For the PAP, the real work begins now

Sembawang GRC MP Amrin Amin at his first Meet-the-People Session last month. He is promoting social mobility by encouraging needy schoolchildren in his constituency to work hard for their exams.
Sembawang GRC MP Amrin Amin at his first Meet-the-People Session last month. He is promoting social mobility by encouraging needy schoolchildren in his constituency to work hard for their exams. PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

After big win, it's business as usual, setting up new party branches and finding locations for the weekly MPS, and serving residents' needs

It was nearly 4am by the time People's Action Party (PAP) activists in the Limbang ward of Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC reached home after polling night. They were exhausted but ecstatic, their throats hoarse from cheering news of their party's 69.9 per cent win.

The heady flush of victory didn't last long. For there was little time to rest. Three hours later, they regrouped to get ready the party flags and vehicle that would take their MP-elects on a victory parade through their group representation constituency. In the afternoon, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work, readying their temporary branch office for the Meet-the-People Session (MPS) that would take place two days later.

Limbang branch secretary Johnny Lim recalls how he and a team of volunteers painted walls, scrubbed floors and moved furniture that day. "This is the reality of the PAP's work. This is what you call really being on the ground to serve residents," he tells Insight.

Parliament reopens in January, and the new Cabinet will set out the Government's path for the future then. But the ruling party doesn't wait that long to get back to work.

Its well-oiled machinery of grassroots activists and MPs, so crucial to its success at the ballot box, have spent the last month tackling immediate issues they have encountered.

HARD WORK

If it were really to win votes, it's a time-consuming way of doing so. It's hard work visiting one house at a time, rolling up your sleeves and getting the work done. But we do this because we believe this is an important way of reaching out to our residents and seeing how we can help improve their lives. If this subsequently translates into votes, that's a bonus, but I think as MPs, we have a responsibility to serve them well.

MR CHEE HONG TAT, Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP, in response to the cynic who thinks reaching out to residents is all just to win votes.

PAP MPs and activists have hit the ground running, setting up new party branches and finding locations for their weekly MPS.

This is how an election is won - by beginning the work of serving residents and preparing for the next polls the day after the previous one, say party members. Insight catches up with three new MPs - lawyer-turned-parliamentary secretary Amrin Amin, civil servant-turned-junior minister Chee Hong Tat and deputy chief executive Cheng Li Hui - to find out how they are settling into their roles.

NEW FACES IN THEIR FIRST MONTH

If the PAP has learnt a lesson from its general election victory this year, it is this: Its strategy of spending more time meeting residents to hear their feedback and needs was a vote-winner. Since this strategy paid off handsomely, the party seems set to continue with it.

Sembawang GRC's Mr Amrin, who is Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs, Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC's Mr Chee, Minister of State for Communications and Information and Health, and Tampines GRC's Ms Cheng tell Insight about their regular visits to residents at home, as well as meeting them in markets and coffee shops on weekends. Between recruiting volunteers and distributing masks to needy residents when the haze hit its peak, they have also been drawing up plans for the neighbourhoods they are in charge of.

Ms Cheng is planning a programme for volunteers to accompany elderly folk to clinic visits, while Mr Amrin is promoting social mobility at the local level by encouraging needy schoolchildren in his constituency to work hard for their exams.

"I ask the kids I meet, 'When your final results are out, can you bring your report book? I'd like to see. If you pass all your papers or improve, I'll give you a present.' They were quite excited," recounts Mr Amrin.

"I want to send them a message of hope and encouragement, and tell them help is available," he adds.

In response to the cynic who thinks this is just to win votes, Mr Chee says: "If it were really to win votes, it's a time-consuming way of doing so. It's hard work visiting one house at a time, rolling up your sleeves and getting the work done.

 

"But we do this because we believe this is an important way of reaching out to our residents and seeing how we can help improve their lives. If this subsequently translates into votes, that's a bonus, but I think as MPs, we have a responsibility to serve them well," he says.

Mr Chee has found that in his new role as a politician, he gets in touch with residents more directly than when he was a public servant.

"You have a responsibility to help to advocate on their behalf for some of the requests," he says.

But his experience and network from his former life as a civil servant comes in handy when he petitions public agencies on behalf of his constituents.

"I know how to present issues to agencies, and surface them to the appropriate people to get their support for some ideas and requests. Having that knowledge of how the system works is useful," he says.

As for Ms Cheng, who had been heavily involved with grassroots volunteering and shadowing MPs before the polls, the number of activities she attends a week has not changed since being elected.

But one difference for her is a pressure to live up to residents' expectations. "When my volunteers gave me residents' letters of appeal to sign, I paused and thought, 'Oh, I'm the one signing now'.

"I felt a sense of responsibility as the MP," she says.

SETTING UP NEW BRANCHES

Boundary changes before the last election increased the number of Parliament seats by two.

But several branches had to be reconfigured due to population shifts. This meant that the PAP needed to create several new branches and rename others.

These local headquarters are where the MP meets residents during the MPS, where activists gather and where activities are planned and paperwork is done.

 

Limbang was one of these new branches. Mr Johnny Lim recalls how his branch's chairman and MP, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, was scheduled to meet his residents at his regular MPS on Monday nights, two days after their victory parade.

"Mr Wong wanted to serve the residents quickly," says Mr Lim.

Despite being short of time and low on resources, the branch members swung into action to set up a small temporary branch office.

"We used a decommissioned PCF (PAP Community Foundation) centre, whitewashed it overnight and got members to help with washing and decoration. We also borrowed tables and chairs from other branches and PCF centres," says Mr Lim.

To notify residents of the new location, Mr Wong and his volunteers posted updates on social media, gave out leaflets at the old branch's location and put up fliers on noticeboards. That night, 40 constituents braved the haze to turn up.

"We had the residents wait in a room meant for interviewing. In the other room, we crammed all our volunteers in charge of registration, welfare, crafting letters, typing them and filing and documenting cases," says Mr Lim.

 

Limbang activists are looking for a bigger and more accessible location, which should be ready by the year end or next year.

Newbie MP Sun Xueling similarly set up a new Punggol West branch.

The previous Punggol West branch, headed by her Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC teammate Janil Puthucheary, was renamed Punggol Coast. She shares Dr Janil's branch office and MPS site while her branch office - also an old PCF centre - is being renovated.

"One of my top priorities is to ensure that an effective and seamless system of MPS is set up so that there is no break in the provision of assistance to residents," she says.

Her branch office has to comfortably accommodate about 100 people - 60 to 90 constituents who attend each session on average, and 20 to 30 volunteers.

"We also look at the layout of the PCF centre to ensure that people are able to move around freely, as we want to provide our residents with a comfortable and reassuring environment," she says.

"They come to us with problems they hope we can help them solve. The last thing we want to do is to create additional stress for them."

Other tasks include installing an IT system to document cases.

Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) and new MP Ong Ye Kung, who heads the new Gambas branch in Sembawang GRC, adopted his IT system from party colleague Lim Wee Kiak in nearby Canberra branch.

Ms Sun is looking to document more of her MPS cases electronically. "It is a fine balance between having a personal touch by using the pen and paper approach, and electronic documentation which allows us to call up background information and make referrals to relevant agencies more quickly," she says.

The new MPs also had to find a branch secretary, who would be their "point man" for many tasks.

Mr Ong turned to the branch secretary he had worked with when he ran unsuccessfully in Kaki Bukit in 2011. "I told him I was starting a new branch and I needed him to help. He readily said yes," says Mr Ong. They then put together an executive committee for the branch and recruited volunteers, including those already serving in Gambas.

"I am thankful that they are prepared to step forward to help me. Then I gathered friends, friends of friends. Together, we have a good base of hard-working volunteers," says Mr Ong.

Mr Wong is also grateful for the many volunteers who joined his branch. "Some are party activists who had helped out in the election campaign. Others are new volunteers who came forward after the election," he says.

All of these had to be done while coping with the traditional post-election surge in MPS cases.

This is because cases build up during the two weeks or so that the sessions are suspended during the campaign period. Some residents also want to meet their new MP.

PAP teams in other GRCs have also restructured internally to distribute more evenly the number of residents served by each MP.

In Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, which absorbed 7,000 more voters under the boundary changes, the wards of the three political freshmen were redrawn and renamed.

Mr Chee's Thomson-Toa Payoh ward was renamed Toa Payoh West-Balestier, while Mr Chong Kee Hiong's Bishan East is now Bishan East-Thomson.

Their teammate Saktiandi Supaat's Toa Payoh East branch became Toa Payoh East-Novena.

Newsletters have been mailed to residents to let them know which MP they can approach.

Similarly in Tanjong Pagar GRC, new MP Joan Pereira's Tanglin-Cairnhill branch became Henderson-Dawson. Her colleague Melvin Yong heads the Moulmein-Cairnhill ward, in place of the old Moulmein division.

HOW TO WIN THE NEXT ELECTION

These administrative tasks may not be glamorous, but they are the backbone of what goes on behind the scenes for MPs after the elections.

 

Bukit Batok MP David Ong says: "We cannot just stop and say, 'I got a very good percentage of votes and therefore can take it easy'."

He adds: "There's work to be done getting residents to know you and understand that you can help them with their problems."

Acknowledging the work ahead and the reality of expectations that come with the party's strong showing at the polls, Toa Payoh Central deputy branch secretary Brian Tan says: "We've been very blessed with good results, and it's going to be very tough to improve on them.

"But we will serve residents as best as we can, one resident at a time. There's no magic bullet."

Will this concerted effort pay off at the next polls? Time will tell but, for now, the party is making the most of its mandate.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 11, 2015, with the headline 'For the PAP, the real work begins now'. Print Edition | Subscribe