Election Watch

GE2015: In Tanjong Pagar and Hougang, where history was made

An elderly resident thanking Mr Tan Jee Say, SingFirst candidate for Tanjong Pagar GRC,  for a chance to vote during a walkabout in Commonwealth on Sept 2, 2015.
An elderly resident thanking Mr Tan Jee Say, SingFirst candidate for Tanjong Pagar GRC, for a chance to vote during a walkabout in Commonwealth on Sept 2, 2015.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
SingFirst candidates for Tanjong Pagar GRC (from left) Melvyn Chiu, Tan Jee Say, Ang Yong Guan and Fahmi Rais speaking to the media during a walkabout in Commonwealth on Sept 2, 2015.
SingFirst candidates for Tanjong Pagar GRC (from left) Melvyn Chiu, Tan Jee Say, Ang Yong Guan and Fahmi Rais speaking to the media during a walkabout in Commonwealth on Sept 2, 2015.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Dr Ang Yong Guan, SingFirst candidate for Tanjong Pagar GRC, during a walkabout in Commonwealth on Sept 2, 2015.
Dr Ang Yong Guan, SingFirst candidate for Tanjong Pagar GRC, during a walkabout in Commonwealth on Sept 2, 2015.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Workers’ Party (WP) secretary-general Low Thia Khiang at the rally on Sept 2 in Hougang.
Workers’ Party (WP) secretary-general Low Thia Khiang at the rally on Sept 2 in Hougang.ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

It is Day 2 and I am at two special places in Singapore's political history.

First stop Tanglin Halt in Tanjong Pagar GRC and I am with the SingFirst team doing its house visits in the late afternoon.

We are at Block 89, a 40-storey HDB block soaring above the Commonwealth MRT station below.

It's not Pinnacle@Duxton but it comes close with its spectacular view of the city, completed three years before the more famous icon of public housing.

When Mr Lee Kuan Yew chose to contest the ward in 1955 as an opposition member of the then fledging People's Action Party, it was a desperately poor place of dock workers, trishaw riders and opium dens with no sewerage.

He wrote in his memoirs that when he went campaigning in that first election, the stench was so overpowering it made him retch every time he visited.

It's the stuff of political legends, and he won easily, as he would at every election right up to 2011.

But in the last six, from 1991 onwards, when the ward became part of a five-member GRC, there would be no opponent to overpower.

Chances are, no registered voter below the age of 45 and who had stayed put here, would have ever been inside a ballot booth.

Until now.

When the newly formed party SingFirst decided to contest here, it helped create history by making sure every one of the 89 seats in the country would be contested, a first since 1965.

It's a huge challenge just to make a dent in this PAP stronghold now helmed by labour chief Chan Chun Sing, and I can see how hard going it is for the team today.

At every floor, SingFirst leader Tan Jee Say makes contact with only two or three residents, and only if the doors are already open.

He says they have no time to knock on closed doors; it will take too long to complete the block.

Too few volunteers, too little time left, too many people to meet and ask for their support.

It's hard work trying to make political history.

But there is no substitute for these personal visits, even if the pickings are lean and the effectiveness at this late hour uncertain.

It helps, though, if the party machinery is well-oiled and its practitioners well-drilled.

I had a glimpse of this when I followed Jalan Besar GRC's PAP candidate Yaacob Ibrahim make his rounds earlier in the day.

We are at a block of three-room HDB flats in St George's Road, with at least a dozen volunteers.

They troop ahead, knocking on all the doors in advance, armed with a list of every resident's name.

It is 2pm, and we meet mostly retirees at home.

Mr Yaacob greets them by name but it too is a chop-chop tour; he wants to visit every block in these nine days of campaigning, every day, in the morning, afternoon and evening.

At one flat, I stopped to ask an elderly Indian couple if the opposition Workers' Party candidate had dropped by.

The woman looked around as if to make sure no one was listening and with her index finger to her lips, whispered in a hushed voice, "Yes, he had, one evening."

I am not sure what to make of this, whether she is afraid to say she has actually met someone from the other side. Shhh.

It is 8pm and I finally make my way to the big event of the day, the WP's first rally.

This is Hougang, the other special place, where it all started for WP's chief Low Thia Khiang in 1991.

Without this ward, there would have been no Aljunied GRC, and from which the WP hopes to spread outwards to the rest of Singapore.

This GE is critical for the party, and it is another make-or-break effort, as it was in 2011.

For how long more will it be living so dangerously, between becoming an entrenched member of a two-party system and disappearing in the electoral dust?

Such is the precariousness of opposition politics in Singapore.

But don't ask the enormous partisan crowd here; they'll pummel you with their answer.

All the key party people take turns to speak but it is Mr Low who works them up best.

In Teochew.

The town council issue is the top item of the rally and I am impressed how knowledgeable the crowd is.

They hiss and cheer every twist and turn in the saga as the speakers make their points.

It's a complicated story but they appear to know its intricate details.

"I have tolerated them long enough!" Mr Low tells them of the PAP attacks.

It gets the loudest cheer.

That's what they came to hear.