From MNC to mamak shop: The PAP goes local

I turned up yesterday morning at the People's Action Party (PAP)'s branch office at Block 187 Toa Payoh Central, expecting the party's press conference to introduce its first slate of candidates to be held there. Instead, I was directed to the coffee shop next door.

I had two thoughts.

The first was that the PAP is going back to its local roots, eschewing the previous style of introducing its new candidates at the party headquarters at Bedok. Is this grassroots PAP just a change in style, or substance? Time - the election campaign and the next five years - will tell.

My second, more cynical thought was: "Let's see how welcoming the stallholders are of this 'invasion' by the PAP." I recalled stories from the past, of hawkers sullenly putting up with such events that rob them of tables and affect their business.

At the Kim San Leng coffee shop at Block 177, two coffee shop tables were set up, with microphones set up on them. Many reporters were thronged around the tables, in ringside seats. I ascertained that candidates would arrive only at 10.30am, and spent the next 30 minutes walking around the coffee shop, talking to whoever would talk to me. I got lucky. The coffee shop's big boss, Mr Hoon Thing Leong, was there with his son, and a business partner. Someone from the merchants' association was also present. Mr Hoon and the coffee shop manager were not just okay with the PAP folks taking up one-third of the coffee shop space. They were welcoming, not just to the PAP but also the media present. When the press conference ended and I was having bak chor mee for lunch, Mr Hoon walked over to my table and handed me two otak and said: "It will taste better with this!"

So much for cynical doubts about whether coffee shop stallholders might resent the intrusion.

Clearly, the PAP team had done the essential and prepped the ground and picked friendly territory. Throughout the hour-long press conference, residents from pre-schoolers to retirees stopped to gawk, take photos and point out their MP to one another. A few aunties took selfies with the debonair Dr Ng Eng Hen, the lead minister in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC and the PAP's organising secretary in charge of this election.

It is clear the PAP will be fighting this election at the local level.

Introducing candidates within the constituency, not at the party HQ, is just the start. The PAP is clearly moving away from MNC-style, top-down decision- making - where a coterie of top party leaders keeps cards close to their chest, leaving the rest of the party and country guessing.

Instead, it has decentralised and is giving the initiative to the equivalent of the corner mamak shop - the branches and candidates at the local level.

And if yesterday's event is any guide, expect local connections and local plans to be highlighted, and views on national policies muted.

It was stressed yesterday that two of the new candidates - Mr Chee Hong Tat and Mr Chong Kee Hiong - live in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.

As Mr Chee noted: "I have a fond attachment to this place, this is my home." The man who was, until Tuesday, Second Permanent Secretary at the Trade and Industry Ministry and once served as Mr Lee Kuan Yew's principal private secretary and has helmed the Energy Market Authority, did not talk about national policies.

Instead, on his to-do list, if elected, are exercise corners for the elderly and more walkways.

And he sounded amazingly sincere, as though it is the opportunity to do these things that would persuade a high flier to give up a steady career in the civil service for the world of politics in the "new normal", where ministers face harsh scrutiny from voters online and off, and can be in Cabinet one day and out the next.

Dr Ng explained the choice of Toa Payoh town centre as the venue to introduce candidates - because elections are about the heartland, and voters choose MPs who can take care of the estate.

At the strategic level, of course, the PAP is also affirming that it is a party connected to the ground, in touch with day-to-day realities of residents. So Dr Ng told about how he and his team worked with the Housing Board to come up with plans for 66 lifts for the four-storey shophouses that form the spine of Toa Payoh Central.

In an indirect comparison with the opposition team eyeing the ward, he added: "Bishan Toa-Payoh residents are very savvy. They have witnessed many elections since this town was built and they are not easily enamoured of, or easily gulled by platitudes or aspirations. They vote from enlightened self-interest and that's indeed how they should. And the party that convinces the voters here that they can best take care of them will win their support."

The PAP wants to play down its top-down image, and play up its grassroots appeal.

But as Dr Ng said, voters are savvy. They are not easily enamoured or easily gulled by platitudinous changes in style.

To win hearts and minds, the PAP has to show that in the things that matter, policy substance, not just in grassroots political style, it is genuinely for the heartland.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2015, with the headline 'From MNC to mamak shop: The PAP goes local'. Print Edition | Subscribe