GE2015: On the campaign trail with PAP's Lee Hong Chuang

People's Action Party candidate for Hougang SMC Lee Hong Chuang.
People's Action Party candidate for Hougang SMC Lee Hong Chuang. ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

As campaigning for the Sept 11 polls comes to a close, The Straits Times spotlights some candidates to find out how they interact with residents and what drives them.

SINGAPORE - Despite representing Singapore in four successive South-east Asian Games from 1985 to 1993, former national gymnast Lee Hong Chuang never won a medal.

Now, as the "opposition in the opposition ward", he faces yet another tough fight.

The 45-year-old has been sent by the People's Action Party (PAP) to challenge the Workers' Party (WP) in its stronghold of Hougang, a seat it has held for 24 years since WP chief Low Thia Khiang first won it in 1991.

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Many, including long-time PAP supporter Raymond Soo, believe Mr Lee will have a hard time trying to unseat the WP incumbent Png Eng Huat.

Asked if it is a hopeless endeavour, Mr Lee says he does not want to "think too much about winning or losing". Instead, he is focusing on making himself known to Hougang residents and getting himself accepted as one of them, he says.

"Ultimately it's a choice between legacy and change. And the point is to give the residents a choice," says Mr Lee, now a senior IT manager.

My message to the residents is: 'I'm just a regular guy like you. I'm not an elite, not a scholar, and my studies were not so solid. I'm just like one of you, with the same fears, same midlife crisis.' But for now, there's no time to think about worries in life, it's just do, do and do.

LEE HONG CHUANG

But it is not a case of offering a choice for the sake of it, he says.

He feels that he is the better candidate for he is "always around" - he had been on the ground four or five times a week since May last year - and residents find him "more approachable". "The residents see me more often (than they see Png) and have better access to me. Just today, a resident told me he had already shaken my hands three times," he says.

He knows that many residents strongly favour WP, but says he has never experienced any hostility.

"I'm here to make friends and build trust. They may have hesitations about me in the beginning due to my PAP background, but I've a strong feeling that they have now accepted me as person."

It now remains to be seen if the acceptance will translate into votes.

Whatever the outcome on Sept 11, Mr Lee pledges that he is committed to being in Hougang at least twice a week to meet the residents, for as long as he is the chairman of the PAP's Hougang branch.

On his campaign trail in Hougang Avenues 3, 5 and 7, he is constantly stopping to chit-chat with familiar faces.

Many seem to recognise him and cheerfully accept the keychains he hands them. The 3,000 keychains bearing the Chinese character "hao" (which means good) was chosen to match his campaign slogan "Hao de wei lai, hao de xuan ze" (Better choice, Better future).

"My focus here is very local. The people here are very happy-go-lucky, they enjoy casual talks on everyday matters, they are not into national policies or issues about any big plans," he says.

In fact, no one in Hougang talks about the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council issue, he says.

"People here do not utter a single word on it. They choose not to talk about it, and I respect their decision," he says.

Having immersed himself in Hougang since November last year, he concludes that more needs to be done to improve the amenities.

Pointing to the jogging path, playground, and the senior citizens' corner in the void deck, he admits that Hougang has all the facilities that the residents need.

But many are old and in need of upgrading, he says. "I've got many requests from residents for sheltered drop-off points."

As a self-professed "community man", he claims that he does not know "how to talk politics" but just tries to help residents solve their problems.

 

He joined PAP in 2004 but his roots, expertise and passion lie in community work, something that he started at age 19, with the Teck Ghee community club youth group. "When people ask me about my hobbies, I will always write gymnastics and community work," he quips.

He has been the chairman for the Central Youth Council for the People's Association Youth Movement, board member of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, as well as chairman for the youth community space *Scape.

Now, in Hougang, he wears five different community hats, including as vice-chairman of its Citizens Consultative Committee.

To connect with residents, he has chosen to go it alone.

"It's just me. I prefer to just walk around, or cycle around on my own, stopping to talk to residents as and when I like. And with nobody with me, I can spend as much time as I like, talking to each resident," he explains.

He is also taking a leaf out of Mr Low's playbook.

The owner of a popular eatery in Hougang Avenue 3, who declines to be named, tells The Straits Times that WP politicians tend to be more down-to-earth and well-connected with the ground. He cites how Mr Low would unhesitatingly sip from a half-drunk cup of coffee that a resident offers him.

Similarly, Mr Lee recounts how when a resident invited him to have a beer, and there were no extra mugs around, he just grabbed one from the table and drank it.

He has also attended 130 to 140 funerals in the past 10 months. "I go to see if there's assistance we can offer them. At the same time, I also share with them the various services we have for them," he says.

Capitalising on his image as a "good" guy, Mr Lee's election catchphrase is "Hougang Ho" (in Teochew and Hokkien), literally "Hougang is good" or "Good Hougang".

Promising residents a "good life, good health and good overall well-being" is the cornerstone of his campaign.

He makes it a point to shout when in community events: "Hougang Ho Bo?" ("Is Hougang good?" or "How are you, Hougang?")

And the residents will respond: "Ho lah!" (Yes, it's good or Yes, we're good.)

"So somehow, it works. Whether they are with me, or against me, they will naturally say it out loud."

kohping@sph.com.sg