Do Singaporean Mayors Deserve Their Pay? Mayors and CDCs, explained

There has been much debate about the role of mayors and Community Development Councils (CDCs) in Singapore lately. At the start of the eight-day parliamentary debate on Budget 2021, Mr. Pritam Singh, the Leader of the Opposition, posed questions about the relevance of both institutions, and the high salaries of mayors. “The CDCs have come into the spotlight after the last General Election because many Singaporeans are of the view that the salaries of mayors are outrageous, principally because they are not perceived to be commensurate with a mayor’s roles and functions,” he said. 

Given that when thinking of a CDC, a generation of pandemic-surviving Singaporeans are more likely to think of the Americans’ Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, rather than a political institution closer to home, Mr. Singh might have a point. Even some of the most politically inclined Singaporeans have trouble identifying the role that mayors and CDCs play in our system. As such, in today’s explained, we decided to look at the scheme, its history, and its criticisms, in order to properly ascertain whether there is a need for both of these institutions. 

Why were CDCs and the office of the mayor created?

CDCs and mayors were introduced by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in the late 1990s. (Source)

In his 1996 National Day Rally, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong introduced CDCs and mayors as a means of achieving greater social cohesion in Singapore. The island was to be split geographically, with each region being represented by a CDC, which in turn was led by a mayor (who was typically a MP). What the government was trying to achieve here, was a form of decentralisation and devolution. The aim was to have a two tier administrative system, where the lower tier – the CDCs – would deal with social service provision, and be analogous to municipal or city governments in other countries. The upper tier – the various ministries – would then be in charge of setting the macro direction of policies and also deal with foreign affairs. 

By decentralisation social services and grassroots initiatives, it was hoped that CDCs could help make the government more “human” and palatable to the population. Offices and civil servants would be moved closer to homes, while increased interaction between administrators and the population at large would lead to a more human “face and heart”, thereby strengthening the body’s “communications system”. 

It is important to note that the government seemed to have ambitious plans for CDCs and mayors. For example, considering that the office of the mayor was new, research was done by observing foreign models, and looking into the ceremonial trappings that they had. Protocols regarding the place of seating, the sequence of entering and leaving rooms, robes and ceremonial dresses were all considered initially for mayors.  Mr. Goh had also commented that he expected growing pressure for local elections, and that he wouldn’t mind their arrival eventually. There was also speculation that mayors would transition and play an important role in leadership renewal by becoming ministers, after their term was over. All of this seems to prove that the government to some extent, sincerely wanted to use CDCs as a way to administratively decentralise and make governance more effective. By being closer to its constituents, it was hoped that CDCs would lead to a more effective allocation of resources and money.

What actually happened?

Mayors being sworn-in after the 2020 General Election. (Source)

To some extent, the assumption that CDCs would lead to more responsive governance holds true. This is especially the case, considering that social service agencies are oftentimes riddled with multiple layers of bureaucracy. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, the CDCs have worked together to launch nationwide programs such as the CDC Student Meals Scheme, distributing over 660,000 meal vouchers for 12,000 students from low income families. Pointing to this, Mayor Denise Phua said in Parliament that “The agility and ability to garner resources is one of the CDCs’ uniqueness. Because we are not part of the big ministry and we are on the ground with a small team, that’s how we remain agile”. Ms. Phua had also recounted how the mayors had discussed plans for the scheme every day for 10 days through Zoom which allowed them to ideate in a much more “nimble and responsive way”.

However, in reality, there are issues with this argument. Importantly, CDCs do not enjoy the level of autonomy that was originally envisioned for them. Firstly, the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s creation of Family Service Centres and Social Service Offices, has meant that social service has become more integrated and streamlined. Administration of programs such as ComCare assistance, has been transferred from the CDCs to Social Service Offices, thereby reducing the role of the CDC. Secondly, there are structural limitations with the amount of autonomy that each CDC and mayor can exercise. Considering that CDCs directly report to the Peoples’ Association, and hence the central government, mayors cannot be too different in the ways they govern as they need to be perceived to be “fair”. If not, there might be allegations of the government regionally distributing funds in an unequal way. The last problem has to do with the heterogeneity of the Singaporean population. In other words, racially, linguistically and culturally, the people of one CDC are likely to be very similar to the people of another. This makes it harder for CDCs to create and foster bonds based on regional differences. While it is possible that some might feel a connection to their neighbourhoods, it is unlikely that they feel that way about an artificially constructed entity that comprises of multiple neighbourhoods. This might seek to explain why Mr. Goh’s prediction of more localised politics has not come through – there simply might not be a need. 

Criticisms

Mr. de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, is the head of the executive branch of the city. (Source)

Even before Mr. Singh’s speech in parliament, some Singaporeans have expressed multiple points of contention with mayors and CDCs. Chief among them is the high salaries that mayors receive when compared to those in other countries. Singaporean mayors receive about S$660,000 per year in addition to their MP’s allowance. The mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, in comparison earns about S$347,346 per year. But what’s missing in this comparison is the fact that mayors in America are elected, powerful political figures. Mr. de Blasio, for example, is the head of the executive branch of the New York City government. This means that he is in charge of administrating all city services, public properties, police and fire protection, and enforces all city and state laws within New York City. Obviously, the roles of Singaporean mayors pale in comparison to this. It might have been the case that the government envisioned a way larger role for mayors in Singapore, and set a salary that reflected that. But as explained in the last section, decentralisation hasn’t happened to the extent that it was supposed to.

There have also been criticisms about the CDCs’ potentially partisan tendencies. Cherian George, in his 2000 book “Singapore: The Air‑conditioned Nation”, pointed out that in constituencies where MPs belonged to the opposition, the MP would not get to disburse CDC funds. As such it creates a situation where residents in opposition wards “effectively have two MPs working for them – their opposition MP and the local PAP representative – each eager to prove his devotion to the people”. Mr. Goh has disputed this characterization, arguing that CDCs are similar to government agencies and that it wouldn’t be right to hand over these agencies to the opposition. 

In conclusion, the question here isn’t about whether CDCs and mayors play important roles in the community. As seen in the last year, there is definitely room for them to do good effectively because of their smaller size and regional posture. The question is about whether structurally we need to make changes to these institutions and the remuneration that mayors receive. Bertha Henson, for example, put forward suggestions of experts, with lesser pay, running the CDCs in place of politicians. While this might reduce the legitimacy that mayors have, how much legitimacy is truly needed, considering that the office of the mayor is already relatively obscure? These are all questions that we should look at carefully in light of the tight fiscal situation that Covid-19 has forced on us.

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