Stepping into my first and only Meet-the-People session last year, I was immediately struck by how clinical the environment felt — and I wasn’t even a resident who had a problem for his Member-of-Parliament (MP), but just there to interview him.
The first thing you’re asked for is your Identification Card so that your particulars be recorded before you’re issued a queue number — a classic Singapore move to ensure order. The place, a kindergarden in the day, was now cold and quiet. The only murmurs came from the whirling of the air-con and the two television sets: one was tuned to the English-language Channel 5, and the other to the Mandarin-language Channel 8.
The residents who had come to see their MP sat quietly in the neatly-arranged rows of chairs and stared at the television screens. Occasionally, a resident would flip through the stack of papers he held, probably rehearsing what he will tell the MP to impress upon him how unique his problem was that it needed the MP’s full attention.
A manager roamed freely in the area, and at what seemed like a regular interval, would call out for a resident and usher him into one of the temporary cubicles. Inside each cubicle, a grassroots leader sat facing a laptop. Never looking away from the screen, he listened cooly as the resident began pleading his case. Tapping away at the keyboard, his fingers mimicking the residents efforts to articulate his problem, the grassroots leader translated the residents’ woes into bureaucratic poetry — standard templates where every problem could be categorised into one of the many already anticipated by our all-seeing government. One after another, the resident’s troubles are efficiently translated from anger to cold-hard taps on the keyboard.
Once a resident had his say and by then cooled down, he is returned to another line of seats, a single row leading to the MP’s office. Side-by-side the residents sat, but never facing one another. Now and again, the manager would walk past to assure everyone that there was nothing to worry about as the MP would take care of everything.
By the time the resident sees the MP, his problem has already been categorised and translated into an A4-size letter using one of many templates available. As if marveling at the beauty of his problem-solving system, the MP smiles and nods while he personally signs each letter in front of the resident. A few minutes later, the MP still glued to his seat, packs the resident off. Armed with another bullet to continue fighting his paper war, the satisfied resident leaves while another enters, triggering another round of musical chairs as the remaining residents move to fill up the empty seat, ever eager to get their turn with the MP.