David Marshall and the
Dawn of Meet-the-People Sessions in Singapore

The ties between the founder of the Workers’ Party – David Marshall – and Meet-the-People Sessions (MPS) in Singapore are inextricably linked. On the 20th anniversary of his passing, we look back on how the MPS came to be, and how it became the quintessential symbol of service to the people.

How MPS Started

The first MPS was started in June 1955 while Marshall was serving as the Chief Minister of Singapore. The first series of MPS was conducted in the air-conditioned press conference room on the ground floor of the historic Assembly House (now The Arts House), with the first few Saturday sessions packed with 100 to 150 persons waiting to see Marshall about their problems.

The Inspiration for MPS

Interestingly enough, Marshall could not recall if he borrowed the concept of MPS from anyone else. However, Leonard Francis Comber, who helped Marshall establish the Public Advisory Bureau (PAB) in 1955, speculated that Marshall’s MPS might have been inspired by the reading of the autobiography of Sir Mirza Ismail, the Prime Minister of several Indian states in the 1940s. Comber had seen a copy of Ismail’s My Public Life on Marshall’s bookshelves. Sir Mirza Ismail, like Marshall, was anxious to narrow the gap between the government and the people, and had set aside Saturdays to step out of his palace to meet his people.

Conducting the First MPS Sessions

The first MPS sessions were conducted in accordance to a fixed format, with a guide prepared. The Members of Parliament (MPs) conducting the sessions were expected to follow a general procedure.

So what did citizens enquire about back then in the 1950s? As Comber recalled, the top issue that MPs faced during MPS was unemployment; the second, immigration and social welfare matters; and the third, applications for subsidised flats from the now-defunct Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). Today, residents of all walks of life continue to see their elected representatives at MPS to raise issues not too dissimilar from those of yesteryear.

What is MPS Like Now?

To give a modern-day perspective of MPS with the Workers’ Party, we interviewed MP-elect Pritam Singh in Eunos Division of Aljunied GRC as well as WP grassroots activist Rani who volunteers in Hougang SMC.

Pritam Singh
MP-elect (Aljunied GRC)

Different Workers’ Party MPs have different ways of conducting MPS. Is there something special about yours?

Pritam: No, the basic characteristic of my MPS is that I want to see all the residents who have taken the time out to come and see me at the Meet-the-People Session. That’s how I conduct mine.

What are the more interesting moments that you’ve come across as a MP in your MPS?

Pritam: You usually have many residents who come back and are thankful for a successful appeal and things of that nature. One incident that stands out happened about almost three years ago now, when I appealed successfully on behalf of a resident for a BTO application and she came back and gave me two bottles of perfume which I had to surrender to Parliament.

How many people usually come to your MPS every Monday night?

Pritam: I suppose, on average, between 20 and 30.

How do you deal with the work load of MPS?

Pritam: With people like you! My legislative assistant, my secretarial assistant and of course all the volunteers who take the time and energy out to help and support this activity. A lot of the load is taken off me by the volunteer core.

As a MP and more so as a Workers’ Party MP, how do you reflect on the fact that Marshall who founded the WP also founded the system of the MPS?

Pritam: I think it’s a measure of the man. That he initiated this process of meeting the people which now we of course take for granted but it was something quite abnormal at that point. I suppose in my heart of hearts, I’m proud of the fact that a Workers’ Party ‘MP’ came up with that. All of us should follow in his foot-steps.

What do you think is the real purpose of the MPS and do you think we are meeting it today – regardless of whether we’re talking about WP or PAP MPs?

Pritam: It’s an important port-of-call for many residents who face an issue and don’t really know where to go. They don’t really get an appropriate answer from their friends or family. The least you want is somebody in an official capacity to be advising you and if that person can’t give you the solution, then you’d want to know which direction to go. Regardless whether it’s a WP or PAP MP, it’s quite fundamental for residents to know that they have this outlet. To that end, I think MPS is still very relevant to many of us.

What are the most important values you can take away from your weekly MPS?

Pritam: Humility and empathy. Just today, we had a gentleman, without saying too much to divulge who he was, having a case of a summons issue where if he had received one more, his licence would’ve been suspended. I asked him what other issues he faced so as to buttress the appeal to the traffic police. He told me that his wife is suffering from cancer. She underwent chemotherapy but she doesn’t want to go for it anymore because it’s too painful. And then you realise, on the one hand, what you thought was actually just a case of a rice bowl issue with regard to the licence of a driver actually has a tail of another issue. For a split second, you put yourself into that person’s shoes as you’re trying to determine what’s the best way forward and you ask yourself, “What if I was in that position?” Sometimes, a ready answer doesn’t come because it’s emotionally very painful to have to deal with that sort of situation. So, it’s very, very humbling.

What would you like Singaporeans to know about MPS?

Pritam: The MP is that person the residents come to see. But what they don’t see are people who are behind the scenes who are co-ordinating the residents as they come and typing out the letters. These things are part of the process and people don’t see that enough. I wish they did. Because then they’d realise that the public service component is not solely based on the MP but actually it’s a function of all these people coming together and working. It’s about a team that works and I’m lucky I’ve got a good team! Always have.

Grassroots Activist (Hougang SMC)

You’ve been volunteering for three years. Have there been any interesting moments that have stood out?

Rani: Yes, many interesting moments. It’s quite interesting to see the residents here, to talk to them. It’s like a family for us. The more you talk to them, it’s like bonding. I usually come every Wednesday to help out.

How many people come down typically to each MPS?

Rani: The most we hit was about 30.

So the turnout tonight isn’t even the highest?

Rani: No, more than that! Sometimes, it will last until 1 o’clock. After any public holiday that falls on a Wednesday, you must see the queue the following Wednesday. After the recent election too. Very long queue but we expected it.

Will there be more volunteers who come down to help out then?

Rani: The new volunteers will be here. They will help us, see what’s going on and we’ll tell them what to do. It’s quite interesting for the new volunteers to learn something. I can relax a bit too (laughs).

How did you get involved in MPS?

Rani: It was recommended by my friend who asked me to join. So I joined and I’ve gotten used to it. Sometimes, you feel stressed at home. So, when you come here and talk to your friends and the residents, you feel happy.

What makes you enjoy MPS in spite of your other commitments?

Rani: If you stay at home, you’ll watch TV and have nothing to do. So at least, I can do something for my community. We’re not paid; we’re still volunteers. I enjoy making use of my time to help the residents.

At the end of every month, we also have welfare for low-income families. We distribute rice. Sometimes, I will tell my children, “You all must come and see. Help out with the packing.” You see them, you pity them. I tell my children, “You all are gifted. You see, Singapore still has this kind of families.”

How do you contribute to MPS in your own way?

Rani: Sometimes, I come earlier to set up at 6.30 pm. We take turns. Anyway, I stay (not too far away) under Aljunied, Block 400 plus. That’s why people ask me, “You stay in Aljunied but you want to help Hougang?” I tell them we’re all one family!