Hotseat: Punggol East

Punggol East SMC: Charm offensives

WP candidate Lee Li Lian has been getting to know as many residents as possible, tracking which homes she has visited, and helping them. Younger residents recognise her during her house visits. PAP candidate Charles Chong on a walkabout at Block 182A
WP candidate Lee Li Lian has been getting to know as many residents as possible, tracking which homes she has visited, and helping them. Younger residents recognise her during her house visits.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
WP candidate Lee Li Lian has been getting to know as many residents as possible, tracking which homes she has visited, and helping them. Younger residents recognise her during her house visits. PAP candidate Charles Chong on a walkabout at Block 182A
PAP candidate Charles Chong on a walkabout at Block 182A, Rivervale Crescent. Mr Chong is a familiar face to some residents. Elderly folks rush up to greet him and welcome him like an old neighbour.ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

Nice-guy veteran determined to put up a good fight against familiar face who has served residents for over 2 years

Ms Lee Li Lian, Workers' Party candidate for Punggol East SMC, knows that the ground is different from 2013 when she won the by-election in a four-way fight.

She outdid her closest contender, Dr Koh Poh Koon of the People's Action Party, by about 10 percentage points, scoring 54.5 per cent of the vote.

She acknowledged that people may vote differently in the Sept 11 General Election, compared with 2013.

There was a strong anti-PAP sentiment back then, following the swing away from the ruling party in the 2011 General Election, and the resignation of PAP MP Michael Palmer over an extramarital affair which led to the by-election.

This time round, she is running against six-term MP Charles Chong of the PAP. He was an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol group representation constituency (GRC) from 2001 to 2011. Punggol East, although not completely his area then, was part of the GRC.

GOOD UNDERSTANDING

I am able to better understand some of the challenges, issues, concerns that these people have. When residents give feedback about certain things, I am able to catch what they are saying quite quickly.

WP'S LEE LI LIAN

STRONG CONNECTIONS

If, let's say, I have (residents with) immigration issues, if I call the Home Affairs Minister, I don't think he will shut me up... The PAP has put up with me for so many years already. The fact that I'm not out shows they see some value.

PAP'S CHARLES CHONG

"I am able to better understand some of the challenges, issues, concerns that these people have. When residents give feedback about certain things, I am able to catch what they are saying quite quickly," she said.

Her down-to-earth personality and passionate manner of speaking allow her to connect with people, many of whom voted her into the single-seat ward, or so she has been told.

She said that she does not have any elaborate strategies to win voters over.

She just wants to be herself, she said with her trademark toothy smile.

In fact, she is so focused on the election battle that she has been living away from her 14-month-old daughter, Karys Koh, who is staying with Ms Lee's parents for the time being.

But Ms Lee, 37, said that she has the advantage of knowing the area well, having served the residents for the past 21/2 years.

She drops by when she can, she said.

Her husband, Mr Jacky Koh, 39, is a telecommunications consultant.

Even in pointing out her strengths, she is reluctant to appear to be taking voters for granted.

In the same vein, she would say only, after being probed, that her chances are "hard to tell".

"I cannot discount the fact that people are being nice and respectful when I meet them," she said.

"I just want to tell them that their votes are very powerful, in case they are not aware. It sent a signal, and it pressured the Government to probably re-look some of its policies."

She has been getting to know as many residents as possible, tracking which homes she has visited, and helping them with their problems.

She recalled how residents of new Build-To-Order estate Rivervale Arc had problems with the workmanship of the flats, such as gates coming off their hinges. She liaised with the HDB to find solutions for them.

This has paid off for her, as younger residents recognise her during her house visits.

She had a clear goal when she was elected - to knock on every door in the 135 blocks, with an average of about 100 units per block, and she is well on the way to achieving it.

NICE-GUY CONTENDER

But her opponent Mr Chong is also a familiar face to some residents.

Elderly folks rush up to greet him and welcome him like an old neighbour.

His nice-guy personality is apparent. The battle is a tight one in the ward, where the population is split almost equally between old and young voters.

Initially, Mr Chong, 62, pegged his chances at "50-50" but, over time, he has said that it is for the voters to decide and that he will try his best.

True to his word, when residents poured out their concerns, he took down their details, assuring them that he will look into their problems if he is elected.

His advantage over Ms Lee, he said, is being from the ruling party.

"If, let's say, I have (residents with) immigration issues, if I call the Home Affairs Minister, I don't think he will shut me up," he said.

With his trademark sense of humour, he added: "The PAP has put up with me for so many years already. The fact that I'm not out shows they see some value."

When asked what she thinks of Mr Chong's experience, Ms Lee said: "I know he was in Pasir Ris-Punggol from 2001 to 2011, but he was not the MP for the entire Punggol East. It was just part of it and things have changed."

Both candidates have identified similar issues in the ward, such as road safety and the lack of childcare facilities and food establishments.

However, Ms Lee can claim some credit for the opening of two childcare centres and restarting bus service 371, which plies Rivervale Crescent.

GOOD FIGHT AHEAD

But these may not seal the deal. Mr Chong is putting up a good fight.

He was at ease when talking to residents, teasing young parents by asking them to have more children, and assuring the elderly that there are schemes to help them.

Speaking to an elderly man who appeared hostile, he eased the tension by giving the man his undivided attention and promising him to change things if elected.

His style? "I don't build up false expectations," he said during an interview.

But just how the votes will stack up on Sept 11 remains difficult to call, with many expecting a very close fight.

Mr Khalid Kahar, 32, who has been living in the Punggol East area for about two years with his wife and young child, said: "I haven't heard of Charles Chong. To be honest, people here want to vote for the opposition."

But Madam Khoo Bee Teen, 61, a retiree, said: "No PAP, no Singapore. I am very grateful."

Votes are to be cast by the 34,466 residents registered in the ward.

Will residents give the new but old face a chance, or will Ms Lee retain her seat?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2015, with the headline 'Charm offensives'. Print Edition | Subscribe