Thursday, May 13, 2010

5 factors that stirred the ground (ST Report on 2006 GE)

Review - Insight
5 factors that stirred the ground
20 May 2006
Straits Times
(c) 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

ON AND off, it drizzled at the Woodlands Stadium on the night of May 6, but the men in white from Ang Mo Kio GRC paid scant attention.

With cellphones pressed to their ears and pens in hand, the People's Action Party (PAP) candidates and their key branch activists jotted down numbers on a map of the GRC divided into precincts.

Counting agents at various polling stations, watching the tallying up of votes, were phoning in estimates of votes cast for the PAP.

They could work out roughly the support in each precinct as the voting slips from the ballot boxes from different polling districts are separated according to the respective political parties and stacked.

As the night wore on, their faces turned sombre.

One branch activist muttered: 'Not so good.'

But he hastened to add: 'But not too bad either.'

Up against the Workers' Party (WP), the PAP team in Ang Mo Kio GRC won 66.1 per cent of the 146,059 valid votes cast - the best showing among the three GRCs where the PAP clashed with the WP.

East Coast won 63.9 per cent and Aljunied, 56.1 per cent.

Still, the Ang Mo Kio result was a whisker short of the national average of 66.6 per cent and far from the 'high 80s' that PAP chairman Lim Boon Heng had defined as a good mandate for the team led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

For the WP, it was a 'decent' showing by the young team of newbies.

In contrast, the contest in Aljunied GRC saw the PAP incumbents facing down a WP team widely viewed as its Team A. From Day One of campaigning, it was deemed the match to watch and the fight was fairly close.

Led by party chairman Sylvia Lim, the WP group grabbed 43.9 per cent of the valid votes cast from the PAP team anchored by Foreign Minister George Yeo.

Two weeks on, PAP activists say the results were 'within expectations' but the sense that there is much more to be accomplished in firmly securing the ground in both places is also palpable.

But what are the factors that, on reflection, were critical and may well have a bearing on how the two GRCs will be managed from now on?

Insight talks to analysts, the newly-elected MPs in both GRCs and 150 voters in these areas.

The geographical factor

SECONDS into his rally speech in Ang Mo Kio, 30-year-old Yaw Shin Leong gunned for nostalgia.

'How many of you here are former constituents of Cheng San GRC?' the Workers' Party (WP) candidate asked the large crowd that had gathered at Ang Mo Kio Street 51 two days before Polling Day.

About a quarter raised their hands.

'I'm very glad that we came back,' he told them, to roars of approval.

Almost a decade ago, the 'quiet mountain' - as Cheng San is known in Chinese - was the battleground of the fiercest clash between the People's Action Party (PAP) and the WP. The 1997 election ended with the five-member WP team getting 45.2 per cent of the valid votes cast.

Had the ghost of Cheng San returned to haunt the PAP this year?

The WP clearly counted on it. Party chairman Sylvia Lim acknowledged it from the outset, saying it was one reason for contesting Ang Mo Kio, despite the impossible odds of upsetting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's team on his home turf.

About one-third of the 159,872 voters in the GRC are from the old Cheng San GRC, 'where traditionally there has been WP support', says Ms Lim.

In 2001, Cheng San was spliced up and absorbed into three GRCs.

Two of its five wards went to Ang Mo Kio, another two to Aljunied and the remaining to Pasir Ris-Punggol.

Sources tell Insight that the areas that went to Ang Mo Kio were where the PAP had fared particularly badly in the 1997 election.

They now form part of the Cheng San and Jalan Kayu wards in the GRC.

But the past patterns did not change on polling night. PAP MPs confirmed with Insight that the tally at both wards were below 65 per cent, the worst among the GRC's five wards.

Sources say that PM Lee's Teck Ghee ward topped the list with 69 to 70 per cent, followed by veteran Inderjit Singh's Kebun Baru (around 68 per cent) and newcomer Lee Bee Wah's Nee Soon South (66 per cent).

The support for WP in the old Cheng San areas can be traced as far back as 1976, when the party put up a strong showing in the then-single-seat Jalan Kayu. Its candidate M.P.D. Nair received 38.4 per cent of the votes against PAP's Hwang Soo Jin.

So, what's at the root of the long-standing support in the area for the opposition? Analysts interviewed are unable to pin it on any particular issue. Reasons they gave range from the Tang Liang Hong episode to the Government's resettlement policy.

In 1997, they attributed it largely to the Chinese-educated constituents' unhappiness with the way the PAP dealt with WP candidate Tang Liang Hong. It continues to rankle.

Says sociologist Chua Beng Huat: 'People vote emotionally. They were angry that Tang was hounded, angry that they didn't get a chance to vote again. This kind of sentiments settles in.'

A public relations executive who lives in Seletar Hills and wants to be known only as Mary is still 'very upset' over how the Cheng San GRC was taken off the electoral map in 2001.

Says the 35-year-old: 'You can't just keep erasing those GRCs with low scores for PAP. There's no sense of fair play. You should be working harder to win people over. That is what's truly called a strong mandate.'

Singapore's resettlement policy is also blamed for some of the long-held resentment towards the ruling party.

Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 in the Jalan Kayu ward has the lowest score and its MP Wee Siew Kim believes it is due to a 'residual core of people who may have been affected by previous policies'.

About half of the 4,000 homes in the area's 24 HDB blocks have families relocated nearly 30 years ago from villages in old Bishan and Mr Wee says they are still unhappy.

Retiree Ng Ah Yee, 71, is typical. After 30 years of living in his three-room flat, he is still angry at being 'forced' to move from his attap house in Bishan.

'The Government asks you to move, you move,' he mutters. 'It says it will take care of us, but they never do. Our medical bills are high, and the Progress Package isn't really for us. It's for their own good, so that they can buy us over.'

As most living in the area are long-time residents, political attitudes are also probably passed down from father to son, mother to daughter.

But Dr Balaji Sadasivan, MP-elect for the Cheng San ward, prefers to see the bright side.

'In 1997, 54 per cent voted for PAP, so about 10 per cent came over to us this time. To a large extent, it is due to the popularity of the Prime Minister,' the Senior Minister of State for Health tells Insight.

In Aljunied GRC, the talk is less about the old Cheng San GRC and more about the influence of neighbouring Hougang, the single-seat constituency held by the opposition. WP chief Low Thia Khiang retained it with 62.7 per cent of the votes, up from 55 per cent in the 2001 GE.

Insight understands that support for the PAP dipped in those GRC areas that border Hougang, especially Hougang Avenue 3.

Foreign Minister George Yeo believes the 'Hougang spillover effect' is because the two constituencies are 'connected organically' and their residents mingle daily.

'Many families have friends and relatives on both sides. Residents cross the boundary every day to shop, take buses and the MRT,' he tells Insight.

Grumbles or praises spread quickly by word of mouth and the complaint of a 40-year-old retrenched worker in Aljunied is not uncommon. Unhappy that he had to co-pay for upgrading in his town, he was all praise for Mr Low's argument that lift-upgrading should be free.

'I respect him for that. Since he's not moving here, I'd move there if I could,' says the man, who lives in Hougang Ave 10.

The middle-class myth

IT IS conventional wisdom that middle-class voters are more likely to support the ruling party, as they have too much at stake to want to rock the boat.

But the assumption seems to waver in Aljunied, where one-third of the 75,000 homes are private property.

But the votes of the 145,141 residents show there was 'not much of a difference' between private and HDB estates, MP-elect Cynthia Phua tells Insight. 'Support in private estates was just a little stronger,' she adds.

Likewise in Ang Mo Kio, where private homes make up one-seventh of the households.

Dr Balaji says the PAP's showing was lower in the eastern part of the Seletar Hills private estate, divided by Seletar Road and stretching from Jalan Lebat Daun to Seletar Hills Drive.

The houses are older and owned mainly by well-off retirees. Their main worry is means-testing, he says.

'When the Progress Package came, they got only $200 so they knew they were in a different category from the HDB dwellers. So they were concerned whether under a similar type of classification, they may not be able to get health care.

'But the fact is we're in the early stages of looking into means testing and we may not even proceed with it.'

Insight spoke to 30 private homeowners and many felt neglected by a PAP Government that favours poorer Singaporeans living in public housing.

Neighbours and fellow retirees C.C. Pek, 69, and B.H. Kang, 70, who live in semi-detached houses along Jalan Kelulut, voted for the WP.

Says Mr Pek: 'If we were living in HDB flats, they'd have built better walkways for us right now and would have delivered promises made before.'

The pair cited the loss of a food centre, the cancellation of bus service 103, and how talk of a police post to be built nearby had not materialised.

Lifts on every floor, refurbished common areas and flat interiors are just some of the programmes HDB residents stand to gain by voting PAP, but none of it applies to private estates.

Thus for middle-class Singaporeans living in private property, a party's ideas and what it stands for could well matter more. Says Engineer Andy Sim, 28, who lives in a private flat in Aljunied GRC: 'We want stability but we also want a different voice in Parliament.'

Better calibre of opposition

FOR too long, a common lament among voters has been the slim pickings in opposition ranks. But apparently, not this time.

Speaking for many, Mrs Chew, 32, a sales manager living in the Sengkang part of Ang Mo Kio GRC, says: 'It's obvious WP has grown to be a stronger party with the sort of people it has recruited. It's a good sign and is worth encouraging.'

Sympathy also plays a part. 'I wanted to give my vote to the young WP team as an encouragement. I didn't want them to lose their deposit,' she admits.

In contrast, the PAP team did not impress some voters.

Researcher Ng Boon Yian, 28, who lives in Serangoon North in Ang Mo Kio GRC, was concerned about 'worrisome signs of some PAP MPs being out of touch with citizenry's political expectations'.

In Aljunied, the WP's team impressed voters like 51-year-old K. Sathish: 'Before, nobody seriously believed WP has plans. But this time, they had a fairly decent manifesto and candidates.'

Some like a 22-year-old undergraduate who lives in a terrace house in Kovan are even willing to give them a chance even when they are inferior to their PAP counterparts.

Says the undergrad: 'It didn't matter because they made up for it by demonstrating humility and tenacity to establish an opposition presence in Singapore.'

More critical though, few believed the PAP teams would lose.

Says a 36-year-old executive living in Buangkok Crescent in Ang Mo Kio GRC: 'I knew there was no way the PAP was going to lose, so I needed to express my unhappiness with my vote.'

The Gomez fracas

AMONG those who said they voted for the WP, more than half said they were turned off by how the PAP handled the Gomez incident.

Mr James Gomez, one of the five WP candidates in Aljunied GRC, had claimed he submitted his minority certificate when he did not.

While he later apologised for what he said was an 'honest mistake', PAP leaders said the apology was inadequate as they felt he was trying to discredit the Elections Department.

They repeatedly pressed the WP to reveal publicly what exactly happened.

Over and above the perceived high-handedness of the PAP, some resented what they saw as an infantile treatment of the electorate.

Says a former accounts executive who is in her 30s and wants to be known only as Ms Lim: 'Look, we can decide for ourselves if someone is an idiot. Look at how poorly Chee Soon Juan's SDP did in Sembawang GRC compared to the rest of the opposition.'

PAP MPs also admit that Gomezgate - as some have termed the scandal - has had a direct impact on votes, particularly in Kebun Baru.

Its MP-elect Inderjit Singh had revealed publicly that Mr Gomez had told him earlier his 'mistake' was just a 'wayang' (an act in Malay). He feels his actions could have cost him 'two to three percentage points'.

'I had a lot of feedback. Reaction wasn't good,' he tells Insight.

Likewise in Aljunied GRC. PAP team anchor George Yeo admits: 'When we went around, people had already formed a judgment about the Gomez affair but they felt that we had given it too much emphasis and that it became too dominant an issue.'

Like most Aljunied residents interviewed, Mr Sathish feels the PAP needs to trust voters more and let them reach their own conclusions. 'The PAP didn't and lost the moral high ground,' he says.

National not local fight

THAT the WP chose to engage the PAP at the national, rather than local level, in all its fights, means the ruling party could not capitalise on its strengths: its track record running the towns and its ability to provide attractive plans to develop the local area.

In Aljunied especially, PAP candidates and grassroots leaders describe the battle as a microcosm of the clash between the two parties, instead of a local contest between the two teams fielded there.

As PAP candidate Lim Hwee Hua puts it: 'They took the campaign to a national level and capitalised on the fact that people wanted an opposition.'

PAP team anchor George Yeo adds: 'We had a good local programme, which was hardly discussed, because the WP concentrated on national issues.'

The WP, from the outset, made the whole GE a referendum on the future of the opposition in Singapore.

Voters like Eric, a 39-year-old IT professional, hopes the PAP will drop its tactic of using upgrading as a carrot.

He says: 'Those who vote for the opposition still pay taxes, so that was not a good tactic. The PAP likes to use this as a form of pressure, which is what a good government shouldn't do.'

Reports by

Li Xueying, Laurel Teo, Sim Chi Yin, Goh Chin Lian, Tee Hun Ching, Lynn Kang and Sonia Tan.


Anonymous said...

Hard day......................................................................

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathaniel,

Interesting reports you have there from the last GE. Certainly worth the read.