The battle for Bukit Panjang

Singapore GE2020: Liang Eng Hwa focused on the ground, bread-and-butter issues

Singapore’s largest single-seat constituency, held by the PAP’s Teo Ho Pin for the past 14 years, has unexpectedly become a hot seat following his retirement. The SMC’s 35,497 eligible voters must now choose between PAP parliamentarian Liang Eng Hwa and opposition heavyweight Paul Tambyah. Clement Yong profiles the two candidates and asks them why they should be elected.

The PAP's Mr Liang Eng Hwa in Fajar Road on Wednesday. The three-term MP, who is contesting Bukit Panjang SMC this election, said that he had not shied away from debating on major national issues.
The PAP's Mr Liang Eng Hwa in Fajar Road on Wednesday. The three-term MP, who is contesting Bukit Panjang SMC this election, said that he had not shied away from debating on major national issues. ST PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

Mr Liang Eng Hwa believes that, if elected, he will be no less rigorous a check on the Government than a potential opposition Member of Parliament.

The three-term MP is staking his claim on single-seat Bukit Panjang by mostly emphasising municipal issues like estate upgrading - his passion project - as well as his track record.

But the 56-year-old People's Action Party candidate also believes that "I do the checks and balances sometimes more rigorously than opposition members", he told The Straits Times in an interview on Wednesday, adding that he had not shied away from debating on major national issues.

In 2013, Mr Liang moved the amendment to change the wording of the Population White Paper, which projected Singapore's population to reach 6.9 million by 2030.

"I spoke and amended the motion, and said we should not have a target at all."

Often described as an MP who was "very good on the ground", his questions in Parliament reflected the bread-and-butter issues that weighed on the minds of his constituents - housing, cost of living and transport.

He pledges to continue to make them his focus.

"For things like hawker centres, transport, jobs for Singaporeans, I will raise concerns."

He had also questioned ministers in Parliament on issues like whether economic growth benefits Singaporeans more than foreigners.

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But the enduring memory of him among his former constituents in Zhenghua ward in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC is his dedication to solving their day-to-day problems.

Senja resident Toh Boon Teck, 34, remembers him as "a humble person who listens to residents' voices", and a great MP who is frequently on the ground.

The operations manager said he once met him at a bus stop when Mr Liang was giving free breakfast to residents in the morning, and on several other occasions around the Bangkit market area.

"He listens to feedback, and made a lot of improvements, especially in transportation," said Mr Toh, citing new bus services and a station entrance from Block 605 to the Bukit Panjang MRT station.

Mr Liang, with Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, had lobbied the authorities persistently for two years for this entrance.

But what persuaded Mr Liang, a managing director at DBS Bank, to enter politics is his aversion to toxic politics and opposition for opposition's sake.

The trigger was the mudslinging he saw in the 2000 Taiwan presidential election, in which the Democratic Progressive Party's Chen Shui-bian won against the Kuomintang's Lien Chan.

"Everybody just wants to win and they will say anything they want," he said of the Taiwan election.

"The parties are not really thinking of the future. Nobody thinks about the 10-year plan, how to take the country forward. So I am concerned our politics will be like that.

"At the end of the day, the politics must benefit Singaporeans, their security, give them a better future, take care of the less fortunate. Our politics must have that positive outcome to be constructive."

CLOSE LINKS TO ZHENGHUA

Mr Liang, who is married with three children aged 18, 22 and 26, was an MP in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC for 14 years, but was moved to Bukit Panjang SMC this election, following Dr Teo Ho Pin's retirement.

His rival is chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), Professor Paul Tambyah, an infectious diseases specialist.

Mr Liang, however, is unperturbed.

He said his transition to Bukit Panjang SMC is very much a continuation of his work in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, given the close links between his former ward Zhenghua and Bukit Panjang.

The two areas share a boundary and for Mr Liang, who grew up in Bukit Panjang and who has worked well and closely with Dr Teo, the move is a welcome opportunity.

"The whole Bukit Panjang town is quite integrated and Zhenghua is actually an old name for Bukit Panjang. There are a lot of family ties between the two areas," he said.

"I do not see it as a major change. When we push for improvements we look at the whole town. Transport serves the whole town, all different divisions. We don't try to draw boundaries."

He grew up in an old part of Bukit Panjang known as the 11-and-a-quarter mile, near today's Senja estate. He recalls going to a nearby rubber plantation as a child and catching fish and spiders.

"A lot of tourists will come now and then to see what rubber trees look like. We always go and say 'hello' to them."

As a schoolboy, he went to Bukit Panjang Primary, which was then called Bukit Panjang English.

The modern town that Bukit Panjang residents enjoy today is the fruit of years of labour, he said.

He is especially proud of the improvement in public transport connectivity in the area, for which he had to "bring two transport ministers out here for".

His other major achievements include the additional platforms at Choa Chu Kang LRT station to cut waiting time and the introduction of new bus services, which he focused on after realising they were the biggest grouse of his residents.

"When I came to Zhenghua, public transport was not connected and waiting time was long. To buy things, you have to take another bus somewhere. The convenience was not there."

He has also been a staunch advocate for the building of a new hawker centre in Bukit Panjang, which he says is a node of social activity and helps reduce living cost.

He said his election walkabouts "have given me a lot of input on what to do in the next few years".

He added: "I have my plan but I also listen to the residents, and we adjust it and try to incorporate many of the points we pick up."

The approach is typical of Mr Liang, said grassroots leader Jagathishwaran Rajo, who has worked with him in Zhenghua for 12 years.

Mr Liang has always preferred informal, direct conversation with residents, he added. "He never took our word for it. He would go out without any entourage and lend them an ear.

"When I'm walking with the new candidate for the ward now, the residents ask after him."

Mr Liang said of his philosophy: "Whenever you raise national issues, you must also be able to relate (these issues) to the ground. To residents, any big or small matter is also the MP's big or small matter. You have to take care of them."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2020, with the headline Liang Eng Hwa focused on the ground, bread-and-butter issues. Subscribe