Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Big revamp for RCs to cater to new, diverse needs

$44m will be spent to spruce up the centres and transform their image
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2013

A MAJOR revamp is under way to upgrade and loosen the reins of residents' committees (RCs), in a move that will see this grassroots body even letting residents use its space for private functions like birthday parties.

About $44 million will be spent to spruce up and expand about 460 RC centres to help transform the image of this ubiquitous grassroots body often seen as void deck "karaoke centres" for the elderly.

At the refurbished Bedok Sunflower RC, for instance, residents now get to exercise on treadmills and cycling machines or meet friends for a cuppa and biscuits at a mini cafe.

Another big change: all the 572 RCs will be given the freedom to develop activities centred on a theme they feel best represents the profile and interests of residents in their neighbourhood.

Bedok Sunflower RC chose to promote healthy lifestyles for the elderly and their families after the RC did a survey and health screening of residents - one in five of whom are elderly.

The revamp to meet the new aspirations and diverse needs of residents is the most extensive in the 36-year history of the RCs, each of which serves 1,500 to 2,500 homes.

Announcing it yesterday, People's Association (PA) deputy chairman Lim Swee Say said: "We believe this can be a major turning point for the RC."

Started in 1977 as "basic building blocks" for the PA to reach out to residents, Mr Lim sees them taking on a bigger role in reaching out to the young, helping seniors age actively, and integrating new immigrants and citizens.

PA chief executive director Ang Hak Seng envisions RCs to be like "base camps" linking key spaces in the neighbourhood like gardens, void decks and halls with the activities they organise.

In Marine Crescent Ville RC, which specialises in arts for the family, art classes are held in a nearby void deck while some handicraft pieces are incorporated into the community garden.

Broadly, the RCs can choose from seven themes, for example, family, sports, arts and culture, and the elderly. The upgraded RC centres, meanwhile, will become mini "clubhouses", where residents can hold functions like family gatherings. Opening hours will be extended and a manager will be hired to run the centre, instead of staffing it with volunteers.

The average floor space of each RC centre will be enlarged from 120 sq m to 160 sq m.

About 460 centres that are older than 15 years old will be upgraded by 2017, with facilities like wall mirrors for dance and yoga classes to meet the RC's niche.

But success lies in how the RC meets the needs of residents, said Mr Lim. "We do not want to see an RC with beautiful facilities after upgrading but only for the exclusive use of some residents."

Dr Reuben Wong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore (NUS), sees the revamp as a bid by the PA and RCs to make themselves more relevant, especially to the younger generation.

He, however, felt the RCs' new autonomy was limited to more "peripheral" issues as their grassroots adviser is still the People's Action Party candidate for the ward. "If the PA wants to make itself more relevant, it should look into the issue of the adviser."

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser said encouraging residents' participation in decision-making would help the Government get a better sense of the ground. But to ensure the decisions made are "truly ground up", the grassroots leaders should be seen as representing the residents and able to gain their support, he added.

From bare floors to sleek 'clubhouses'
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2013

FROM bare cement floors to a "clubhouse" with sleek interiors where residents can take dance or yoga classes, the image of the residents' committee (RC) has evolved tremendously over the years.

And the grassroots body will have to continue to rejuvenate itself to meet residents' changing needs, said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

"Today, you are seeing the latest upgrading. I believe this is not the end," Mr Goh said, as he toured a newly renovated RC centre in his Marine Parade ward yesterday following the People's Association (PA) announcement of a major revamp of all 572 RCs across the island.

"As the demand for programmes and facilities changes over time, PA will put in more resources to make it more amenable to the residents," he added.

Mr Goh pioneered the idea of the RC after he was first elected in 1976.

As a rookie MP faced with a new community that just moved in from nearby Joo Chiat and Geylang Serai, his first thought was: "How do you gel them as one?"

He thought of having block committees driven by police officers living in those blocks, but concluded it was not a good idea as people might mistake it for a crime-fighting outfit.

"So I turned the idea around. This must be bottom up, residents must form the RCs and... it should be driven by the residents," he said.

His grassroots surveyed residents and those who put some effort into answering the open-ended questions were invited to be RC members.

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew agreed to the scheme and RCs were piloted in Marine Parade and Mr Lee's Tanjong Pagar ward.

As Marine Parade was a newer estate while Tanjong Pagar was older, there was scope for comparison and learning between both pilots, said Mr Goh.

Recalling the early days, he said there were no RC centres until the PA stepped in with funding.

The first centres were "rather elementary" with cement floors and a few chairs. But upgrades over the years have led to RCs like Marine Crescent Ville, which will focus on family bonding through creative activities.

RC chairman Anne Koh, 47, said the centre was renovated last year to better reflect the neighbourhood's wide demographic mix of very old and young families - including new citizens. It has doubled in size, with an area for karaoke and disco sessions where grandmothers party with their grandchildren, said Ms Koh.

Mr Goh, who visited the centre with PA deputy chairman Lim Swee Say and chief executive director Ang Hak Seng, said the key to RCs' success lies in the leaders. "The chairman and the committee have got to know the demands of the residents."

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