People's Association

The People’s Association (PA) is a statutory board under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) that was established on 1 July 1960 through the People’s Association Ordinance.1 Officially, the PA was formed to achieve two objectives: first, to develop patriotic youth leaders who would serve the community; and second, to create a common national identity through organising and promoting community involvement in social, cultural, educational and sporting activities.2

Politically, the PA was created to help the People’s Action Party government develop and maintain links with the people at the grassroots level through centralised control over the community centres.3 Initially, activities organised in such centres were meant to compete with those run by left-wing unions and associations for grassroots support.4

Over the years, the PA has expanded to become an umbrella organisation coordinating various government-endorsed grassroots activities.5 While facing new social challenges, the PA has continued in its mission of fostering national cohesion, training future grassroots leaders, and maintaining links between government and people.6

PA’s mission
When the PA was formed in 1960, Singapore society was divided along sharp communal lines. The different ethnic communities lived in enclaves. Race, language and religion determined largely who the people mixed with, which schools they attended, and how they earned a living.7

The PA’s core mission was to foster multicultural values in the different communities through group participation in social, cultural, educational and athletic activities that cut across communal lines.8 It was also responsible for the training of community leaders and instilling in them a sense of national identity and a spirit of dedicated service to a multiracial society.9 As a political tool, the PA allowed the government to constantly keep in touch with the people as it had representation from both government and grassroots organisations.10

Role of community centres
The first task of the PA was to take over the 28 community centres (CCs) originally built by the colonial government.11 These centres were to be the common space for people from all ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds to meet and interact through sporting activities such as basketball, volleyball and sepak takraw (Malay for “kick volleyball”), and educational activities such as dressmaking, cooking and radio repair.12

Some CCs, particularly those in the rural areas, also provided essential services such as clerical help for the largely illiterate rural folk and inoculation services for livestock.13 The CCs were not only a venue for community activities and services as they also became critical contact points between the people, grassroots and government leaders.14

To ensure that CC activities were well organised and stayed relevant to the needs of the people, Community Centre Management Committees (CCMCs), led by community leaders, were set up in 1964 to manage the CCs.15

The Prime Minister’s Office also complemented and extended the reach of CCs by forming grassroots organisations – the Citizens’ Consultative Committees (CCCs) in 1965 and the Residents’ Committees (RCs) in 1978. The aims of these committees were to promote good citizenship and improve communication between the people and the government.16

National Community Leadership Training Institute
In 1964, the PA set up the Buona Vista Youth Leadership Training Centre (now known as the National Community Leadership Institute) to train grassroots leaders and youth workers.17 The centre’s early trainees had to undergo a rigorous, paramilitary, three-year residential programme. The skills taught ranged from unarmed combat such as judo to woodwork and social theories. The goal was to develop a corps of physically fit, technically competent, and socially conscious staff and leaders for the PA.18

The pioneering batch of PA leaders comprised Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew as chairman, Law and Labour Minister K. M. Bryne as deputy chairman, and Chief Administrative Officer and Secretary of the City Council Woon Wah Siang as chief executive director.19 There were also 43 appointed members made up of youth leaders, sportsmen, artists and educationists drawn from various public groups.20

Original headquarters and logo

The PA’s original headquarters was located at the former Kallang Airport building. It was officially opened by Lee on 20 August 1960. In his opening speech, Lee encouraged grassroots representatives to use the resources provided by PA to “help draw [the people] together into a closely-knit community” and “fill up the minds and the time of our youth with healthy and wholesome activities”.21

The PA adopted a crest consisting of four red interlocking circles as its official logo. The circles represent the four main ethnic groups in Singapore while the overlapping area denotes the common spaces in which they interact.22

Maintaining national unity in the 21st century
The PA network has expanded over the years to include some 1,800 grassroots organisations. Of note were the inclusions of the CCCs and RCs under the charge of the PA in 1993. This move to create one grassroots movement was started in 1992 by then Minister for Community Development Wong Kan Seng in his role as deputy chairman of the PA. The official purpose of the consolidation exercise was to maximise the use of resources and allow for better coordination among the different grassroots organisations.23

The PA now faces new social challenges such as the integration of foreigners, the growing rich-poor divide, an ageing society and the threat of terrorism. Nevertheless, the PA has continued in its mission of fostering national cohesion, training future grassroots leaders, and maintaining links between government and people.24

1. “About Us,” MCCY, n.d.; People’s Association Ordinance 1960, Ord. 35 of 1960, 1960 Supplement to the Laws of the State of Singapore, 243–50. (Call no. RCLOS 348.5957 SIN-[HWE])
2. People’s Association Ordinance 1960, 1960 Supplement to the Laws of the State of Singapore, 246–7.
3. Lee Ting Hui, The Open United Front: The Communist Struggle in Singapore, 1954–1966 (Singapore: South Seas Society, 1996), 193 (Call no. RSING 959.5703 LEE–[HIS]); Seah Chee Meow, Community Centres in Singapore: Their Political Involvement (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1973), 20. (Call no. RSING 301.5095957 SEA)
4. Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Times Editions; Singapore Press Holdings, 2000).(Call no. RSING 959.57092 LEE-[HIS])
5. Jimmy Yap, We Are One: The People’s Association Journey, 1960–2010 (Singapore: People’s Association & Straits Times Press, 2010), 27. (Call no. RSING 307.095957 YAP)
6. Yap, We Are One, 1, 91, 159–61, 222–24.
7. Yap, We Are One, 20.
8. Yap, We Are One, 22.
9. Yap, We Are One, 22.
10. “‘People’s Assn. to Help Build Nation’,” Straits Times, 14 May 1960, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Tommy Koh et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 128. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
12. Yap, We Are One, 22.
13. Yap, We Are One, 24.
14. Yap, We Are One, 24.
15. “Managing Bodies for Centres: 'Historic Event',” Straits Times, 3 October 1964, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
16. People’s Association, 25 Years with the People 1960–1985: People's Association 25th Anniversary Publication (Singapore: People’s Association, 1985), 8 (Call no. RSING 301.34095957 TWE); Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 128.
17. Yap, We Are One, 149.
18. Vivi Zainol, “Grassroots Job Same, But No Gangsters Now,” Straits Times, 4 October 2004, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Yap, We Are One, 23.
20. “People’s Association Members Are Named,” Straits Times, 7 August 1960, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Yap, We Are One, 37; Lee: Association Can Help Form a More Compact Community,” Straits Times, 21 August 1960, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Yap, We Are One, 240.
23. Yap, We Are One, 26–27, 36.
24. Yap, We Are One, 1, 91, 159–61, 222–4.

The information in this article is valid as of 16 October 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


People's Association
Community and Social Services
Politics and Government