions as long as their schedule permits and when they are not on overseas assignments. So why are the PAP leaders so concerned over these sessions and who are the people that goes there and what happens behind these sessions?
Who Goes There?
Majority of the residents attending these sessions are residents with problems in paying their utilities bills, HDB apartments, S&C charges by the Town Council, reduction of traffic fines and finance-related problems. Another substantial portion of residents come to apply for permanent residence or immigration-related applications for their foreign spouses or friends. Depending on “season”, some times they may have quite a lot of residents coming for financial assistance, unemployment welfare and job-matching. That is usually during the bad-economic periods. Once in a while, there will be ad-hoc and unusual cases such as neighbour disputes, harassed by loan sharks, abusive husbands or people coming to complain about cheating incidents by insurance agents.
What is the Process in the MPS?
The process of meeting the MP or Ministers varies from constituency to constituency. But the most standard procedure is as follows:
1) Registration and take queue number
2) Constituent meets the petition writer who pens the letter (either hand-written or via PC) on behalf of the MP
3) Wait and queue to meet the MP
4) Meet the MP in a separate room, constituent informs the MP of his/her problems one-to-one.
5) MP assures the constituent that they will look into the case and send the letter. For urgent cases, the letter will be typed out, sign by the MP and hands it to the constituent immediately. For normal cases, the letter will be vetted through by the MP’s or Minister’s Personal Secretary and sent out within three working days.
However, as I said, some MPS sessions differ from others. For Minister of Education, Tharman’s MPS, several writers sits around in the cubicles and Tharman will move from station to station to listen and attend to the cases rather than being in the office. For PM Lee’s MPS, the registration from queue number is situated outside the PAP centre at Blk 322 Ang Mo Kio Ave 3. Inside, there are roles of seats for the expected large crowd and computer stations for the typing of letters. In the petition writer’s room, all the petition writers are in the same room but separated by desk-partitions. Thus it can be quite noisy at times. Not all the constituent will get to see the Prime Minister, only the serious and selected cases.
For important key appointment holders such as the Prime Minister, Senior Minister, Minister Mentor and Deputy Prime Ministers, they usually appoint a “Second Adviser”, who are MPs within the same constituency that covers them in their MPS session whenever they cannot make it. I was told that Dr Tan Boon Wan, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC covers the PM’s constituency for two out of the 4 or 5 MPS sessions every month. He will then feedback the cases to the PM and signs all the letters on his behalf. Thus, the letters that were sent out from the PM’s constituency will not have added advantages to the resident or pressure to receiver. This is to prevent any government statutory boards, civil servants or even private companies to act contrary to usual practice or legal ways just because they receive the letter by the Prime Minister.
How Many Residents Attends the MPS Sessions and who is the Most Popular?
The number of residents attending the MPS sessions depends on many factors. The profile of the MP, whether if he is a Minister or just a MP, popularity of the MP, the constituency area itself (eg: Redhill and Kolam Ayer usual have more elderly problems), effectiveness of the MP and many other factors. Usually, every week per session, there is an average of 20 to 30 residents coming to seek help from the MP. If the MP is a Minister, usually there will be around 40 to 50 residents.
The two most popular MP or Ministers was the Prime Minister’s and Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean’s constituency. I think the PM’s constituency is naturally crowded and popular for obvious reasons. But for Teo Chee Hean, I heard he is very popular with the residents and sometimes his MPS sessions can stretch past midnight until 1 am in the morning. Both of them serves at around 70 residents every session.
I’ve heard that there was a former MP that was quite unpopular with the residents because he refused to write the cases which have slim or no chance of success. He was a former civil servant and was too straightforward in telling off the residents that they have little chance of success and thus, he will not write the letter. No surprisingly, the unhappy residents left angry and scolded vulgarities outside the PAP centre. It fell to the ears of the then-PM and by next elections, he was replaced. Not sure on the validity of this rumour but do take this with a pinch of salt.
What is the Success Rate?
Success rate depends on the “weight” of the MP and the cases involved. For most poverty and financial assistance letters, if it is a genuine case the chances of the family receiving good financial help is up to 95%. But I would like to stress on the word “genuine”. It is difficult to assess if a case and resident is genuinely poor and needs help. Thus, the MP will usually send the letter to the Community Development Council (CDC) to send their staff to assess their conditions. If they are found to be in trouble, financial assistance can range up to more than $800 per household every month, with free healthcare from government clinics.
For deferment of any charges or bills to the SP Services (utilities bills), Town Council (S&C charges) or HDB loans, the MPS letters have a good success rate of 85% at least.
For immigration cases, permanent residences and applying for entry passes for the foreign spouses, the success rates can be quite low but it does help tremendously compared to applying it personally. Compared to open application, the MPS letters can improve your chances by up to 20%.
For reduction in traffic fines, MPS letters are surprisingly effective with a 60% chance of reduction in traffic fines if you are a financially poor or that your livelihood depends on it (eg: lorry drivers, taxi drivers, etc). However, for any court cases concerning traffic or any other criminal offence, any political party including PAP, has no rights to write to the Attorney General or Judge. Thus, MPS session will not accept any court cases but will recommend legal advice or help to the residents.
You might wonder, why are all the cases cited all concerns the Ministries and Statutory boards. Obviously, PAP is the ruling party and thus runs the government. Sending letters and making them successful is necessary to show that they are doing their job in representing the voters. Another thing is that, as long as it is a MPS letter regardless whether it is from the opposition party or PAP, all government and stat boards must respond to it with priority. For certain ministries, either the permanent secretaries or the Junior Ministers will get to see all the MPS letters addressed to their ministries.
Why is Meet-the-People Session Important for PAP?
The MPS session are the most direct and obvious form of serving their voters. More importantly, the PAP MPs are reaching out to the bottom 20% of the residents where they are most likely to switch camps if their needs are not looked after. To the MPs, these sessions will also allow them to see how popular they are and whether when GE comes, will they be in trouble. Singaporeans are more likely to vote based on bread and butter issues, as such; the MPS session deals with this head on. Thus, even when there is an economic downturn, PAP still manages to gain the votes of the bottom 20%.
For the new Ministers and Cabinet Ministers, it provides a good reality check on the policies they made and impact on the ground. And for those newly appointed Ministers (such as the “Super-Seven”), these MPS sessions allows them to understand the people and their problems, not the high paying job as a Minister living in a perfect world. This, I believe is one of the directives of MM Lee Kuan Yew. He wanted all the MPs and Ministers to experience first-hand the poverty and problems of the residents rather than sitting in the office making decisions that affecting people they don’t know.
However, not all the Ministers are able to handle the “shock” in seeing the MPS residents’ problems nor can they endure staying at the session until 12 mid-night (average MPS ending time for most Ministers is around 11pm) every week just to resolve the residents’ problems. It is both a physical and mental challenge for people who came from well-to-do backgrounds. In recent years, there are a couple of Ministers who left the job partly due to this. I guess they are not the kind of “People’s Minister” or natural at helping to solve the real problems on the ground.
Meet-the-People Session DIY
I was thinking maybe it will be useful to let you all know where some of the common letters are send to for the various problems and to whom they address it to.
General Manager of HDB branch or HDB Hub
- HDB apartment problems, rental of 3-room flats (average queue is around 1 year), resale, loans,
General Manager of Community Development Council (CDC)
- Financial Assistance, Job matching, poverty related, free healthcare for poor
Commissioner of Immigration & Checkpoint Authorities (ICA)
- Permanent Residence, social visit pass, long-term visit pass, citizenship
Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Manpower
- Work permit, Employment Pass, S-Pass, Contract Marriage, work place discrimination
General Manager of Workforce Development Agency
- Job Matching
General Manager of (depends on constituency) Town Council
- S&C Charges, trimming of trees, cleanliness around blocks
Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Health
- Special use of Medisave, Medishield, hospital-related
Registrar of Registry of Marriage
- Marriage of under-18, marriage issues, recognition of foreign marriages
Manager of Legal Aid Bureau
- Legal advice for poor or needy constituent on any legal issues
Commissioner of Traffic Police
- Reduction of traffic fines or punishments
CEO of Land Transport Authorities
- Appeal for covered overhead bridges, roads, carparking (sometimes it is HDB)