GE2020 SINGAPORE VOTES: BATTLEGROUND SENGKANG

Singapore GE2020: How Workers' Party won over Sengkang

Observers cite candidates who resonated with younger voters; a desire for checks and balances; and the national swing towards opposition

The Workers’ Party team who won Sengkang GRC thank residents during a walkabout at Rivervale Plaza, on July 12, 2020.
The Workers’ Party team who won Sengkang GRC thank residents during a walkabout at Rivervale Plaza, on July 12, 2020.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

One of the early signs that not all may be well came midway in the campaign.

Clad in white, Mr Ng Chee Meng and Mr Amrin Amin went around Sengkang Central, waving and introducing themselves. Usually, residents obliged with a smile or a nod, even if hesitantly.

But there were some who gave the two People's Action Party (PAP) candidates the cold shoulder, to the point of being outright unfriendly.

"I could tell from their interactions, from their body language, that they were a bit hostile," said a party volunteer on residents that the candidates had approached.

Alarm bells rang. The PAP team - which also included Senior Minister of State for Transport and Health Lam Pin Min, 50, and lawyer Raymond Lye, 54 - redoubled its efforts.

On social media, there were photographs of Mr Ng, 51, a former defence chief, sprinting up and down Housing Board block corridors, trying to reach as many residents as possible in the remaining days of the campaign.

In the end, it was too little, too late. On Polling Day, Sengkang GRC emerged as the biggest upset of the 2020 General Election.

The Workers' Party (WP) won with 52.13 per cent of the votes, against a 47.87 per cent share for the PAP. This meant that three political office-holders, including Mr Ng - who is labour chief and a core member of the 4G leadership - have been turfed out.

"Everybody was surprised, shocked," a party volunteer said.

Meanwhile, over at WP, the slate led by lawyer He Ting Ru, 37, and including economics associate professor Jamus Lim, 44, social enterprise founder Raeesah Khan, 26, and equity research analyst Louis Chua, 33, in the early hours of yesterday morning, maintained a subdued demeanour when they arrived at the WP headquarters shortly before the final count was in.

Thanking voters, Ms He said: "We will work hard, to make sure that this trust is not misplaced."

The WP team's unexpected victory has led to a blooming heart of blue in Singapore's north-east, with the WP expanding its reach beyond its traditional strongholds of Hougang SMC and Aljunied GRC.


Louis Chua of the Workers’ Party team who clinched Sengkang GRC bows as he greets a bunch of residents at Rivervale Plaza on July 12, 2020.

A miscalculation

For the ruling party, it was not meant to be like this. Singapore's newest group representation constituency, created just ahead of this general election, was widely thought to be safe, albeit closely contested, for the men in white.

Ahead of the hustings, attention focused more on the eastern flank of Singapore such as East Coast GRC, where the WP had made some inroads during previous elections.

Sengkang GRC is made up of Sengkang Central - previously helmed by Mr Teo Ser Luck and which was part of Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC which clinched a high 72.89 per cent of the votes in 2015; part of Sengkang West, where Dr Lam won a respectable 62.13 per cent; and Punggol East which stalwart Charles Chong wrested from WP incumbent Lee Li Lian with 51.77 per cent.

The 120,100 voters were mainly young couples living in HDB estates - a constituent group traditionally thought to not want to rock the boat too much as they build up their first homes.

Of the three men, only Dr Lam - who has been at Sengkang West since he entered politics in 2006 - remained in the political fray this time round, with the retirement of Mr Chong and Mr Teo from politics.

Sengkang Central was partitioned into two, to be represented by Mr Ng and Mr Amrin, previously from Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC and Sembawang GRC respectively. Punggol East was to be represented by Mr Lye, a long-time grassroots leader.

  • RECIPE FOR SUCCESS? 

    THE JAMUS EFFECT

    A televised debate on the day after Nomination Day elevated Associate Professor Jamus Lim to a political star, after he easily held his own against veteran PAP debater-minister Vivian Balakrishnan. Across Singapore, plaudits rolled in. As one PAP observer noted: "There was the Jamus Lim effect - and we had nothing to neutralise that."

    THE RAEESAH FACTOR

    On the last weekend before Polling Day, police reports were lodged against Ms Raeesah Khan for social media comments that allegedly promoted racial or religious enmity.

    Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah from Nanyang Technological University's School of Social Sciences said: "Younger voters and minorities were quite upset at how they perceived her to be treated." 

In the end, Sengkang Central and Punggol East did not do well at the ballot box, with Sengkang West faring slightly better, party insiders said.

As the PAP team came to grips with the news, it was also time for post-mortems.

The mood was sombre when the candidates met with the press in the early hours of yesterday morning. They will "take some time to regroup and evaluate the different factors", said Mr Ng, when The Sunday Times asked what he thought swung the vote in WP's favour.

"Let us discuss with colleagues and get a thorough understanding of the ground again. And then we can plot our way forward."

Mr Ng reiterated these remarks in a Facebook post later, where he said: "In the days to come, we will spend some time looking at what may be the plan for the future."

For now, a preliminary assessment among some is that it could have been a miscalculation to parachute in three faces unfamiliar to the constituency. ST understands that Mr Amrin, who is Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and Health, started walking the ground as a potential candidate only some time in the last six months or so, while Mr Ng began towards the end of last year.

A PAP insider said: "It was a problem with strategy. Ng Chee Meng and Amrin entered late in the game - but the calculation was that they are office-holders and there wouldn't be a problem. Also, the vote share previously was quite high so they thought it was safe."

Some residents said they voted for WP as they liked the party's policy proposals, and because they felt little affinity with their former elected representatives.

Ms Tan Siew Eng, 50, who has lived in Sengkang for over 20 years under various PAP MPs due to the changing electoral boundaries, said she hardly sees them in the neighbourhood. Added Ms Tan, who works in a non-profit organisation: "It doesn't really matter to me whether they are there or not."

Young parents, young stars

The game also changed significantly when the campaign began.

A televised debate on the day after Nomination Day elevated Prof Lim to a political star, after he easily held his own against veteran PAP debater-minister Vivian Balakrishnan. Across Singapore, plaudits rolled in. As one PAP observer noted: "There was the Jamus Lim effect - and we had nothing to neutralise that."

Another candidate on the WP's Sengkang slate who stirred excitement was Ms Raeesah, who at 26, was the party's youngest candidate. She is a social activist who started the Reyna Movement to empower women.

Within the mix is also Ms He, who had her own cachet. When she entered politics in 2015, the Cambridge natural sciences graduate, who later went on to read law in London, was quickly heralded as the new Nicole Seah.

Ms Seah was a star candidate from the National Solidarity Party in 2011, although she quit in 2014 and joined the WP the year after.

Less well known is the WP team's last member, Mr Chua, but he has spoken persuasively about building a more resilient society with a greater diversity of voices in Parliament.

At the same time, the slate of four also managed to position themselves as young parents who could identify with the aspirations and challenges of the residents they wanted to serve.

This was important: More than 60 per cent of Sengkang GRC residents are aged below 45, and over one in 20 is younger than five - both above the national rates.

As political observer Kevin Tan, who is also an author and historian, said during a webinar yesterday: "The WP had a brilliant campaign, (fielding) young candidates, trying to dovetail their own identities with that of the young families, young parents who lived in Sengkang."

For example, at a media interview last week, Ms He said the WP's Sengkang team were all young parents with children under the age of four.

"We feel that there are a lot of young families in Singapore, we're all living through the same worries and the same joys together with them, so I think there's a natural fit," she added.

By comparison, the PAP fielded an older all-male high-powered slate, who could have appeared a bit more remote to the residents.

Dr Tan also noted during yesterday's webinar that the younger, probably more well-educated electorate had a better grasp of the nuances of governance, and the differences between national and municipal initiatives.


Jamus Lim speaks to a resident at Rivervale Plaza, on July 12, 2020.  ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

This makes them more likely to look beyond promises of amenities or facilities, he said.

"I think people have realised that, hey, come on, there is a national plan, it is not just a Sengkang plan," added Dr Tan. "People are going to say... and then? And the WP supplied that 'and then?'"

For example, WP's Sengkang candidates had, during their e-rallies, highlighted issues such as the need to recognise unpaid labour by housewives, social inequality and climate change. This seemed to resonate with younger voters.

Communications professional Faith Lim, 32, said: "The WP team seemed to be the one that listened more and were more caring. For example, He Ting Ru brought up the issue of unpaid care provided by stay-at-home mums, which really resonated for my family.

"My concern was not so much estate upgrading or the promise of new facilities, but I voted for people I felt could represent us in Parliament. The WP had greater goals which resonated with me."

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said younger voters may have different aspirations compared with previous generations.

He said: "This is not to suggest that they do not care about bread-and-butter issues, or about achieving the Singapore Dream of upward mobility, but that they are also adopting higher-order, post-materialist values."

This refers to values that support a more liberal form of democracy, a less hierarchical social arrangement, and thereby "checks and balances" on those in authority, said Associate Professor Tan.

He added: "I reckon they also see the young WP candidates as knowledgeable and capable, with new and bold ideas that challenge conventional neo-liberal wisdom. The fact that the WP candidates have both name and face recognition is definitely a plus too."

No dirty politics

Another issue that gained traction among the young voters was what many perceived to be a smear campaign against the opposition.

On the last weekend before Polling Day, police reports were lodged against Ms Raeesah for social media comments that allegedly promoted racial or religious enmity - and likely ricocheted in hurting the PAP instead, said observers.

Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah from Nanyang Technological University's School of Social Sciences said: "Younger voters and minorities were quite upset at how they perceived her to be treated, and I think, this should demonstrate to the 4G that perhaps a new approach towards politics is needed."

In two Facebook posts in February 2018 and May this year, Ms Raeesah suggested that police officers discriminated against citizens, and that rich Chinese and white people were treated differently under the law. She also said minorities and mosque leaders were given different treatment compared with church leaders.

Ms Raeesah apologised that same weekend, saying that she did not mean to cause social division, but had wanted to raise awareness about minority concerns.

Most Sengkang residents The Sunday Times spoke to were not bothered by Ms Raeesah's remarks, and many were sympathetic, posting the hashtag #IStandWithRaeesah on social media in a show of support.

Mr S.O. Wu, a 50-year-old freelance photographer, questioned the timing of the police reports, saying that one of the posts being investigated was made more than two years ago.

Another Sengkang resident, customer service officer Barkhad Ali Sakor, 41, said the way Ms Raeesah had presented herself after the incident, as well as the way the party stood by her during her apology, made more of an impression.

National swing

Ultimately, what happened in Sengkang cannot be divorced from the nationwide swing towards the opposition.

Overall, the PAP attained 61.2 per cent of the popular vote - down from the 69.9 per cent in 2015.

In particular, the WP scored 50.49 per cent in the constituencies it contested in.

This means that more people voted for the WP than those who did not, suggesting that its message of not giving the PAP a blank cheque resonated strongly.

NUS' Prof Tan said: "There is a swing across the board, almost entirely. This suggests that the arguments pointing out the need for checks and balances, and the call to deny PAP a super majority in Parliament, did have some resonance."

Many residents, such as Ms Tan and Mr V. T. Nathan, a retired sales manager, feel that it was important for there to be a diversity of voices in Parliament.

"For every issue, there will be many different perspectives," said Ms Tan. "If we can ensure that there is a diversity of voices in Parliament, it would ensure that issues are debated robustly before being passed."

  • Additional reporting by Yuen Sin
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2020, with the headline 'How WP won over Sengkang'. Subscribe