PAP, WP set for a tantalising rematch in East Coast GRC

A PAP supporter carrying the party flag at its rally for East Coast GRC at Bedok Stadium on May 1, 2011. The PAP team, led by then labour chief Lim Swee Say, garnered 54.8 per cent of the votes.
A PAP supporter carrying the party flag at its rally for East Coast GRC at Bedok Stadium on May 1, 2011. The PAP team, led by then labour chief Lim Swee Say, garnered 54.8 per cent of the votes. PHOTO: ST FILE
Workers’ Party team for East Coast GRC thanking supporters in 2011: (from left) Ms Glenda Han (blocked by flag), Mr Gerald Giam, Mr Png Eng Huat (hidden behind Mr Giam), Mr Eric Tan and Mr Mohamed Fazli Talip.
Workers’ Party team for East Coast GRC thanking supporters in 2011: (from left) Ms Glenda Han (blocked by flag), Mr Gerald Giam, Mr Png Eng Huat (hidden behind Mr Giam), Mr Eric Tan and Mr Mohamed Fazli Talip.PHOTO: ST FILE

PAP won by the narrowest margin for a GRC in 2011. Fengshan ward has been sliced off this time but the battle is not expected to be any easier

The red faces are gone, replaced by smiles. Four years after the People's Action Party won narrowly in East Coast GRC, MP Lee Yi Shyan is sufficiently proud of upgrading in his Kampong Chai Chee ward to make a quip about the opposition.

In a TV interview, a relaxed Mr Lee, 53, who is Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry and National Development, said: "Someone was joking to me that because we have undergone so many changes in Bedok Town Centre, some of (the opposition candidates) who come here once every five years might get lost, so we might need to provide free tour guide services to show them around."

It was quite a change in tone from 2011, when the PAP team, led by then labour chief Lim Swee Say, garnered 54.8 per cent of the votes against a line-up from the Workers' Party (WP). The result was a whole nine percentage points down from 2006. It was the narrowest win for a GRC for the ruling party.

For the WP, it was something to crow about. And as one of the best-performing losers in that election, Mr Gerald Giam from its losing team snatched a seat in Parliament as a Non-Constituency MP (NCMP).

Set against that backdrop, and with the WP contesting it again, this would be shaping up as a tantalising rematch. But much has changed in the last four years, including the battleground itself - East Coast GRC will become a four-member GRC, instead of five previously.

MEASURE OF A CANDIDATE

"You need a certain calibre to run in elections, you need a good track record. While they (the opposition) have to be given a chance to build a track record, it's too big a gamble (for us) to take."

MRS S. LIM, 39, A HOUSEWIFE, on how risky it would be to vote for the opposition

Fengshan, currently a ward under MP Raymond Lim, 56, has been spun off as a single-member constituency (SMC)

And then there is the much-vaunted revitalisation of ageing Bedok Town in Mr Lee's ward. The 37-year-old town has been transformed, with the opening of a new hawker centre and air-conditioned bus interchange that is connected to Bedok Mall and a condominium project.

Indeed, since the lacklustre showing at GE 2011, East Coast GRC MPs tell Insight they have tried to better engage residents by holding more dialogue sessions, having more frequent house visits or changing the approach to constituency work.

In Siglap, for example, where 70 per cent of the population live in private estates, its MP, Dr Maliki Osman, 50, has compiled a "community directory" over the last four years - a dossier on residents in every household in his ward.

The data is collected by grassroots volunteers with residents' permission during house visits, and it has been helpful in boosting community programmes.

Dr Maliki, who is Minister of State for the National Development and Defence ministries, says: "I used to run a once-a-month legal clinic to give legal advice to residents. Today, I can run it once a week because in the directory, I have found many lawyers. So I reached out to the lawyers and asked them if they can come forward and help."

Dr Maliki and Minister Lim, 61, are both serving their first term as MPs in East Coast GRC, having been deployed from other constituencies - Sembawang GRC and Holland-Bukit Timah GRC respectively - for GE 2011.

To deepen engagement with residents at Bedok, Minister Lim conducts chit-chat sessions to discuss topical issues, including healthcare policies. He has done 120 of them since July 2013; this works out to just over one a week.

As for national issues, the roll-out of healthcare schemes like MediShield Life, and the Pioneer Generation (PG) Package could woo older voters. Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Lee Chwee Chuan, 64, who left his job to care for his sick wife who is a beneficiary of the PG package, says: "The Government provides support for the elderly like the PG card; now older folks will support (Prime Minister) Lee Hsien Loong."

Over in Changi-Simei, the newly renovated Eastpoint Mall has reopened, and MP Jessica Tan, 49, is working to fix a common gripe among residents - the lack of a bank branch in the estate.

Having spoken to residents in Kampong Chai Chee, Mr Lee feels that sentiment on the ground has improved as many issues that voters were unhappy about in the last election, such as rising home prices, have been addressed by the Government in the last few years.

Small business owner Kendrick Khoo, 44, agrees: "The ruling Government has done a good job governing the country; I don't think we want to risk that."

Mrs S. Lim, 39, a housewife, echoes this, saying: "You need a certain calibre to run in elections, you need a good track record. While they (the opposition) have to be given a chance to build a track record, it's too big a gamble (for us) to take."

Mrs Julie Tang, 50, who is in sales management, says she will vote for the PAP because of the hard work and legacy of Singapore's founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March this year.

HOW THE BATTLE LINES SHAPE UP

With Fengshan hived off, political watchers reckon this could potentially help the PAP's team in East Coast GRC improve on its vote share as it had been seen by some as the weakest ward in GE 2011.

It was the seat of Mr Lim who, at the time, held the controversial portfolio of transport, with its attendant issues of disgruntlement over train breakdowns. However, Dr Maliki, whose East Coast GRC ward is Siglap, dismisses talk that the election battle will be easier now that Fengshan has been decoupled. He tells Insight: "We never saw Fengshan as a weak link as other people seem to be saying - Fengshan is actually as strong as any one of us."

He adds: "We work as a team but, at the same time, each of us must know our ground strongly... Whether Fengshan was out or not, or whether it was Changi-Simei that was carved out or Kampong Chai Chee, I don't think the impact will be that significant."

Apart from losing Fengshan, the boundaries of East Coast GRC remain largely intact, and it will be the smallest of the four-member GRCs with 99,015 electors.

The PAP slate is expected to be helmed once again by Mr Lim, who took over as Manpower Minister in May this year. He revealed earlier this month that the Prime Minister had given the nod to his request to stand in East Coast GRC again.

Observers do not anticipate a big shake-up in the PAP's team for the new East Coast GRC, which currently includes Mr Lim, two other political office-holders in Mr Lee and Dr Maliki, and Ms Tan, chairman of the East Coast Town Council.

WP'S MUCH-CHANGED TEAM

But the same cannot be said of their opponents from the WP team, which has since lost three members - Mr Eric Tan, Ms Glenda Han and Mr Mohamed Fazli Talip - who quit the party after the last election.

Another member of the WP's old five-member team for East Coast, Mr Png Eng Huat, contested and won the Hougang SMC by-election in 2012, where he remains an MP today.

That leaves Mr Giam, who is likely to partner three new candidates. They could be chosen from four possibilities: National University of Singapore associate professor and sociologist Danial Goh, 42; law firm partner Dennis Tan, 44; research and consultancy firm chief executive Leon Perera, 44; and librarian Mohamed Fairoz Shariff, 36.

The WP will put out a much-changed team for East Coast GRC, but its composition will depend on the party's ambition and objectives, apart from trying to retain the seven Parliament seats it currently holds.

Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan tells Insight: "Will the WP seek to win another GRC, or will they seek a modest goal of winning one or two more SMCs, especially Fengshan SMC? If it's the latter, then we are unlikely to see an 'A' team at East Coast GRC."

Still, given the close contest in the last round, the WP could field what is thought to be its second-best team for East Coast, after Aljunied GRC, which it wrested from the PAP in GE 2011.

Will the WP pull out the big guns by deploying one of the MPs from Aljunied GRC, such as its chairman Sylvia Lim, 50, to spearhead the East Coast team?

Or will she go to Fengshan SMC instead, as her first-ever Instagram post - a photo of her eating at Fengshan food centre - on Wednesday seemed to tease observers?

The WP will keep everyone guessing as party chief Low Thia Khiang told reporters on Wednesday that it would not state where its candidates will be fielded until Nomination Day.

Still, whether the candidates are old hands or newbies, the WP brand will carry some weight. SMU's Mr Tan says: "The WP has a reputational cachet that could see voters giving a new WP slate close consideration."

Meanwhile, the incumbent East Coast MPs are not losing sleep over who their potential opponents might be. Ms Tan, says: "Whatever the opposition does, of course we continue to stay aware of it. But for us, if our centre is not our residents and we are just worried about our opponents, then we have got the wrong focus."

How it plays out on polling day is anyone's guess, with some residents saying they are still undecided about which party to vote for, while others, like mechanic Muhammad Ali Kahn, 48, have set their minds on the opposition. He says: "I voted for WP last time to make (PAP) sweat a little, and look, they did. This time, I will do so again."

The PAP team is bracing itself for a keen contest. But there's no room for complacency. "If you take it for granted, that's when that is yours to lose," says Ms Tan.

  • Additional reporting: Rachel Chang, Jasmine Osada, Marcus Lim

What it should have been (published on Aug 18, 2015)

Sunday's article, "PAP, WP set for a tantalising rematch in East Coast GRC", reported that Ms Glenda Han had quit the Workers' Party after the last general election. She remains a member of the party.

We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline 'PAP, WP set for a tantalising rematch in East Coast GRC'. Print Edition | Subscribe