(Delivered in Parliament on 1 March 2016)
A central aspect of this Bill is the inclusion of volunteers to assist the NEA in its efforts to make Singapore a clean, and not cleaned city.
The Workers’ Party supports the principle that underpins this Bill – which is to rope community volunteers to preserve and upkeep the environment and the cleanliness of our home. This is the philosophy that appears to underpin the NEA’s Community Volunteer Scheme introduced a mere three years ago. Under this scheme, volunteers replace the presence of NEA officers on the ground and promote a more educative approach with law-breakers, while nonetheless retaining the authority to take down an individual’s details before forwarding them to NEA for further review and investigation. These volunteers act to supplement NEA officers who cannot be everywhere, all the time.
Volunteers with “Enforcement” Powers?
Clause 5(c) of the amendment allows for the appointment of auxiliary officers, who may be volunteers with potentially wide-ranging powers to enforce the Act. However, this short Bill also extends the powers of volunteers to include powers of arrest, including search and seizure as determined by the Chief Executive of the NEA. This represents a manifest escalation of the concept of not just the current Community Volunteer Scheme, but crucially, the very concept of volunteerism as well. In fact, certain extreme powers such as forced entry, search and seizure and arrest should not be given to volunteers under any circumstances at all, but only to NEA officers and auxiliary officers who are subject to organisational discipline and whose careers are tied to the adherence of these norms.
The Bill also seeks Parliament’s approval to extend extensive powers ordinarily held by state employees to volunteers and for the Chief Executive of the NEA to limit these powers accordingly. Mdm Speaker, the Workers’ Party is of the view that the extent of such extraordinary enforcement powers and the degree to which they are limited, should be rightfully determined by Parliament and not the Chief Executive of NEA. Otherwise, the Parliament’s role is relegated to that of a mere rubber stamp.
I have five queries on the potential appointment of volunteers as auxiliary officers for the Minister.
First, who qualifies to be a volunteer?
As mentioned earlier, the NEA launched a volunteer program with trained a group of volunteers from various NGOs namely, the Public Hygiene Council, Waterways Watch Society, Singapore Kindness Movement, Singapore Environmental Council and the Cat Welfare Society. The MInister has confirmed in his second reading that this will now be extended to non-NGOs as well. Can I confirm with the Minister what criterion must any or even a new organisation fulfil to be considered?
Second, will volunteers be paid?
The Pioneer Generation Package allows for every Pioneer Generation Ambassador to receive a $10 allowance when they visit each pioneer. This can come up to be a significant sum for a volunteer and I understand that some volunteers have earned a few hundred dollars a month visiting pioneers, a sum that goes well beyond defraying the costs of food and transport. Will a volunteer under these amendments be paid, how much would a volunteer receive for each assignment, and is the pay out determined by the number of volunteer hours or the number of summons issued or some other determinant?
Third, volunteers with enforcement powers -will it upset our multi-racial community?
Apart from the uncomfortable nexus between volunteerism and paid work, has NEA considered the behavioural aspects of volunteer enforcers on the wider community? With volunteers extended enforcement powers, neighbours can potentially sign up as innocuous and well-meaning volunteers, but who would then have to exercise their enforcement powers to summon some friends and neighbours in some cases while issuing a warning in other cases, and exercising compassion in yet another series of cases depending on each situation. This flexibility which enforcement officers are endowed with, has a real risk of inadvertedly promoting a toxic environment in our communities. It can be construed by non-volunteer neighbours as blatant favouritism or worse, as an attempt by some volunteers to create power or patronage network – networks that cannot be actively policed. If parliament is not apprised how the enforcement powers under this Bill are scoped, there is a real risk this Bill will become a victim of unintended consequences – consequences that can irreparably harm a harmonious multi-racial society.
Fourth, volunteer numbers and deployment
How many auxiliary officers and volunteers does the Ministry have in mind to assist NEA for the tasks at hand? How does NEA plan to deploy these volunteers and will they be evenly spread out across Singapore or concentrated in areas which attract a large number of volunteers? Can the Minister assure this house that there would be an even deployment of volunteers with greatly scoped powers across the country to ensure that no areas are left out by a shortage of volunteers. In the alternative, if there are not enough volunteers in one particular area, will there be a corresponding increase in the number of NEA or auxiliary officers deployed to areas where the volunteer pool is small? If this is not done, in all likelihood, there may be pockets of areas that remain problematic hot spots. To this end, the Minister should consider a global approach to the deployment of NEA officers, auxiliary officers and volunteers with properly scoped powers.
Fifth, NEA volunteers in Opposition Town Councils
Does the NEA intend to require volunteers to work with Town Councils to jointly identify problematic areas? If volunteers are drawn from the the People’s Association Grassroots Organisations, how are they envisaged to work with opposition Town Councils – would there be regular meetings chaired by the NEA for the Town Council to share information on problem spots as it would also have a better feel of the more frequently littered areas and common areas which are potential dengue hot-spots? This is relevant as there is currently no institutional forums like monthly CCC meetings for the PA GROs and Town Council representatives to meet; a state of affairs compounded by the fact that PA GROs like Resident’s Committees are averse to pro-actively partnering opposition Town Councils to deliver outcomes for the community at large.
In conclusion, Mdm Speaker, while the Workers’ Party supports the principle of engaging the community to keep our neighbourhoods clean and the Community Volunteer Scheme, we cannot support Parliament extending broad and sweeping powers to volunteers without a clear scoping of these very powers. Therefore, the Workers’ Party recommends that this Bill be committed to a Select Committee for review, otherwise, we will not be able to support the Bill in its current form.