SINGAPORE: Aljunied GRC MP Gerald Giam squats down beside a table in the coffee shop as he listens to a resident tell him about a ramp, or lack of one, somewhere in the estate.
Forty minutes later on a Saturday morning (Mar 13), he's still at the Hougang coffee shop discussing drain covers with another resident, and one takes him behind the coffee shop to show him a pavement he's not too pleased with.
Four Workers' Party (WP) volunteers trail the MP, taking down all the complaints and feedback.
That’s part of the constituency nitty-gritty the WP Member of Parliament and town council vice-chair now deals with on top of other parliamentary work, which he already had experience of as a Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) from 2011 to 2015.
Managing the town council, responding to residents’ feedback and doing estate and house visits take up the bulk of his time, except when Parliament is in session, said Mr Giam, who oversees Bedok Reservoir-Punggol in Aljunied GRC - a division which was previously under former WP chief Low Thia Khiang.
Mr Giam had contested twice in East Coast GRC, and was an NCMP for one term after the 2011 General Election on the back of the WP team’s performance there. NCMPs are appointed from the losing opposition candidates with the best election results.
“The adjustment is almost like night and day because when you are an elected MP, people expect you to solve their problems,” he said, when asked about the differences between being a constituency MP and an NCMP.
The move to Aljunied GRC was unexpected, said the IT consultant: “I was fully expecting to go back to either East Coast or Fengshan. In fact, (in) the years leading up to the GE, I'd been spending a lot of time in grassroots work in Fengshan, doing house visits and food distribution, I mean, we pretty much covered the whole ward.”
WP announced on Jun 25 that Mr Low and Mr Chen Show Mao would not contest in the 2020 General Election, and that Mr Giam and Mr Leon Perera would replace them on the slate of candidates for Aljunied.
READ: GE2020: Workers' Party to contest 4 GRCs, 2 SMCs; Low Thia Khiang, Chen Show Mao and Png Eng Huat to step down
There was much speculation then about whether the new team, missing WP stalwart Mr Low, would be able to hold on to the GRC, which the party had won in a massive upset in 2011 but only held on to by the thinnest of margins in 2015.
As it turned out, the refreshed team of WP chief Pritam Singh, party chair Sylvia Lim, Mr Faisal Manap, Mr Perera and Mr Giam won the ward with a wider margin than in 2015. The party also won Sengkang GRC, bumping up the ranks of their elected MPs in Parliament to 10, from six.
“MORE FREEDOM TO HEAR FEEDBACK”
When asked what challenges an opposition MP faces in Singapore, Mr Giam said he prefers not to dwell on the usual issues, such as the role of grassroots advisers who, in opposition wards, can include the losing People’s Action Party (PAP) candidates. In PAP-run wards, the elected MPs double as grassroots advisers.
WP and PAP representatives have also sparred in public about the lack or delay of funds for upgrading works in opposition wards.
“I would rather try and dwell on what the opportunities are,” Mr Giam said. “To me, being an opposition MP allows me a bit more freedom to be able to hear the feedback from the ground, I think people are quite open (to) sharing with me what their real concerns with the government policies are.”
He adds: “If more people are willing to step forward to say what they really think is an area that can be improved, I think a lot of a lot more policies can be can be adjusted from there.”
This is a topic Mr Giam circles back to time and again - critiquing and analysing government policy. It was what first drove him to join the WP, which he came into contact with during a stint as deputy editor of political news site The Online Citizen. It remains his passion, he said.
Mr Giam, a self-confessed “policy wonk” - someone who takes keen interest in the technicalities of government policy - is now the WP’s policy wonk in chief, having taken on the task of leading its policy research team.
While the research team has been in existence for a while, it was only this year that the WP gave official titles to the team head (Mr Giam) and deputy head (Sengkang MP Jamus Lim) in its Central Executive Committee (CEC). Mr Giam is also the party’s treasurer.
He said that subject matter experts in their fields have stepped forward to volunteer in the team after last year’s election. These include academics, professionals and former public servants, who may not necessarily be “political”, but do want to see Singapore improve, he said.
He does not keep track of the number of volunteers, but estimated that the number has “more than tripled” since July.
“One of my biggest challenges is harnessing all this ... to be able to put together cogent policies that we can table in Parliament,” he said.
“We have to make sure that everything that we table is in line with our party positions and party philosophies, and … it cannot just be focused on improving the lot of one small group of people, to the detriment of everybody else.”
Broadly, the team’s focus is on delivering the promises the WP set out in its manifesto, and responding to government policies that are introduced in Parliament, he said.
“As long as I've known the party, we have been trying to put out alternative proposals,” Mr Giam, who joined WP in 2009, added.
“But I think now that we have more MPs in Parliament, and we have more volunteers helping us out in policy research, it enables us to venture into more areas of governance, to propose alternatives.”
MORE POTENTIAL CANDIDATES?
The policy research team is where many of the WP’s sitting MPs were uncovered, including Mr Giam’s team mate Mr Perera, a business consultant, and Sengkang MPs He Ting Ru, a lawyer, and Economics Professor Jamus Lim.
Does the increase in numbers mean that WP will have more potential candidates to choose from in the future?
“We want to be able to not just grow our ranks, but improve the quality of our ranks,” he said, adding that the party’s aspirations, in the medium term, are to be able to field enough candidates to contest more than a third of the seats in Parliament.
“That's the next threshold that we need to reach in order to provide a better check against the Government.
“Having 10 MPs, or having six MPs makes no difference in terms of our ability to check the Government in Parliament, because laws can still be passed with the PAP super-majority.”
Singapore’s 14th Parliament has 93 elected MPs, 83 from the PAP and 10 from WP, with two NCMPs from the Progress Singapore Party.
If the WP holds at least a third of the seats in Parliament, the Government would have to consult the party on constitutional changes - which requires a two-thirds majority to pass, he said.
“Whether we can do that in the next election, I don't know. It depends a lot on the quality of candidates that we can get on board. We don't want to compromise on that.”