Battle for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC

PAP's effort to improve the lot of the kopitiam crowd set to bear fruit despite the 'Chiam factor', finds Charissa Yong

After a minor fright in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC in 2011, the PAP reconnected with the ground and spruced up the neighbourhoods.
After a minor fright in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC in 2011, the PAP reconnected with the ground and spruced up the neighbourhoods. ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

It was not the usual setting for an important People's Action Party (PAP) announcement.

These usually take place in the party's functional headquarters smack in the middle of Bedok HDB estate. Instead, last Wednesday's introduction of candidates to contest Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC took place next door, in a hot and noisy open- air coffee shop, as rain dripped off the awnings outside.

Candidates and officials crammed around plastic red tables, their microphones perched where bowls of food would normally sit.

The media sat huddled around them, excited but also perturbed - would their recorders pick up what was said, amid the background clink of plates, slurping of Milo, and murmur of morning-hour patrons?

As reporters leant forward, new faces Mr Chee Hong Tat, 41; Mr Chong Kee Hiong, 49; and Mr Saktiandi Supaat, 41, were introduced. The anchor minister, Dr Ng Eng Hen, the Minister for Defence, and Mrs Josephine Teo, 47, Senior Minister of State for Transport and Finance, are the only current members staying on, as the others in the five-member team are retiring.

Outside, curious passers-by stopped in mid-step, gazing open- mouthed at the unusual sight.

Earlier, residents had enjoyed the sight of the GRC's anchor minister, Dr Ng, 56, being greeted by shopkeepers who recognised him. Some early birds had even seen one miffed resident give the reporters, activists and officials a piece of his mind as the group moved towards the coffee shop at Block 177, Toa Payoh Central. The PAP should announce the new line-up of candidates to residents before telling the media, he said.

The informal kopitiam setting turned out to be the first of what is shaping up to be a new format for the PAP to announce its line-ups. On Friday, it announced its Sembawang slate in a nursing home.

For the team at Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, the neighbourhood setting was important, sending a signal that a key election plank is what has been done to improve the lives of heartlanders.

This is after the PAP's unspectacular 56.9 per cent win there in the 2011 General Election, below its national average of 60 per cent.

It was up against the Singapore People's Party (SPP), led by veteran Chiam See Tong. The secretary-general had left his next-door stronghold of Potong Pasir for the contest. Still, the result was not the nailbiting finish some expected.

This time, the SPP is back, but has joined forces with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) with plans to field a joint team. The DPP is now led by former civil servant Benjamin Pwee, who contested GE 2011 under the SPP banner but then left because of differences over leadership style and direction. He says the alliance will use the SPP name as it has stronger brand recognition in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.


The electoral battle is likely to be an uphill one for the weakened SPP and the relatively unknown DPP, given the level of satisfaction residents have with their estate, going by the 100 of them Insight spoke to.

The group representation constituency has a broad range of voters across income levels, living in both public and private property.

After the PAP's minor fright there in 2011 - the first time the GRC had been contested since being formed in 1997 - it set about reconnecting with the ground and sprucing up the neighbourhoods.

Estate improvement programmes include installing about 140 fitness corners for the elderly, starting on a plan to change almost all common corridor bulbs to brighter energy-saving ones by next year, and redecorating and repainting Housing Board estates.

Private tutor Cindy Yee, 58, who lives in a four-room flat, says: "Toa Payoh is an old estate, but the rejuvenation has been very successful. The Government has built many new flats here in the last 10 years, and now in the mornings and evenings I see many more young professionals, compared to the past."

The GRC also picks up 7,000 new voters in the Balestier area of the phased-out Moulmein-Kallang GRC, whose ward has been redrawn into Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. In their first home visits to residents there last week, Dr Ng and his fellow MPs repeatedly told residents: "We will take care of you."

But some GRC residents don't feel cared for. Hinting at slight unhappiness in private estates, Marymount resident Sitaraman Mani, 58, a banker, says: "Put simply, the PAP doesn't care about the landed houses, they care for the HDB estates, because that's where their vote bank is. Our drainage system has not been upgraded for 26 years. And we pay the highest conservancy fees, waste removal fees, property tax and income tax."

But with few municipal issues, residents are likely to focus on national ones. And the PAP has made policy shifts on areas people were unhappy about, moving to tighten the inflow of foreign labour, ramping up the supply of public flats for young couples and improving public transport.

The PAP has also plugged away at being less "out of touch" on bread-and-butter issues, a charge levelled at it during the last election. Designer Kim Ng, 40, who sat at the same coffee shop as the PAP last Wednesday and observed the press conference, said: "It looks like they're getting closer to residents."

Some remain sceptical, but others like Bishan North resident R.K. Raju, 55, have been won over.

"During the last election I put in a protest vote because everything was so expensive, COE (certificate of entitlement) is high, housing prices are high," says the pest control business owner, who foresees cost of living issues to continue to be a hot topic for the coming poll.

"But I know the Government is doing its best, so I'll vote for the PAP this time."


Most prominent of the PAP team retiring is former deputy prime minister and home affairs minister Wong Kan Seng, who has served the Bishan East ward since 1997.

His successor is Mr Chong, chief executive of OUE Hospitality Trust, who began learning the political ropes from Mr Wong two years ago. He has been a regular fixture at Meet-the-People Sessions, grassroots events and house visits.

In Toa Payoh East, three-term MP Zainudin Nordin will be replaced by Mr Saktiandi, the Maybank foreign exchange research head, who was described by Dr Ng as a potential PAP candidate last April.

Both Mr Chong and Mr Saktiandi began volunteering in the GRC over two years ago as part of the PAP strategy of giving residents a chance to get to know them early.

Mr Chong chaired the committee organising Bishan East's pioneer generation tribute dinner for over 4,000 residents, and the committee overseeing the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme being carried out in Bishan East.

As for Mr Saktiandi, he has been a volunteer explaining new national healthcare programmes to seniors, and helped Mr Zainudin in his Meet-the-People Sessions as well.

Last to emerge was former senior public servant, Mr Chee, 41, who began shadowing lawyer Hri Kumar Nair at grassroots events in Thomson-Toa Payoh last month.

As for the opposition camp, their star candidate is surely 80-year-old Mr Chiam.

Residents like housewife Pamela Lee have residual affection for the man who was Singapore's longest- serving opposition MP until 2011.

"I really like Mr Chiam. I think he is a true gentleman because of the way he engages in politics," says Ms Lee, 38.

But whether the "Chiam factor" translates into votes for the SPP may depend on the quality of his teammates. Four potential candidates for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC have been announced by the DPP so far.

They are: Mr Pwee, businessman and DPP chairman, Mohamad Hamim Aliyas, 50, businessman, Chia Ser Lin, 46, who runs a food and beverage chain in China, and start-up company vice-president Nadine Yap, 46.

Freelance tourist coordinator Annie Pang, 58, says: "Chiam is still very popular. But how I vote depends on who is the opposition. I voted Chiam the last time, but I think he is too old now."

For its second fight, the GRC is unlikely to see an electoral swing, given the political climate now.

Indeed, the gap between PAP and opposition might even widen.

Additional reporting by Lim Yan Liang and Nigel Choo

Correction: An earlier version of the story said only one DPP candidate for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC had been announced so far. It was actually four potential candidates. We are sorry for the error.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline Battle for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. Subscribe