The Prime Minister's constituency

All is abuzz that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, seen here taking a wefie with residents at the launch of PassionArts Festival in his Teck Ghee ward on July 18, will be introducing three new candidates in his six-member Ang Mo Kio GRC for the next genera
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, seen here taking a wefie with residents in his Teck Ghee ward, will be introducing three new candidates in his six-member Ang Mo Kio GRC for the next general election.PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Residents viewing the vegetables grown in the community garden located between blocks 404 and 405 in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10.
Residents viewing the vegetables grown in the community garden located between blocks 404 and 405 in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10. PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
From left: Mr Darryl David, Dr Koh Poh Koon and Mr Henry Kwek are likely replacements for Ang Mo Kio GRC MPs Yeo Guat Kwang, Seng Han Thong and Inderjit Singh.
From left: Mr Darryl David, Dr Koh Poh Koon and Mr Henry Kwek are likely replacements for Ang Mo Kio GRC MPs Yeo Guat Kwang, Seng Han Thong and Inderjit Singh. PHOTO: FACEBOOK

PM Lee Hsien Loong is anchor minister of Ang Mo Kio GRC, which stays with six members under Friday's boundary changes. But half are veteran MPs who may retire. Insight looks at possible young contenders in-waiting

The 187,652 voters of Ang Mo Kio GRC - which remains one of two six-member Group Representation Constituencies under the latest electoral boundary changes announced on Friday - may have three new faces to cast their ballots for.

One of the GRC's current MPs, Mr Inderjit Singh, announced on Friday that he is retiring, and two others - Mr Seng Han Thong and Mr Yeo Guat Kwang - may follow suit but they declined to comment when asked about their future at a community event yesterday.

The three veteran MPs have been taking their likely replacements on walkabouts and constituency events for at least half a year.

These possible replacements for the three fourth-termers are all much younger - food-supply company executive director Henry Kwek, 39; colorectal surgeon Koh Poh Koon, 43; and Temasek Polytechnic School of Design deputy director Darryl David, 44.

Nearly every community event and home visit that Mr Singh, 55, attends, Mr Kwek does too.

 
 

And wherever 65-year-old Mr Seng goes, so does Dr Koh. Mr David also attends almost all the events that 54-year-old Mr Yeo does.

Small wonder then that the neighbourhood buzz has been that the long-serving trio are likely to retire from politics at the next general election, which must be held by 2017, but which many political watchers expect could be held as early as September.

The presence of the three dedicated potential candidates is a telltale sign, as the People's Action Party has been sending its hopefuls to constituencies early to give them more experience of serving residents on the ground.

The GRC's two other members besides PM Lee are also relative newcomers, being first-termers. They are National Taxi Association executive adviser Ang Hin Kee, 49, and academic Intan Azura Mokhtar, 39.

The young guns, if fielded, could find themselves tested in "battle", too, as the Reform Party, which contested the GRC in the 2011 General Election, has been active on the ground there. Its secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam said on Friday: "I think it is important to challenge the PM on his home turf."

Additionally, under Friday's boundary changes, Ang Mo Kio GRC loses a western portion to Nee Soon GRC but absorbs districts from Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC as well as Sengkang West SMC that have seen population growth from new housing developments in recent years.

What effect, if any, will these young voters have in what has been until now a mature constituency, and what would established constituency voters make of a new, young line-up? Or will the fact that the Prime Minister is anchor minister make all this a moot point? Insight reports.

WHO ARE THE NEW FACES?

The newbies may be fresh faces, but two of them will be familiar to the general public, with Mr Kwek attending community events in Kebun Baru and Mr David in Ang Mo Kio-Hougang.

The most recognisable - in terms of the political landscape, that is - is Dr Koh. He was the People's Action Party's unsuccessful candidate in the 2013 Punggol East by-election.

Then, he was seen as a fresh face "parachuted" into the branch just before the election. Perhaps seeking to rectify this, he has been serving in Ang Mo Kio for more than seven months now.

Then there is Mr David, who in his younger days was known for hosting The Pyramid Game television show and being a sportscaster on local TV and sports channel ESPN. He later obtained a business degree from the Nanyang Business School and became a polytechnic lecturer.

As for Mr Kwek, he also has a business background. He is the executive director of food-supply company Foodtraco Supplies. And like Dr Koh, he is no newcomer to politics. He was a branch secretary for Chong Pang serving Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

As the ranking activist in a PAP branch, the branch secretary is the MP's point man for many tasks. The role is seen as good political training since it is a demanding one that tests the mettle of potential politicians.

Incumbents Mr Yeo, Mr Singh and Mr Seng all declined to comment when contacted. All three are veteran MPs who entered politics 18 years ago as candidates in the 1997 General Election and are now serving their fourth term as an MP.

If the three new faces seen shadowing them do end up joining PM Lee there, they will push down the average age of his team from 54 years to 46.

Still, the prospect of an inexperienced line-up cutting their teeth in Ang Mo Kio guided by an "elder" statesman of the calibre of PM Lee, 63, might not faze voters.

After all, the team will come under the stewardship of no less than the country's leader - and one who increased the GRC's share of the vote to 69.3 per cent in the 2011 General Election, beating the PAP's national vote share of 60.1 per cent.

Indeed, financial planner Pat Lee, who lives in an executive flat in Hougang Avenue 9, is not too concerned. The 60-year-old said brains and background matter more in choosing an MP.

"In terms of what I'm looking out for in candidates, it will have to be how smart they are and their background... I voted for the PAP the last time, (because) their candidates were better," she said.

For teacher Susan Wong, 50, though, it is the leader that matters. She said: "With PM in my area, I'm very happy."

The idea of living in the GRC led by the Prime Minister conjures up - to some Singaporeans at any rate - the idea of constant upgrades, sparkling clean estates and clockwork efficiency.

But while the GRC has seen its fair share of such pluses, living in a place run by the country's leader does not mean residents do not have the sort of grassroots gripes that bug Singaporeans in other districts.

At the municipal level in Ang Mo Kio, pesky animals have become causes of discontent. Rats and birds have terrorised some residents in PM Lee's own ward of Teck Ghee, for example.

Earlier this year, Teck Ghee Court Market and Food Centre was in the news when a woman having her meal there found herself with unwanted company: four large rats.

The Jan 22 incident prompted the Ang Mo Kio Town Council to release a statement saying it had informed the National Environment Agency to "continue educating stall owners and market tenants on the importance of good housekeeping inside their stalls and to exercise proper waste disposal" while continuing its "weekly treatment outside the market perimeter and bin centre".

Insurance agent Alvin Tan, 39, told Insight that he reckons the rats must have moved from another part of the GRC to his neighbourhood in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10. Every night, around 8pm, he sees "a lot of them" scurrying around the grass patches there. "I complained to the town council, but no one has come back to tell me if anything is being done," he grumbled. "I know this is an old estate, but the cleanliness needs to improve."

Meanwhile, birds are the cause of Madam Au Kio Moi's problems. The 58-year-old factory worker, who lives on the same street as Mr Tan with her two sons, said mynahs flying and defaecating in the area have made drying her clothes outside a daily game of chance.

"If you're unlucky, every other day your clothes will get bombed," she said in Mandarin.

Dealing with these on-the-ground concerns, in the comparative safety of the Prime Minister's own stomping ground, makes for ideal training should a young team be fielded that includes the three newcomers.

THE BIG PICTURE FOR THE PAP

Still, for Ang Mo Kio GRC voters, the general election is not just about choosing their MPs.

Their choice has added symbolism, as it is seen as a signal of support for PM Lee and his party.

Back in 2011, his Ang Mo Kio team trounced their Reform Party challengers with 69.3 per cent of the votes, compared to the latter's 30.7 per cent.

In PM Lee's first general election as Prime Minister, in 2006, his team beat a Workers' Party line-up, winning 66.14 per cent of the vote share - just slightly short of the PAP's national vote share of 66.6 per cent at that time.

His predecessor as prime minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, was also challenged in his Marine Parade GRC twice - during the 1991 General Election and in a by-election that he called a year later. Both times, he had resounding victories of more than 70 per cent of the vote share.

Subsequently, he was never challenged again when serving as prime minister, and enjoyed walkovers from 1997 to 2001.

But gone are the days when constituencies go uncontested. In the 2011 General Election, opposition parties vowed to field a team in every constituency, and managed to, save for one.

With nine active opposition parties now, compared to six in the last general election, there is likely to be increased competition.

This time round, MPs and activists reckon the RP may be back again in Ang Mo Kio GRC.

Dr Intan said she saw RP members on walkabouts at Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 a couple of months ago.

The constituency's town council chairman and MP for the neighbouring Sengkang West Single-Member Constituency (SMC), Dr Lam Pin Min, has also spotted the RP team around Ang Mo Kio.

And Mr Jeyaretnam said on Friday: "Since GE 2011 we have been walking there regularly and now receive a very positive response from the residents."

So will PM Lee receive a strong mandate from constituency voters?

PM Lee himself, commenting on the polls in 2006 and 2011, had said that a vote share of above 60 per cent was considered "decisive" and a "clear mandate" by First World standards.

In interviews with voters in the area, most believe the PAP will win by a comfortable margin.

They cite as reasons the Government's concerted effort to address hot-button issues raised in the last election, specifically providing more help to the middle-income and the elderly and tightening the tap on foreigners.

Real estate agent Neo Zhi Hao, 28, from Serangoon North Avenue 4, said: "(They have) kept their promises and enhanced the standard of living for young families and the elderly. My mum gets subsidised health screenings."

Some 82 per cent of the GRC's 280,000 residents are flat dwellers. And about 65 per cent of them are working and middle-class families living in three-room and four- room flats.

But this might change slightly, with about 28,000 new voters joining the constituency following the electoral boundary changes.

Ang Mo Kio GRC has taken in residents from Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC's Punggol South, and Sengkang West SMC.

The Build-to-Order flats in this area are relatively new - an indication that residents there may be younger and more middle-class.

PM HAS HIS OWN 'X FACTOR'

On his home turf, if crowds at community events are anything to go by, PM Lee already enjoys strong personal popularity. At these events, he is often mobbed by residents hoping to shake his hand, take a picture with him or of him.

Retiree Raza'ai Abbas, 80, who just saw Mr Lee last month, said: "He is always around."

In interviews, residents also describe him as upright, friendly and sincere. Said Teck Ghee resident Mary Lau, 68: "I like him because he runs a clean government. I hate corruption."

There are also those who feel, rightly or wrongly, that having the Prime Minister as an MP comes with some benefits.

Recent National University of Singapore graduate Chmel Oon, 23, who has lived in the constituency for 10 years, said: "The buildings are repainted very often and the place is very clean. We also have many amenities, and the food is amazing."

Even insurance agent Mr Tan, who is unhappy about the rat problem, said: "I will still vote for him, he's the Prime Minister."

Four years ago, PM Lee rallied his constituents in a constituency Facebook post just before the general election with the exhortation: "Together let us build a better home and tomorrow."

 

Since then, the constituency has seen a lot of upgrading, said Dr Lam, who is Minister of State for Health. His Sengkang West SMC comes under the same Ang Mo Kio Town Council.

More sheltered linkways, drop-off porches and fitness corners have been built in public housing estates. About 80 per cent of all lifts in the housing estates have also been fitted with closed-circuit TV cameras to improve security.

Some areas have new amenities. Jalan Kayu estate has a new sport hub with futsal, tennis and badminton courts.

More is in the works, with the constituency slated to become a cycling town, and Teck Ghee estate is undergoing a $38.3 million revamp to transform it into Singapore's second "green" neighbourhood.

Ms Minah Kshi, 36, a preschool teacher living in Hougang Avenue 9, has noticed all these improvements. "I'm probably going to vote for the PAP. They are doing a good job developing the residential areas in Hougang," she said.

But some are not won over. Mr Chew B.W. and his wife Sabrina, who live in a semi-detached house in Sembawang Hills, said not enough is being done for those living in private estates.

About 18 per cent of the constituents live in private housing, consisting of semi-detached houses, terrace houses and condominiums.

The couple, who have three children, said they find the rising cost of living hard to stomach. Mrs Chew, who is in the electronics manufacturing industry, said education, in particular, is getting too expensive.

A year of tuition at The Learning Lab for her son costs $4,000 and there are always other items to pay for, such as a $600 fencing costume for another child. Mr Chew said: "It doesn't mean we are rich just because we live here. The Government should also help people like us - we pay the most taxes."

Meanwhile, retiree Loong See Keng, 68, who lives in a nearby private estate with his daughter's family, is worried his retirement savings will not last. He budgets for $700 a month, but thinks it will last him only five more years.

"All along I voted for the PAP because I had a job, I had a good life. But the cost of living is really getting expensive, so maybe I will try opposition this time," he said.

There are also those who just want to see change or to have checks on the Government's power. They include cleaner Chia Yoke Leng, 45. This is even though she lives with her husband and three children in a five-room flat in Kebun Baru and feels that "everything in Singapore is very good already ... But PAP shouldn't have too much power".

But then again, for voters who are just looking for change, having half the GRC team possibly made up of new, young faces might be change enough. Apart from that, change might also come in the form of the Government's clear shift to the left in social support policies since 2011, with goodies for virtually everyone - from workers and companies to students and households to the elderly and vulnerable.

The question is whether these changes in policies and stances will be good enough for voters.

•Additional reporting by Charmaine Ng and Nigel Choo


What it should have been (published on July 27, 2015)

In The Sunday Times yesterday, a graphic accompanying the article "The Prime Minister's constituency" showed that the Workers' Party polled 30.7 per cent of votes in Ang Mo Kio GRC in the 2011 General Election. This is incorrect. It was the Reform Party that contested there.

We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2015, with the headline 'The Prime Minister's constituency'. Print Edition | Subscribe