Singapore GE2020: New Sengkang GRC springs some surprises

Sengkang resident Jean Ling, 42, is still thinking about which party to vote for when she heads to the polls on Friday.

The bank secretary and mother of two is happy with the new amenities in her Anchorvale neighbourhood, managed by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). But when she thinks about her children’s future – her elder daughter is sitting the PSLE this year – some of the Workers’ Party’s (WP) proposals strike a chord. These include giving children the option to bypass the PSLE, a high-stakes national exam for 12-year-olds, and more support for the elderly.

“My dad is a cleaner. At almost 80, he is still working. He cannot rely on us because we have kids too,” she said.

Sengkang, a new four-member GRC, has 120,166 voters. Many of them, like Ms Ling, seem not to have made up their minds. These swing voters are the ones the PAP and WP hope to win over in the final days of campaigning. Candidates have raced door to door and held e-rallies to get their messages out.

As the tide of support for both parties ebbs and flows during the campaign, Sengkang GRC has come to be seen as a hot battleground.

More recently, the WP has been hit by news of police investigations into its new candidate Raeesah Khan for offences including that of promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race.

What impact could this have?

The group representation constituency is located in the north-eastern part of Singapore, where the WP has long walked the ground. Bounded by Tampines Expressway, Sengkang East Avenue, Buangkok Drive and two rivers, it is also near WP-held Hougang SMC and Aljunied GRC.

As a new GRC, Sengkang sizzles with what political observer Mustafa Izzuddin calls the “unpredictability factor” – it is unclear how its residents will vote.

HOTTER THAN EAST COAST?

When the election was called just over a fortnight ago, the WP’s best shot at winning a second GRC – besides Aljunied – looked to be in East Coast GRC, where the opposition party won 45.17 per cent of vote in 2011 and 39.27 per cent in 2015.

But that appeared to change on Nomination Day last week. In a surprise move, the PAP deployed Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat from Tampines GRC to head the East Coast GRC team.

Said former PAP MP Inderjit Singh: “When Mr Heng moved to East Coast, people felt there was little chance of the WP winning that GRC, so the attention shifted to the WP’s next-strongest team.”

That “next-strongest” WP team is its slate for Sengkang GRC, where its star candidate is economics professor Jamus Lim, 44, who won praise for how he handled himself in a televised debate last week that included Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan and Progress Singapore Party’s Mr Francis Yuen.

Prof Lim’s performance on television, Mr Singh said, has drawn attention to the high quality of candidates fielded by the WP.

Also on the WP slate for Sengkang GRC are lawyer He Ting Ru, 37, social enterprise founder Raeesah, 26, and equity research analyst Louis Chua, 33. Only Ms He has election experience, having been part of the WP team for Marine Parade GRC in 2015.

They are up against a PAP team led by Minister and labour chief Ng Chee Meng, 51, a former fighter pilot and chief of defence force. Standing with him are Senior Minister of State for Transport and Health Lam Pin Min, 50, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and Health Amrin Amin, 41, and new face Raymond Lye, 54, a lawyer with years of grassroots experience.

Some political watchers believe the WP is treating Sengkang GRC as a “training ground” for newer candidates and that it does not expect to win, but has its eyes on longer-term goals such as the next election.

Dr Mustafa, a senior international affairs analyst with management consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore, said the WP sent stronger candidates to defend Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC, and to try and wrest East Coast GRC from the PAP.

Still, the PAP is taking no chances and its candidates expect a tough fight. Last weekend, the party’s big guns helped to drum up support for its Sengkang team.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a guest appearance at a live webinar on the candidates’ plans for Sengkang GRC. The next day, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean joined Mr Ng and Mr Lye on a walkabout in Rivervale Plaza.

Candidates from both sides have been on the ground every day of the campaign. Day seven, for example, saw Mr Ng doing house visits in the morning, then swinging by Anchorvale 303 Foodcourt at lunchtime to greet residents and refuel with a plate of char kway teow.

“We had very good interactions this morning with different residents,” he told reporters.

His teammate, Mr Amrin, was at the same foodcourt earlier in the day. He spoke a few words in Mandarin to ask residents for their support, before exclaiming “huat ah”, a Hokkien phrase used to call forth good fortune.

After lunch, they went on more block visits, with Mr Ng jogging from door to door.

As for the WP team, they have been joined by former Punggol East MP Lee Li Lian during their walkabouts. In one Facebook post, she wrote that they were greeted with smiles and fist bumps and words of encouragement such as “jia you” (Mandarin for “fight on”).

THE RAEESAH KHAN FACTOR

The unexpected turn in the Sengkang contest has been the news of a police investigation into the alleged online comments by Ms Raeesah.

On Sunday, she apologised for making “insensitive” and “improper” remarks in two Facebook posts – one in February 2018 and the other in May this year. She had suggested that police officers discriminated against citizens, and that rich Chinese and white people were treated differently under the law. She also said minorities and mosque leaders were given different treatment compared with church leaders.

The incident raises the question of how much this will weigh on the minds of voters.

Political science don Bilveer Singh expects the controversy to tip the scales in favour of the PAP as such posts “are unacceptable to Singaporeans in general”.

“Many would also consider the posts, unfortunately, by a minority candidate, as being anti-Chinese and anti-Christian,” he said.

Several residents took issue with Ms Raeesah’s comments. Painter Lim Heok Chiang, 65, said: “If you are a political figure, you need to choose your words carefully.”

Others such as a retired businessman who wanted to be known only as Mr Lim, 72, said that Ms Raeesah should be forgiven because she is young and had apologised.

Resident and research scientist David Tan, 31, said the incident could cost the PAP votes: “It seems part of a move to enforce a sanitised version of racial harmony, where people avoid talking about issues in the name of harmony.”

NEW AND UNPREDICTABLE

Unlike established GRCs, Sengkang lacks a track record of how its voters have polled. It was formed by combining the Sengkang Central ward from Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC with the single seat of Punggol East, and part of Sengkang West SMC.

In 2015, the PAP wrested Punggol East SMC back from the WP with a narrow win of 51.77 per cent of the votes. Sengkang West saw Dr Lam win with 62.13 per cent of the votes.

Most Sengkang GRC residents live in four-room Housing Board flats or larger. More than 60 per cent are aged below 45, and over one in 20 is younger than five – both above the national rates.

Sengkang may have a relatively younger demographic, but the usual bread-and-butter and municipal issues weigh on residents’ minds.

Housewife Usha Pravin, 47, said she will be listening out for what the parties have to say on job security for Singaporeans.

“There is very little certainty for contract workers and we can plan for our future only two years at a time,” said Madam Usha, whose husband is a contract worker in the information technology industry.

Locksmith Jimmy You, 48, plans to vote for the PAP because he thinks it will be able to support the economy during the Covid-19 crisis: “I still have confidence in the Government. It handled Covid-19 pretty well. You need a leader you can trust.”

Dr Mustafa thinks the WP fielded younger candidates in Sengkang to appeal to the area’s relatively younger voters.

Ms Raeesah has spoken up on issues that concern young voters, such as climate change and social equality.

Research scientist Mr Tan said that while he was concerned about the cost of living, he was also looking for what parties have to say on public transport and the environment. He wants to see a stronger push towards improving infrastructure for cyclists.

“As for environmental issues, the Cross Island Line has taught us that even the nature reserves are not as protected as we think they are,” said Mr Tan, who has written to Dr Lam on the matter.

A resident who wished to be known only as Mr Khoo, 29, said he liked the WP’s proposal to lower the minimum age for singles to buy a two-room Build-To-Order flat from 35 to 28.

Fellow resident Aidil Ahmad, 35, wants more diverse voices in Parliament: “I am not saying that the PAP is not doing its job for the citizens.”

Added the father of two who works in oil and gas: “But to have other voices in Parliament will make a difference.”

Proposals by opposition parties may sound attractive, but PAP politicians have suggested that plans are just plans. “Execution is important and the follow-through is important. I think we have a good track record and we have been on the ground,” Mr Amrin said last week.

The PAP’s Sengkang team has pointed out that it is in a good position to help residents with jobs, given Mr Ng’s experience as NTUC secretary-general.

They are also emphasising their experience and good track record in managing a town council.

Last week, the PAP said it would set up a new town council in Sengkang GRC within three months if its candidates are elected. Its plans include more playgrounds, senior activity centres, fitness zones, barrier-free access routes, covered linkways and community gardens. Lifts would also be upgraded with better safety features.

The PAP team also promised to engage residents while crafting their plans for the town, calling this approach “Sengkang Together”.

At a media interview yesterday, the WP also said that setting up a town council would be a priority if the party is elected.

Ms He said the team has been working hard on the ground and having deep and meaningful conversations with residents.

She added that the residents are very concerned about livelihoods and the cost of living in the light of the pandemic. She has also assured them that WP MPs have experience running town councils.

TOO EARLY TO CALL?

With two days to Polling Day, former PAP MP for Punggol East Charles Chong thinks it is still too early to get a good reading of the ground, although Mr Inderjit Singh and Dr Bilveer Singh think otherwise.

But as Mr Chong maintained: “If you want to sense the actual mood, you do it on Cooling-off Day, when there’s no more campaigning.”

That would be tomorrow, the eve of the vote, which is designated by law as Cooling-off Day.

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