As opposition parties eye a new single member seat, a three-cornered fight looms in Marymount
SINGAPORE: Nestled in the north of Bishan, 23,439 registered voters sit in the new Marymount Single Member Constituency (SMC).
Bounded by Marymount Road, Ang Mo Kio Ave 1 and the southern fence of Catholic High School and Whitley Secondary School, the seat has been carved out of Bishan-Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency (GRC),and will likely set the scene for more than one opposition party to contest against the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) in Singapore's looming General Election.
As it stands, the new SMC consists mostly of areas under the Bishan North ward overseen by Manpower Minister and three-term PAP MP Josephine Teo, with its residents living across seven polling districts live in HDB flats spread out across from the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park at one end to the Shunfu neighbourhood and Sin Ming industrial estate, with pockets of landed homes and private condominiums in between.
Amenities include the Bishan North Shopping Mall, Shunfu Market, as well as Marymount MRT station. It is also in close proximity to Bishan MRT station and the upcoming Upper Thomson MRT station.
Following the announcement of new boundaries by the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) on Mar 13, two opposition parties have signalled that they are looking to field candidates in the constituency, with one saying “it’s a natural choice”. While also interested, the other needs the “blessings” of other parties in its alliance.
Explaining why the ward is a "natural choice" for the Singapore People’s Party (SPP), assistant secretary-general Ariffin Sha said Marymount was carved out from Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, where the party contested in the 2011 and 2015 general elections and “have been active on the ground”.
"We will serve the needs of the residents at the constituency level by ensuring competent management of the town council and taking care of their needs," he said of what the party can offer to residents.
"At a national level, we will serve as an effective check and balance on the Government," Mr Sha added.
Secretary-General of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Mohamad Hamim Aliyas similarly said that it’s looking to contest there, given that it is part of Bishan-Toa Payoh where he and former DPP party chief Benjamin Pwee stood in the 2015 GE under the SPP umbrella.
Six members of the party met on Mar 21, when they decided that the DPP would run in Marymount SMC, Kebun Baru SMC and Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.
The next step is for the party to secure buy-in from parties in the four-party opposition alliance - the Singaporeans First Party, Reform Party and the People’s Power Party.
Mr Hamim, who said that there are four members so far who have committed to running in the next GE, will focus on identifying, and assisting low-income residents in Marymount, making sure they have enough daily essentials to live on.
As for how he plans to serve the other residents, Mr Hamim said that he will raise the issue of the CPF withdrawal age if he enters Parliament, adding that the issue was regularly raised to him during walkabouts prior to the last hustings.
The DPP also has a long-term - "10 to 20 years from now" - economic plan for Singapore in the works that it will share with the alliance and the public when the election draws nearer, he said.
When asked whether he had been making the rounds in the estate, he replied: “frankly speaking, no”. But the party will start making the rounds soon, he said.
Based on his members’ feedback, he thinks that the ward’s cleanliness - specifically pointing out its drains - can be improved.
Both men declined to reveal who their parties intend to field in the ward, saying that more details will be released in due course.
Mrs Teo similarly declined to say if she will run in the SMC.
“We don’t know when GE will be called, but when the time comes, I seek residents’ continued support for the PAP team in Marymount,” she said, adding that the “foremost priority” is to look after the residents’ interests and needs.
"Within the boundaries of Marymount, there are amenities that residents value (such as) two community clubs, a hawker centre, a neighbourhood shopping mall. The Town Council is also likely to continue to cover Marymount SMC so service levels should be maintained," she said.
"I have spoken to my grassroots leaders who are glad they can continue to work together to support residents," she added. "They have many friends among the grassroots leaders in the rest of the GRC, and these bonds remain strong even when the boundaries have changed."
WHAT IMPROVEMENTS CAN BE MADE
Residents CNA spoke to said that they are generally happy with how the constituency has been managed. Void decks are clean and there are ample facilities such as parks and senior activities centres, they said.
Other amenities that could be added include community gardens and events organised for the residents, “given that (Shunfu) is quite isolated from the main Bishan area,” said public officer Tan Yan Liang, 35.
His wife, Annabelle Lee, 33, added that the infrastructure can be improved as well, given the many elderly residents she noticed in her neighbourhood.
While satisfied with the estate’s day-to-day operations, Chris Yap, 65, said that he is glad that the ward is now a single-seat constituency.
This means a better chance that he will get to choose among parties, he said, as opposition parties tend to gun for SMCs.
“I treasure the chance to voice my opinion,” Mr Yap said.
The retiree said that he is looking for someone who can “represent an alternative voice”, adding that there needs to be a greater diversity of opinions in Parliament because “that’s democracy at work”.
Mr Yap added that he would not be overly concerned if the ward were to be managed by the opposition.
Having moved to Shunfu a year and a half ago from Hougang SMC, Mr Yap said that Mr Png Eng Huat from the Workers' Party and his team had done a “good job” maintaining the estate.
WHY IS THE SMC POPULAR?
Political observers say there are two primary reasons why Marymount SMC is gearing up to be a hotly-contested seat in the next GE: its blank slate, and its size.
As a newly-created constituency, it would allow a new candidate to be fielded easily since there is “no historical baggage of an existing political leader there”, said Dr Felix Tan, an associate lecturer at the Singapore Institute of Management Global Education (SIM GE).
But given that Bishan-Toa Payoh has been helmed by “heavyweight” ministers, Singaporean voters, who tend to prioritise stability and security, might opt for some form of continuity “in order to reap the benefits that its former GRC has (brought), especially in town council management,” Dr Tan said.
READ: Smaller GRCs, more SMCs may boost GE contestability, a positive step for democracy in Singapore: Political observers
“Singaporeans have always traditionally been known to focus more on bread-and-butter issues,” he said. “Voters will generally gravitate towards those candidates that can provide voters with solutions to these issues.”
As a SMC, Marymount is also attractive to candidates because they are able to compete directly with one another, compared to a multi-member GRC where the strength of a strong candidate could be diluted by other teammates, said Singapore Management University (SMU) law professor Eugene Tan.
Unlike most other SMCs, Marymount also has a significant share of private housing, he added, which could appeal to candidates who feel that they better at connecting with voters from higher socio-economic backgrounds.
Using the 2015 General Household Survey as a proxy - the Marymount sub-zone covers a larger area and has a 31,540-resident counts - 22 per cent of residents live in condominiums, apartments and landed properties, compared to the national average of 18 per cent.
And SMU's Assoc Prof Tan expects more three-cornered fights in general, not just in Marymount. For example, political competition from the opposition could sharpen as there will be more Non-Constituency Member of Parliament seats up for grabs - from nine in the last elections to 12 this time round.
This raises the stakes, he said. Aside from turning to newly-carved constituencies, "some opposition leaders might see this as a good opportunity to be in Parliament."
"The seats that they perceive to be weaker for the PAP will attract a lot of interest and may result in a three-cornered fights."
However, SIM GE's Dr Tan said it is unlikely that these medium-sized opposition parties will prevail, as they cater to a "niche group" of residents, given their populist agenda and a "presence" that rests on personalities within the party with a larger followings.
His assessment, ultimately, was that voter support for the incumbent will largely remain unchanged, and that the opposition's impact will lie in contributing to multi-cornered fights, which could also dilute and shrink voter shares that each opposition party will eventually garner.