Friday, 28 August 2015

My MP should not be a letter-writer either

[28/08/2015: Uploaded my post on 'mudslinging' late last night, oblivious to what was happening in Singapore. Woke up this morning to learn the latest about fellow social scientist. Susah!]

Journalist Chua Mui Hoong was right to point out Your MP is not the Chief Social Worker. He’s supposed to raise issues and make laws". A Member of Parliament is by definition someone who represents our voice in Parliament.

They and they alone have the privilege of voting within the debating chamber, thus helping to shape laws and policies concerning transport (MRT, taxi fares), the environment (flooding, mosquitoes) and healthcare (Medishield, hospitals), for example, through debating with the government ministers and holding them to account.

Everything else they do is secondary to this task of law-making.

Professional managers can run the town councils. Therapists can listen to your woes. A neighbour can write your letters. Churches, temples, and other voluntary groups are feeding and housing those in need. Social workers can look after dysfunctional families.

Only your honourable Member of Parliament can reflect what you, his constituent, feel within the hallowed walls of the House of Parliament.

I am not an MP but I have run the equivalent of Meet-the-People Sessions (called “surgeries” in Britain) at my advice charity for five years. Clients have told me about her incontinence, his piles and a husband’s impotence, usually within the context of “how do I get more benefits?”. At every session I deal with families facing eviction and individuals owing enormous amounts of debt with debt collectors knocking on their doors.

Contrary to what a minister had said recently, I (and about 25,000 others) do this without being paid. (I was, for a year, employed to ensure minimum service on the London Minimum Wage and then Living Wage.) I am neither wealthy (compared to this minister) nor corrupt (compared to this minister). (Oops! Nearly risked my being sued.)

One of my most memorable clients ranted, “I called those people so many times and they never answer. You people call and they will talk to you.” How is it that civil servants (“those people”), paid by my taxes, are not answering this man’s queries on the phone? Why are they withholding information about himself from him? Why does he need us (“you people”), unpaid volunteers, to phone or write a letter on his behalf just to get a response? Is this acceptable in a First World democracy?

Considering GE2015: Why do we still need MPs to write letters on our behalf?

My late father often had to go to the letter-writer at Ann Siang Hill whenever he needed to send news back to China. Immediately post-1965, many constituents needed their MPs to write letters in English. Fifty years on, most of us can either write our own, or turn to adult children and grandchildren.
Letter writers


According to Mr K Mahbubani, the “Singapore population is one of the best educated populations”. If this is so, why do we need MPs to write letters to HDB, for example, for grants to fix a leaky ceiling? Can the highly-paid civil servants at HDB not decide whether an application is legitimate?

Singaporeans have told me that sometimes, like my British client, they do not get a response at all from certain government departments. So they trot down to the MPS. The MP writes. Hey presto! The civil servant replies. Job done.

Why should the interference of an MP -- of whatever party -- make a difference?

I can think of two reasons.

The first is our civil servants are lazy and useless (in which case they should be sacked). Considering how they are often rewarded with bonus payments, this cannot be the case.

The second is, for some reason, there have been inefficiencies designed (yes, deliberately engineered) into the process so that the wheels would only turn when oiled by an MP’s intervention.

Such a system forces a voter to seek the help of an MP. Is this an example of a “patron-client relationship”? The politically “superior” can (be seen to) dispense favour to the “inferior”, making the “inferior” indebted (ie obligated) to the “superior”. Of course the favour will be called in at some point (ie at General Election). This, however, is not the same as corruption or bribery.

I suspect and hope that this practice will be phased out once we have more opposition MPs in office.

MPs should not be doing the work of the civil servants whether at a local (town council) or national level. We do not pay MPs $16,000 (how much?!!) to be a letter-writer. We need a separation -- clear blue water -- between the legislative (Parliament) and the executive (Civil Service).

When you cast your vote, think whether you are choosing an effective letter-writer or a law-maker who would diligently represent your views in Parliament by the way he/she votes on legislative matters.

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