News analysis

GE 2015: Just how hot are things over in East Coast GRC?

PAP's East Coast GRC candidates (top) and WP's East Coast GRC candidates.
PAP's East Coast GRC candidates (top) and WP's East Coast GRC candidates.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM/ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

SINGAPORE - Mr Joe Sim was having breakfast at Bedok Central hawker centre last week when a group of Workers' Party (WP) members came to him to hand him some fliers.

Just as he was about to tuck in, another group of activists, this time in white, came by to hand him fliers too. "I don't think I've ever seen so many activists walking around before," said the 32-year-old bank officer. "I just wanted to eat my chee cheong fun."

East Coast GRC is shaping up to be the hot ward of 2015, much like Aljunied GRC back in 2011. But is it also likely to follow in the same footsteps? There could be some reason to believe so, based on past electoral trends. In 2006, when WP chairman Sylvia Lim led a team to contest Aljunied, it got 43.91 per cent of the vote against a People's Action Party (PAP) team led by then Foreign Minister George Yeo. WP followed up by capturing the seat in 2011 with 54.72 per cent of votes.

For East Coast, this will be the third time WP is knocking on its doors. In 2006, WP contested against a PAP team led by former deputy prime minister S. Jayakumar. WP lost, getting just 36.14 per cent of the vote. In 2011, WP went after East Coast against the team led by then labour chief Lim Swee Say. Again, WP was defeated, although it improved its margin, getting 45.17 per cent of the vote.

WP is sending its second best team, led by Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, to East Coast - its "A" team members are staying in Aljunied to defend their seats - a sign it is out to win.

Even their chief opponent, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, who anchors the PAP team at East Coast, admits that it is a tough fight.

Is it really? The numbers seem to suggest that while it may be a hard battle, WP is swimming against the tide.

For one thing, Fengshan, which was originally part of East Coast in 2011, has been amputated from the GRC after electoral boundaries were redrawn. WP is said to have scored the highest in Fengshan in 2011, causing analysts to say its carving out was a way of saving East Coast from falling to the WP. The other wards - Siglap, Bedok, Simei and Chai Chee - did not do as well as Fengshan, said party sources. Without Fengshan, the estimate is that WP probably got about between 42 per cent and 43 per cent of the vote.

Secondly, in 2011, Aljunied fell because of a national swing against the PAP. Across all constituencies, the opposition got a huge boost as a result of the "protest vote", which resulted in the PAP suffering a vote share fall of about 6.46 percentage points. This translated directly into more vote share for the opposition.

Needless to say, the WP received the biggest boost in 2011. Wherever they contested, they got at least 40 per cent of the vote share. Added to the vote swing was what Mr Yeo called the "emotional dilemma" that was localised in the Aljunied battle.

This is the idea that if voters voted for PAP there, they would be voting out not just the top opposition leaders in Mr Low Thia Khiang, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Chen Show Mao but also possibly leaving Singapore bereft of any opposition at all. The vote in Aljunied swung by 10.8 percentage points against the PAP.

For the WP to wrest East Coast GRC this year, it needs a five percentage point swing against the PAP. Without Fengshan, the hurdle is probably higher.

Could the push come from a national swing? Possible, but unlikely. The PAP has done quite a bit to fix some of the problems that lost the party votes in 2011.

Housing prices have moderated; foreign worker growth has fallen, although it is still a sore issue for some voters. Transport will require a long-term solution but the Government is boosting the number of buses and trains to add capacity.

These issues are by no means solved but many of the moves made have taken some of the sting out.

Third, in some ways, PAP has been more prepared for the fight in East Coast than it was in 2011 for Aljunied. After the last GE, it was clear WP was ascendant and that they would target East Coast next. Mr Lim said PAP has been preparing for this GE in East Coast since the last election, and it shows.

At the PAP rally on Thursday, the PAP candidates listed a string of improvement works made in their estates. It is a clear signal that they have worked to solve problems at the local level.

Of course, nothing is settled and there is still just under a week left of campaigning to go and things could change drastically by the time Polling Day comes around.

One last thing to consider is that Mr Low, being a shrewd tactician, may be playing the long game, assuming East Coast stays intact in the next GE.

The WP team's average age is 39 and apart from Mr Giam, the other candidates are all first-time candidates. In contrast, PAP's team is made up of veterans - Mr Lim is 61 and will be 65 the next GE.

There is a strong chance that he could retire by then, which would leave the GRC without a heavyweight PAP minister.

So even if WP does not take East Coast this time round, one goal it must have is to raise its vote share from the 45.17 per cent it won in 2011, to set the stage for another push next time. Little wonder then that East Coast GRC will be one of the most closely watched in the coming polls.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2015, with the headline 'Just how hot are things over in East Coast GRC?'. Print Edition | Subscribe