The idea of Residents’ Committees came from ESM Goh

The hottest new book in town this month is probably Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong’s memoirs Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story. Besides interesting tidbits about life in politics with Mr Lee Kuan Yew and how Dr Lee Wei Ling was almost considered to be a Member of Parliament, there are many other interesting stuff on what he did in his career. He left his foot print in more ways that we the younger generation knows. Like, did you know that ESM Goh was the one who came up with the idea of the Residents’ Committee (RC). Quite surprising sia.

Marine Parade was actually one of the first places to have a Residents’ Committee. ESM Goh wanted to create a group of community leaders for the newly formed HDB estates and Mr Lee Kuan Yew supported the idea. Three estates- Marine Parade, Tanjong Pagar and Bedok- took part in the pilot run.

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Here’s an excerpt of why ESM Goh came up with the idea and the purpose of RCs:

Q: What was the purpose of RCs? You mentioned petty crime earlier.

A: The original purpose of the block working committee was to, of course, get the block’s residents to know one another and to bond. Plus, also security – to look out for petty crimes, corridor thefts and so on. There were all kinds of petty crime at that time. The larger purpose would be to get people to know one another. I did it on a precinct basis and the objective would be to bond neighbours, to build a more cohesive neighbourhood. People from all over Singapore were moving into new places – the relocation from kampungs. How do you quickly build up a new kampong? Everybody was new, on loose ends and asking, where are my friends?

Q: Some have said that the RCs were the PAP’s version of “democratic united fronts” against the communists. So was there a larger political purpose?

A: To bond people is in itself political. But the aim of RCs was not with the purpose of winning elections. It was not directly political. Today, we made it very clear that grassroots leaders are not necessarily PAP members – they do not have to be. They do not have to come out during elections to support the party. And the rules are very clear. For example, we cannot wear white and white to go into the community centres or RC centres during elections because the uniform is the party’s and the premises are the government’s. We are quite clear.

As a fact, in my case during election time, many of them said they were grassroots leaders and asked not to campaign. They wanted to be nice to their neighbours. They did not want to be criticized by the neighbours, which is very real. Of course, the branch people would get very angry and wonder why they did not come and help. I said no, we make a distinction.

My intention behind RCs was to do good. Most people would want to know their neighbours. So, how did we do this? We used very simple ideas at that time. For one thing, we collected old newspapers. Every month, we went around to collect old newspapers and sell them to the karung guni man and the receipts would go to the RC and they could use money for their own expenses. A little extra for makan here and there. It was hard work. The RC members asked why we were doing this. We said it gave them an excuse to knock on doors. Otherwise, they would have no reason. Another way was the monthly cleaning of the precinct. I would join them and clean the corridors together with the cleaners. As we cleaned, we got together and knew each other.

Q: How did you know that this pilot was a success?

A: Well, because after that, they said to form RCs all over Singapore! As far as I am concerned, the big boss said it was a success. The fact that Lee Kuan Yew gave the okay to the others meant he could see some benefits. The benefits are in the general sense for Singapore, and not for the PAP. Now, RCs have grown. They organize many activities to forge neighbourliness – pot luck, children’s party, block party and so on. There are also health activities, such as health screenings and looking after the vulnerable people in the estate.