Hot battleground

WP hoping for a breakthrough on third contest here

At the last election, it wanted a breakthrough. And this time round, the Workers' Party (WP) has said it is seeking entrenchment.

It appears that the opposition party is seeking to leave its imprint on East Coast, making the constituency one of the hottest battlegrounds for the Sept 11 polls.

If WP turns the four-member group representation constituency blue and does not cede the seven elected seats it currently holds, the party will consolidate its position as the opposition force to be reckoned with. To achieve this, it will have to peddle the same message it sold to voters of Aljunied GRC in 2011 - that their votes will lead to national change, and not just a change of Members of Parliament for their constituency.

This is not lost on the party's East Coast team, comprisingNon-Constituency MP (NCMP) Gerald Giam, 37; National University of Singapore sociology professor Daniel Goh, 42; chief executive of consulting firm Leon Perera, 44; and former public servant Mohamed Fairoz Shariff, 36.

Framing the battle, Dr Goh said: "This is a testbed where Singaporeans will have to decide. If we send a team which represents policy progression, in terms of making it better for Singaporeans in Parliament, would they vote on the basis of national issues or just purely on local issues?"

About half of all households in East Coast GRC live in private residential estates, and the WP team is seeking to exploit this.

Past research on voting behaviour has found that higher-income Singaporeans are more likely to value political ideals such as having checks and balances and alternative voices in Parliament.

Such residents are also less likely to be concerned about how town councils - which manage only Housing Board estates - are run, and therefore less likely to be affected by the financial and governance lapses at the WP's Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council.

That the WP's 2011 East Coast team polled 45.17 per cent of valid votes - up from 36.14 in 2006 - shows voters in the GRC "do have a greater propensity towards voting for the opposition, or at least voting for the WP", said Mr Giam.

Mr Giam and his teammates are also brandishing their own credentials. As NCMP over the past four years, Mr Giam has been fronting the party's alternative proposals on transport and health. Meanwhile, Mr Perera is a former government scholar, and was an assistant head of division at the Economic Development Board. The WP quartet was also instrumental in putting together the party's manifesto for the upcoming election, and could show the beginnings of the shadow government that the WP hopes to form one day.

Ms Angela Oh, 26, a marketing executive who lives in the constituency, said: "I think the WP team for East Coast GRC is quite strong this time... If WP wins the fight for East Coast this time, the one good thing that I know will definitely come out of it is having an alternative voice in Parliament and having checks and balances."

But the GRC also has many strong supporters of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), who say its candidates are still the best qualified to help run the country as well as manage the constituency.

The PAP team led by Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say has also been hard at work engaging residents, who recognise their efforts. They include avowed PAP supporter Carol Sia, 54, an administrator, who met Mr Lim during a walkabout at Simei MRT station this week and said the country has done well under the PAP.

But the WP has not let up on its efforts. It has been systematic in gunning for areas contiguous to its bases of Aljunied, Hougang and Punggol East, and has been actively expanding its presence in the eastern part of the island.

But this time round, Fengshan ward has been carved out of East Coast GRC as a new single seat, prompting speculation that it was hived off to save East Coast.

But Mr Giam said: "I don't think it makes a tremendous difference that Fengshan is cut out. Also, 41/2 years is quite a long time and a lot of things have happened between 2011 and now, so the sentiment of the people may not necessarily mirror the sentiment of people back then."

He said his team started walking the ground together two years ago, and has seen quite "consistent support" across the different wards.

Another thing that has changed is the WP's team. Of the five candidates it fielded in 2011, only one, Mr Giam, remains the same.

Mr Giam did not think this had upset residents. He said two members of his party's 2011 team, including leader Eric Tan, had left the WP, and one, Mr Png Eng Huat, had gone on to become MP for Hougang. Another candidate was taking a break from politics after becoming a mother.

If the party's experience in Aljunied and Punggol East is anything to go by, it typically does not win at the first try. In East Coast GRC, it hopes to get lucky on its third try.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2015, with the headline 'WP hoping for a breakthrough on third contest here'. Print Edition | Subscribe