Jalan Besar GRC: Historic area an electoral hot spot

Jalan Besar constituency may be an ageing estate, but it is still well maintained.
Jalan Besar constituency may be an ageing estate, but it is still well maintained.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

New boundaries require PAP to reshuffle MPs in the area, which WP is keen to contest

The boundaries report has thrown up an unusual problem for 102,454 voters who will find themselves in the revived Jalan Besar GRC at the next election.

That is because the new four-member group representation constituency will encompass the wards of five MPs. These are Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim's Kolam Ayer ward, Mayor Denise Phua's Kampong Glam and Mr Edwin Tong's Jalan Besar - all in the current Moulmein-Kallang GRC; as well as Senior Minister of State (Prime Minister's Office) Heng Chee How's single-seat Whampoa ward, and Dr Lily Neo's Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng ward, which is now part of Tanjong Pagar GRC.

Moulmein-Kallang GRC's remaining ward is that of Moulmein, whose MP is Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew. Most of the ward has been drawn into neighbouring Tanjong Pagar GRC, and parts have been absorbed into the Holland-Bukit Timah and Bishan-Toa Payoh GRCs. Mr Lui has not said where he will contest next, or if he will even be on any other GRC slate.

The GRC's make-up could be further complicated if a new face is introduced into the mix.

But MPs may be reluctant to move as they relish the area's patriotic significance. One of the oldest names on Singapore's electoral map, the new Jalan Besar GRC contains some physical cornerstones underpinning Singapore's achievement of First World status today.

Found within its boundaries are the seat of legislative power (Parliament House), the nerve centre of commerce and finance (the Central Business District), and where the laws of the land are enforced (the High, State and Family courts).

It is rich with history. Singapore's oldest places of worship, the Padang and the mouth of Singapore River are all within the constituency. But it is also a place of extremes - Geylang brothels and backlane drug peddlers can be found in the GRC, as are the glitzy Marina Bay Sands integrated resort and iconic Gardens by the Bay. The GRC also houses some of Singapore's poorest in its high concentration of Housing Board rental flats.

First created in the 1959 Legislative Assembly election, Jalan Besar became a three-member GRC, comprising the wards of Jalan Besar, Kolam Ayer and Geylang West, in the 1988 General Election.

It expanded gradually, and by the 2001 General Election, it was a five-member constituency that also included areas in Whampoa, Kallang and Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng.

It disappeared in the 2011 General Election when Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng was hived off to Tanjong Pagar GRC and Whampoa became a single ward. What remained became the four-member Moulmein-Kallang GRC. But it returned to the electoral map two weeks ago, more or less reverting to its 2011 boundaries.

Mr Vincent Chua, secretary of the People's Action Party (PAP) Kolam Ayer branch, notes in something of an understatement: "Many parties have contested here over the years." The 65-year-old PAP veteran has helped out in every election in the GRC since 1988.

The Workers' Party (WP) - whose Syed Alwi Road headquarters is in the ward - said it will contest the GRC at the next polls.

But Jalan Besar GRC has not always been a traditional WP stomping ground. It is regarded as a PAP stronghold, and the party has fended off challenges from the WP, Singapore Democratic Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance since 1988 - and had a walkover in 1991.

The PAP has consistently won more than 60 per cent of the vote there. But it saw its toughest battle in 2011 when what was regarded as a weak WP team, comprising businessman Mohammed Rahizan Yaacob, social worker Frieda Chan, polytechnic lecturer L. Somasundaram and senior research officer Toh Hong Boon, managed to secure 41.4 per cent of the vote in its iteration as Moulmein-Kallang GRC.

The PAP's vote was reduced to just 58.6 per cent - down sharply from 69.3 per cent in 2006 when it was also known as Jalan Besar GRC, and its lowest there since the GRC was formed in 1988.


A poll of 50 residents in different parts of the GRC last week found that there was no single national issue topping their lists of worries.

While residents were affected by the large-scale MRT breakdown last month, the impact appeared to have been lessened by the constituency's centralised location.

Sales promoter Lee See Ai, 56, who lives in St George's Road, took three hours to get home from Jurong instead of the normal 45 minutes. "I took a direct bus home. It wasn't very inconvenient compared to others."

But when major public transport problems occur, party and grassroots activists in Moulmein-Kallang GRC worry about their potential impact - on Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, whom they describe as a good and decent man; and on how this could affect the vote come election time. That his ward has been carved up brought sighs of relief from some as it could diminish transport-related anger in the GRC as a whole.

In terms of local issues, there is also no lack of amenities or public transport options.

According to retiree Tan Kok Wah, 69: "Transport links are good and everything is convenient. There are not many issues here."

Still, some worry about the maintenance of ageing estates.

Technical officer Goh Ker Siong, 50, says: "I feel that the estate is very old. I hope it can be redeveloped soon but, until now, there has been no news of it."

Retiree Annie Chua, 65, who lives in Boon Keng Road, says: "The lift sometimes does break down, but it is not very frequent, so it is pretty tolerable."

Town council chairman Edwin Tong, a first-term MP, says there has been no let-up in estate upgrading: "All the promised estate works and upgrading since the last GE have been completed."

If there are any hot spots in the GRC, these are Little India and Geylang. The 2013 Little India riot took place at the side of Serangoon Road that will now come under Tanjong Pagar GRC. Every Sunday, large numbers of workers from India and Bangladesh continue to congregate there. And, over in Geylang, residents of the HDB flats at Lorong 3, for instance, are irked by foreign workers who live in dormitories in the area, as well as by the noise and smell from local eateries.

Mr Tong, who oversees the area, says foreign worker dormitories can pose problems. "There are a number in that tight area, coupled with some light industrial works. This area is adjacent to the two HDB blocks (where there are) illegal parking, overcrowding, littering and noise." He has lobbied the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which regulates land use, and other government bodies to "take a more holistic approach" to solving the problems.

Dr Yaacob, meanwhile, says one problem for MPs is that of creating a sense of identity for a large GRC intersected by major roads and highways. He and his colleagues hold multiple Meet-the-People sessions and events across the various wards to ensure that every resident has a chance to meet his adviser, the minister says.

Another challenge is that some areas have large concentrations of Singapore's poorest residents. Dr Neo has 22 blocks of rental flats under her charge, while Ms Phua has a cluster of nine blocks in the North Bridge Road area.


However, rather than posing a problem for the PAP, party insiders say that such areas are PAP strongholds. The areas under Dr Neo and Ms Phua polled about 70 per cent of votes in the 2006 and 2011 elections respectively, higher than the national average of 66.6 per cent and 60.1 per cent, according to party sources.

"The lowest-income households in the country have always received more transfers in Budgets and government policies to ensure they are not left behind," Ms Phua informs Insight.

Both she and Dr Neo pioneered new services for their residents.

Ms Phua created a senior services hub housing an activity centre, a rehabilitation centre and a group home within a block of rental flats.

Besides setting up four senior activity centres since starting as an MP in 1997, Dr Neo last year launched an after-school programme for low-income families in Jalan Kukoh called Catch Plus. .

With three full-time employees on the roster, Dr Neo and her grassroots leaders raise their own funds for the programme, which costs between $20,000 and $30,000 a month. Dr Neo explains: "The profile of my rental block residents has changed over the years. It's not just elderly people. Half of them are younger families. We wanted to make sure that the children get a leg up, too."

But she downplays the idea that rental blocks are PAP strongholds: "Because people who live in rental blocks are less privileged, sometimes they get angry. At times, we can't give them what they ask for because their requirements are beyond us. But you still have to try to make their lives better, in whatever small way you can."

Still, given the popularity of Ms Phua and Dr Neo, party insiders say both are likely to remain in the GRC. So, too, is Dr Yaacob, who is also the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs .

Over in Whampoa, Mr Heng has been the area's MP since 2001, when it was part of Jalan Besar GRC, and in 2011, when it was a single ward. He garnered a respectable 66.1 per cent of votes in 2011, higher than the PAP's national vote share.

Dr Yaacob, who is the anchor minister in the existing GRC, would not be drawn into commenting on the final line-up of MPs. But several party sources say Mr Tong is to be moved to Marine Parade GRC. The official announcement is expected as early as today .

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline 'Historic area an electoral hot spot'. Print Edition | Subscribe