WP - Constituency close up

Aljunied: Uphill battle for PAP team to wrest control of Workers' Party stronghold

WP candidate Chen Show Mao (left) and PAP candidate Victor Lye greeting each other at Kovan Hougang Market and Food Centre yesterday. The next two days will be a battle to win over swing voters, with the daily schedules of both parties packed with wa
WP candidate Chen Show Mao (left) and PAP candidate Victor Lye greeting each other at Kovan Hougang Market and Food Centre yesterday. The next two days will be a battle to win over swing voters, with the daily schedules of both parties packed with walkabouts and house visits.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Residents seem more reserved in reception towards candidates from ruling party

SINGAPORE - The election hot spot of Aljunied GRC may have its big issues - troubled town council accounts, against the backdrop of the People's Action Party's national track record of financial prudence, for example. But when it comes to gauging the state of play in the GRC two days from Polling Day, look no further than that campaign classic - the door knock.

Or more precisely, the door shut on the party candidate, after it is opened.

Resident P. Kwa had the opportunity to show what he thought of the PAP when the men in white, led by Aljunied GRC team leader Yeo Guat Kwang, came a-knocking at his block in Serangoon Avenue 4.

Mr Kwa deliberately shut his door on them, and waited till they left before reopening it.

The 47-year-old, who has lived in the estate for 16 years, said in Mandarin: "I've never seen him (Mr Yeo) around in this area. What's the use of visiting us only when the election is near, to ask us to support him?"

His attitude was shared by several residents interviewed by The Straits Times in the Workers' Party (WP) stronghold, and is an indication of the uphill task the PAP faces in making inroads into the GRC vote share, let alone wresting it back.

Even one of the more recognisable faces among the PAP's five-man slate, Mr K. Muralidharan Pillai, said somewhat valiantly: "We came in knowing we were the underdogs. We're working hard to regain the trust of the Aljunied residents, so we can't give up."

And unlike Mr Yeo - formerly an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, he was announced as an Aljunied candidate two weeks ago - Mr Pillai has been on the ground in Paya Lebar ward for over three years, and implemented programmes like mobile clinics for the elderly.

Some, like stay-at-home mother Amrita Kaur, 29, have been impressed: "We know him (Mr Pillai), and he's a capable man. Ultimately we also trust that the PAP will not field incompetent people."

The WP said its Aljunied team of party chief Low Thia Khiang, chairman Sylvia Lim, Mr Pritam Singh, Mr Chen Show Mao and Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap would stay put, to repay the faith of voters.

Indeed, Mr Kwa said that Ms Lim, the MP in charge of his Serangoon ward, had never visited him, "but I've seen her in the neighbourhood at least three times in the last four years, so I know that she comes here quite often, even if not to do house visits".

As for the PAP, party leaders often mention Mr Pillai's position as head of commercial litigation at Rajah & Tann, one of Singapore's largest law firms, as evidence of his heavyweight status.

The rest of the PAP team comprises Mr Yeo, insurance firm director Victor Lye, senior bank officer Chua Eng Leong, and former teacher Shamsul Kamar.

To make up for the team's relative lack of recognition, though, top party leaders like Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam have paid visits in the last few days.

Still, engineer Benjamin Tan, 58, feels that fielding an existing officeholder or the ousted 2011 team would have shown the party's sincerity in winning back the constituency. "The party would do well to have a few more Sitoh Yih Pins," he said, referring to the Potong Pasir SMC incumbent who lost at the polls twice before winning with a narrow margin in 2011.

Some residents, like semi-retiree C.P. Chin, 59, find it difficult to choose between the incumbent WP team, who are a visible, alternative voice in the House, and the candidates from PAP, who represent a party with a good track record.

"There have been more social welfare policies since 2011, but to what extent is that because of our Prime Minister, who seems to be more open to consultation than his predecessors, or of the opposition MPs?" he asked. "If we like what's been happening in the last four years, shouldn't we stick to the status quo and vote PM and the WP back?"

During a visit to the ward on Sunday, ESM Goh noted that many residents appeared to be in a bind over who to vote for.

He urged residents to vote for candidates "whose values you appreciate, like humility, sincerity, hard work, integrity, honesty", a veiled reference to the town council saga. The PAP has been attacking WP over lapses found in the accounts of Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council.

However, the back-and-forth sniping has irked voters like human resource director Anna Lam, 46.

"We know there are a lot of question marks in the WP's accounts. There's no need for the PAP to shove it down our throats. The more they do this, the more I'm inclined to vote for the WP," she said.

Residents themselves say the handover from the PAP has largely been smooth for them.

Estate management services may have slowed somewhat, but the saving grace is that the town council has a quick response time.

Madam Maleegadevi, 53, who goes by one name, said: "After the WP took over, I noticed the void decks were getting dirtier and the grass was not cut. My neighbour raised the issue with the town council and they settled it. So I'm fine, because you tell them and they fix it."

But that was not the experience of administrative assistant Norzilah Mohamad, 44, a resident of about 20 years. "The WP town council doesn't take care of things as often - the paint on HDB blocks is peeling and a few members of my family got dengue because of stagnant water," she said.

However, on wider issues, Madam Maleegadevi said that she worries about healthcare costs, and whether her two children, aged 19 and 26, will be able to afford a flat.

"I know the Government has introduced MediShield Life to help us pay for healthcare. But I want to see how it works out first," she said.

Mr Kwa of Serangoon said: "My lifts are still working fine. The lamps outside are still switched on. You know what affects me? The CPF (Central Provident Fund) affects me. High cost of living affects me. I'm the only one working and I need to support my family. Foreigners coming here to work worries me."

But a Serangoon private estate resident in her 50s, who gave her name only as Madam Pang, views the town council saga as a win-win for residents.

The manager, who works in the service industry, said: "WP knows that whatever it does, the PAP is watching it closely, and it'd better not do (anything) wrong. And through this town council saga, we now know more about what goes on in town council management, such as the money and players involved."

Then, there are die-hard PAP loyalists like retiree Chua Ai Lian, 80, who told the PAP's Mr Yeo during a walkabout that she hopes the tide will turn. "Aljunied residents were very angry, but I really hope they come to their senses and choose the party that cares. There is no need to rebel anymore."

Then there are swing voters, like electronics importer Seamus Lim, 33, who voted for the WP at the last elections out of frustration over the high cost of living and crowded public transport system.

But he moves into a four-room flat in Clementi with his fiancee at the year end and, despite the MRT breakdowns, thinks the added trains have helped make his commute to work more comfortable. He added: "Maybe the PAP has learnt its lesson and we should 'pay them back' this round."

The next two days will be a battle to win over voters like Mr Lim, with the daily schedules of both parties packed with walkabouts and house visits. But, again, face-time can be an indicator of support. A hawker, who wanted to be known only as Madam Tan, 59, said the support for WP is still strong in Aljunied.

When WP candidates, including Mr Low, visited her food centre at Block 630, Bedok Reservoir Road recently, they were greeted with cheers and crowned with garlands, she said.

As for PAP candidates who visited food centres, The Straits Times observed the reception was more reserved, unless high-profile guests like PM Lee, ESM Goh and DPM Tharman were visiting. Then residents would queue up to take selfies with them and pledge their support.

One such resident was undergraduate Jaclyn Chan, 23, who waited with her mother to take a selfie with PM Lee when he visited Hougang Mall last Saturday.

She said: "We don't really know the candidates here because it wasn't something we were obsessively tracking. But it's good that PM is giving them this endorsement. I'll consider casting my first vote to the PAP because of this."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2015, with the headline 'Uphill battle for PAP team to wrest control of WP stronghold'. Print Edition | Subscribe