THE NEW SMCS: BUKIT BATOK

Bukit Batok SMC: Hot-seat days could return

Residents' priorities are largely middle-class ones like ease of transport. Connectivity is better with more frequent bus services, they say.
Residents' priorities are largely middle-class ones like ease of transport. Connectivity is better with more frequent bus services, they say.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Bukit Batok is back.

The scene of two close shaves for the People's Action Party (PAP) in 1988 and 1991 vanished off the electoral map as a single-member constituency in 1997.

Then it became part of Bukit Timah GRC, and for three elections was also in the PAP stronghold of Jurong GRC.

But under last month's boundary changes, Bukit Batok is born again as a singleton.

And some residents are relishing the possibility of political tussles like those of two decades ago.

Retired paper salesman Gerry Chua, 58, who has lived in the neighbourhood for 30 years, recalls: "I shook hands with so many politicians and activists in those days. They will be in the market, under your block, at the bus stop, everywhere! Cannot escape!"

He adds excitedly: "And it can go either way. You won't be surprised if you one day wake up and were under the opposition. The fight was so close."

The last time he saw a fight was in 1991.The PAP had its slimmest victory of that general election in Bukit Batok SMC, polling 51.8 per cent.

The incumbent MP, Dr Ong Chit Chung, beat the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) Mr Kwan Yue Keng by just 858 votes.

But in 1997 it was redrawn as part of Bukit Timah GRC. Opposition parties gave it a miss then.

Then, it became part of Jurong GRC, where the SDP won just 20.3 per cent of the vote in 2001. The next election was a walkover, and 2011 saw the National Solidarity Party get 33.1 per cent.

But now that Bukit Batok is an SMC again, technician Ahmad Nordin, 30, says: "We can definitely expect more action. Now it's alone, it's easier to grab."

Deliveryman Tan W. K. echoes that, claiming that without the protection of "big names", Bukit Batok SMC - comprising 27,068 mostly middle-class voters - will be more vulnerable than it has ever been in the last 20 years.

Chief of those big names is Jurong GRC's anchor minister, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. The GRC team also includes Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob and Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee.

Alongside them are first-term MPs Ang Wei Neng and David Ong.

Mr Tan, 48, whose division is Bukit Batok under Mr Ong, says: "When I say I am from Jurong GRC, people say 'Oh, so you are under Tharman!' But I tell them, no my MP is David Ong. They ask 'Who's that?'"

Just two days after the boundary changes were announced on July 24, SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan declared that his party is looking at fielding "a very good candidate" in the new Bukit Batok SMC.

The SDP had done well in Bukit Batok when it was an SMC, said Dr Chee. "In a way, we are coming home."

He added that the SDP had been contesting wards in north-western Singapore, and "geographically, it makes a lot of sense - in terms of resources, in terms of campaigning, for us to be here".

WHEN IT WAS A HOT SEAT

A look at those heady hot-seat days shows just how close things were. In the 1988 polls, SDP's Mr Kwan won 44 per cent of the vote in Bukit Batok. In the close-run 1991 poll, he won 48 per cent.

That same year, the SDP's Mr Ling How Doong captured neighbouring Bukit Gombak SMC, winning 51 per cent of the vote against the PAP. But the SDP's victory was short-lived. In 1997, the PAP reclaimed Bukit Gombak.

This heated past, however, does not guarantee a revival of the

anti- PAP vote, says Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan.

"Bukit Batok is not in the same mould as Hougang or Anson, which to varying degrees are or were identified with the opposition," explains the political observer .

For clerk Mary Long, 38: "If the opposition starts by targeting an SMC here, campaigns well, and wins it, maybe we can see their voices grow in the west."

But maintenance officer Koh Teck Seng, 51, referring to SDP's Dr Chee, scoffs: "The opposition must know when to say things and what to say, cannot just anyhow say things."

Dr Chee plans to make his political comeback this time round, though he would not say where.

He could not run in 2006 or 2011, having been declared bankrupt after failing to pay $500,000 in damages for defaming then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong during the 2001 elections. He was cleared of bankruptcy in 2012.

As for the PAP, speculation is rife about who it will field.

Some residents wonder if rookie MP Mr Ong will be able to keep a grip once Bukit Batok is out of the GRC's fold.

While some of Mr Ong's residents fail to identify him as their MP, those who have seen him in action would like to see him stay.

A great number of the flats are about 30 years old, and Mr Ong has been pushing for the Home Improvement Programme in his ward, notes Ms Long.

Mr Ong tells Insight: "That's something I have been fighting for. I want to make sure our residents' living conditions will be looked after."

When asked if he thinks he would be at a disadvantage as a rookie, Mr Ong points out that visibility matters. He and his grassroots leaders, he adds, have been working the ground.

Talk among party activists also throws up Madam Halimah's name as another possible candidate for the new SMC. She has more than a decade of political experience and oversees Bukit Batok East in Jurong GRC, where former civil servant Rahayu Mahzam has been tipped as a new face.

Associate Professor Tan feels that fielding Madam Halimah, who as a Malay woman is a "political double minority", will send a "powerful statement by the PAP and for multiracialism".

Whoever it is has big shoes to fill.

When Bukit Batok was last an SMC, it was under the meticulous hand of Dr Ong, who seven years after his death is still remembered as the "father of Bukit Batok" by older residents.

Bukit Batok is mostly made up of public housing, with just over 4 per cent of residents living in condominiums. Two new Build-To-Order projects with about 2,600 households will be ready in two years.

Residents' priorities are largely middle-class ones like ease of transport. Connectivity has improved with more frequent bus services in the neighbourhood, they say.

There is also a bustling market

area and about 12 coffee shops around the estate, which residents say serve them well enough. So bread-and-butter issues might not determine how the vote falls.

"Most residents here aren't so happy or so unhappy with Bukit Batok that this is what will swing the vote," says engineer Jimmy Yap, 40. "But it's not just whether we are happy or not.

"We also want to have a chance to see the opposition come in, if they are good enough. So if PAP has someone I don't mind losing, I will vote for the other party - just to test them out."

• Additional reporting by Choo Yun Ting

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline 'Hot-seat days could return'. Print Edition | Subscribe