SINGAPORE: With political parties likely to field high-profile candidates in East Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC) at the next General Election, observers expect a stiff contest for the vote, although they said the People’s Action Party (PAP) is likely to have an edge.
The GRC has re-absorbed neighbouring Fengshan Single Member Constituency (SMC) following the redrawing of electoral boundaries in a report released by the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) on Mar 13. The committee also recommended that five members make up the GRC, up from the current four.
The reconstituted East Coast GRC has 120,238 registered voters, compared to 96,493 previously.
Political observers including Associate Professor Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University (SMU) said the changes could consolidate support for the PAP in the constituency.
In the previous election in 2015, PAP defeated the Workers’ Party (WP) in East Coast and Fengshan with 60.7 per cent and 57.5 per cent of the vote, respectively.
Voters would also want to keep the incumbent for stability amid uncertain times, they said, adding that the outcome could mirror results in 2011, when the PAP won East Coast GRC– which then included Fengshan – with 54.8 per cent of the vote.
But the analysts say both the PAP and WP are likely to field high-calibre candidates to refresh and reinforce their support in the constituency, meaning a tough contest is expected.
The PAP could field minister-level candidates with the majority of their current slate expected to retire, they said, while the WP could move some of their best candidates over.
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Meanwhile, Fengshan Member of Parliament (MP) and long-time grassroots volunteer Cheryl Chan told CNA she wishes to run in East Coast GRC, although she noted that the PAP hasn’t revealed its plans.
“The party hasn’t confirmed this with me, but certainly I’ve expressed my wish is to continue in Fengshan,” she said.
“For me, (Fengshan being in East Coast) doesn’t make any difference. Boundaries are just boundaries, right? But it really doesn’t change the way me and my team actually serve the ground. If they appreciate it, I will continue being in Fengshan.”
Ms Chan said she “wouldn’t speculate” on how the redrawing of East Coast GRC might affect PAP’s chances in the next election which must be held by April 2021, especially as the party might unveil a largely new slate despite residents having gotten used to her.
“I’ve continued to tell the residents, especially now because of the COVID-19 situation, I think it's more important we really focus on national issues first,” she said, adding that her concerns include the economy and jobs for her residents.
“But really, for me, it's not so much about whether the election (is coming) or not. I personally always believed if the incumbent has been doing their work on the ground as an MP, then you know, the results will speak for themselves.”
Still, political observers believe that moving Fengshan back to East Coast will play into the hands of the PAP.
“When you put these two together, it could point to the PAP possibly having an easier time, assuming ... people still vote for the same party as in 2015,” Assoc Prof Tan said.
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said it has always been harder for opposition parties to win GRCs because of their larger size, predicting that the outcome in 2015 “will be replicated in the coming election”.
“The opposition may do marginally well in one or two wards, but when these results are averaged across a GRC, they then fall below 50 per cent,” he explained.
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Given that the PAP has never lost East Coast, SIM Global Education associate lecturer Felix Tan said “there’s no doubt” the party will attract “continued support” there.
“Moreover, in times like what we have now, there’s even a stronger potential that voters would want to keep the incumbent party to ensure some sense of stability and continuity,” he added.
SHAKING IT UP
Despite that, Dr Tan said PAP’s performance in East Coast would also depend on who replaces former Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say – who is expected to retire – to lead the team.
The current team comprises Mr Lim, Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman, former senior minister of state Lee Yi Shyan and three-term backbencher Jessica Tan.
“We’ll probably see the shifting of some ministers around to helm East Coast,” Dr Tan said, adding that this person could be a “familiar” 4G leader with a strong backing.
SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan said he also expects Mr Lee and Ms Tan to retire, paving the way for a candidate who is at the very least a senior minister of state.
“The PAP would want to show that it takes the GRC seriously, and deploy another office holder to beef up (the line-up),” he added.
“There would be probably one first-time candidate. But first-time candidates, because people don't really know them, may not have that immediate appeal.”
At his Meet-the-People session in Bedok North on Monday (Mar 23), Mr Lee remained coy about the possibility of first-time candidates being fielded in East Coast or his Kampong Chai Chee ward.
“Have you seen any new faces?” he asked with a laugh. “I also haven’t. So your guess is as good as mine. But you never know.”
Mr Lee also said he was not surprised at the speculation that he could be among those who will retire before the next election.
“I’m not that old, I’m not that young,” he stated.
“It’s really up to the party, because the day will come sooner or later that we have to replace ourselves and the younger people will have to come in. But exactly who is in and out, I’m sure the party will make careful consideration.”
Mr Lee called good succession planning a “hallmark of successful, strong organisations”, adding that he believes any potential replacement will do a good job in the constituency.
“We as a party are very careful about selecting the right type of people,” he said.
“You want to have a slate that represents the cross segment of society. From there, hopefully you have a slate big enough that you can select your Cabinet ministers. So, it’s not an easy task. It’s always a tremendous effort to go look for people like that.”
DEALING WITH CONCERNS
Mr Lee stated he is “cautiously optimistic” about PAP’s chances in East Coast at the next election, as he feels the team takes residents’ needs seriously and has “done a lot on the ground”.
In Kampong Chai Chee for instance, Mr Lee has introduced green spaces like community and rooftop gardens as well as sustainability features like e-waste recycling. They are also thinking of initiatives to help residents keep fit while staying home, given the current circumstances.
“But of course, there are still issues that people might be unhappy about,” he said, explaining that these vary according to age group.
Elderly residents, for example, are concerned about healthcare costs, while those in their 50s to 60s worry about their skills and whether they can keep their jobs. The 30s to 40s, or the “sandwiched class” as Mr Lee noted, grapple with raising children and caring for their parents. The younger ones are idealistic and “seized with subjects like sustainability”.
Current concerns, however, centre around the COVID-19 pandemic, with some residents even asking Mr Lee if they should liquidate their assets because they fear losing their jobs.
“I think people want different policy propositions and approaches to solving problems,” Mr Lee stated, adding that he feels the team has done its best. “And if the opposition can come up with it, I think it’s a fair competition. People have the right to choose.”
DON’T WRITE OFF WP
SIM’s Dr Tan said WP has a “certain amount” of support in both East Coast and Fengshan, pointing out that the merger might help the party “cement its influence or make further inroads into that constituency”.
“They have been competing in the constituency for a while and doing walkabouts, so it does seem like with the merger it might be able to consolidate its influence of power there,” he said.
SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan argued that the merger would also make the WP slate stronger, as this would bring their three non-constituency MPs – Fengshan’s Dennis Tan as well as East Coast’s Leon Perera and Daniel Goh – together.
He suggested that WP could also move one of its heavyweight Aljunied MPs, Low Thia Khiang or Sylvia Lim, to East Coast.
“My view is that the Aljunied slate needs to be refreshed partly to get voters interested, and secondly, in the way of an acknowledgement that they may have fallen short over the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council saga,” he said.
“If they were to move one of the Aljunied MPs, then it could make the WP slate in East Coast very appealing.”
The WP did not respond to requests for comment, although Mr Dennis Tan took to Facebook to question the EBRC’s report a day after its release.
“I am sure Fengshan residents would like to know the real reasons why Fengshan was taken out of East Coast GRC in GE 2015 and then promptly re-absorbed back after one term,” he wrote. “Regardless, WP will continue their work on the ground.”