Singapore GE2020: Stakes are high for Workers' Party in Aljunied GRC

Former Workers’ Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang should be taking it slow.

Still on medical leave, he has not fully healed after a fall at home in April. But since the start of the campaign period, the popular politician has been spotted at hawker centres and wet markets with his party’s Aljunied GRC team to greet voters.

The 62-year-old is a draw for residents, and is stopped every few steps for selfies and chats.

Party activists guard him zealously on these walkabouts. Another fall could prove fatal, and there is the coronavirus to contend with.

But these are dangers that have to be risked, as the retired stalwart lends his star power to the WP team defending the party’s home turf.

The stakes are high for Singapore’s leading opposition party this election. With Mr Low having handed the reins to his successor Pritam Singh, 43, two years ago, the election will be seen as a referendum on the younger man’s leadership.

Aljunied GRC was won with the slimmest of margins among all constituencies in the last election, with the WP barely holding on to it with 50.95 per cent of the vote.

Four years earlier, it had wrested control of the group representation constituency from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and became the only opposition party in Parliament, with six seats.

A hat-trick on Friday would speak volumes for the party’s future, not least because Mr Singh himself and party chairman Sylvia Lim, 55, are standing for election there.

The team will be without two veterans, with both Mr Low and Mr Chen Show Mao, 59, having stepped down. The A team now comprises Mr Singh, Ms Lim, fellow two-term Aljunied teammate Faisal Manap, 45, as well as Mr Gerald Giam, 42, and Mr Leon Perera, 49, both Non-Constituency MPs (NCMP) before.

Leveraging Singaporeans’ desire for alternative views in Parliament, both the PAP and WP have made the issue of political representation a key part of their message.

The PAP has stressed that with the NCMP scheme, people can vote for the party and still have up to 12 opposition MPs in Parliament with full voting rights on Bills.

The WP has countered that NCMPs have no bite, as they lack constituency representation and town council responsibilities and resources. The party has asked people to “make your vote count”, promising to provide a check on the Government in Parliament.

Mr Perera has even argued that voters are better off voting for the opposition, because the PAP candidate remains as grassroots adviser to help implement government-funded constituency projects.

These messages from the WP seem to have resonated with retiree Tan Ah Lik, 83. The former delivery man has been a supporter of the PAP most of his life, but feels he has fallen through the cracks.

He is particularly unhappy about how life has become harder in the last two years with living costs going up, and now Covid-19 wreaking havoc on the economy.

At Sin Hin Eating House on Sunday, as his friends nod in agreement next to him, he tells The Straits Times in Mandarin: “We haven’t even enjoyed our retirement, and now the Government is asking us to share weal and woe?”

Mr Tan notices the PAP’s charge is not led by an anchor minister. “The five PAP candidates are very hard-working, but what’s the use? We are like a disowned child, they have given up on us,” he says.

Analysts say the PAP wants to avoid a repeat of 2011 when the party lost four big guns with the GRC: foreign minister George Yeo, minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Lim Hwee Hua, Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed, who might have become the next Speaker of Parliament, and Mr Ong Ye Kung. Mr Ong won in 2015 in Sembawang GRC and is part of the fourth-generation leadership.

“I think the PAP sees the WP as a good opponent that it can live with. It’s a case of rather the devil I know than one I don’t,” says the National University of Singapore’s political science don Bilveer Singh.

“But the fact that Mr Low has retired from politics, together with (long-time party stalwart) Mr Png Eng Huat, means that the WP has become, relatively speaking, a weak team. Hence, the WP would be able to demonstrate and showcase Singapore’s democracy in a way that would not threaten the PAP.”

The image of a moderate, responsible opposition party is something the WP has sought to convey, holding back from harsh criticism of the Government. Instead, it has proposed policies on a range of issues, from having a national minimum wage to unemployment insurance.

“We’ve created a sort of culture within the party of an opposition that is credible. Not just locally, but internationally as well,” Mr Singh told the media last week.

The message resonates with ship broker Vicent Low, 67. He says he is happy with a PAP government, but appreciates having the WP bring up issues in Parliament that may otherwise not receive an airing.

“It’s good that they provide a check and balance and challenge policies,” he adds.

But the moderation does not sit well with other constituents. Mr Richard Tan, 68, says the party’s “timid” performance in Parliament falls short of its “fearsome” campaign talk, emphasising he wants not just talk, but also results.

So even as the fight for credibility goes on at the national level, local needs cannot wait, say analysts.

“All elections are local. Singaporean voters are smart, and whoever is elected has to do their job on the ground,” says former Nominated MP and political observer Zulkifli Baharudin.

On this count, he says, it is hard for the PAP to argue the WP has failed in its estate maintenance duties – especially if “the lifts work and there is no issue with cleanliness”.

But there are residents like Mr Jonathan Seow, who lives in Kaki Bukit, who expect more.

The 48-year-old, who works in the construction industry, says, gesticulating: “Did they do their work? You can see. The rats are so big even the cats are scared. We can see who has taken care of us, especially during this Covid-19 crisis.”

Still, another factor working in the WP’s favour is that Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) finally turned in a financial statement last year that drew an unqualified report from the auditor, who concluded the town council’s affairs had been presented fairly in all aspects.

The town council also scored well on corporate governance, which measures compliance with the law.

It took the party eight years, from 2011, to get the town council’s books in order. In that time, it underwent a special audit by the Auditor-General’s Office, and was also ordered to appoint a Big Four accounting firm to resolve financial and governance lapses.

But the WP’s problems with AHTC have not been fully resolved. Last October, the High Court found that Mr Singh, Ms Lim and Mr Low had breached their duties towards AHTC, in a lawsuit brought by AHTC against the trio and other town councillors over improper payments of up to $33 million.

The judge found that Ms Lim and Mr Low had acted dishonestly in awarding a managing agent contract to a supporter without calling a tender and, in doing so, had put their own political interests above the interests of their residents.

Mr Singh, meanwhile, was found to have breached his duty of skill and care in another contract involving third-party contractors for architectural consultancy services.

They have all appealed against the ruling.

The party has sent out a 32-page newsletter to explain its current financial position to all Aljunied GRC residents, highlighting that it had accumulated a surplus of $7.9 million and a balance of $53 million in its sinking funds. It has also started upgrading works in its estates.

Kaki Bukit resident Long Jin Yu, 56, director of a micro-SME, says the town council’s service is good.

“When I call up AHTC, they are really nice, they respond to you, and if they cannot answer your question, they will get back to you. When I called the previous town council, nothing happened, and the people were quite obnoxious,” she says.

The WP has home-ground advantage, Mr Zulkifli says. “It’s quite difficult to dispossess the party when it has grown a base and planted roots there. All that the PAP can do is to try and do a better job – which is hard when it is not elected. The only way it can win back voters is to remain engaged and work the ground.”

This, the PAP team in the GRC says, it has done through community outreach and infrastructure upgrading programmes – from grocery distribution and meal vouchers for students and the needy, to sheltered walkways, mobile clinics and the Home Improvement Programme for Housing Board flats.

Eunos division’s Mr Chua Eng Leong, 48, says all this shows his party is serious about winning. “Aljunied has not been left behind. It has been improving and we haven’t shied away from our responsibility,” he said last week.

Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh thinks the PAP will want to win Aljunied in order to secure a strong mandate. “Their candidates have been working hard and have done a lot for residents as advisers of the constituency,” he says.

But will their efforts move the needle for residents?

With just two more days to the polls, voters in Aljunied must examine if having the WP as “just an alternative voice and supporting checks and balances” is enough to tide them over this unprecedented crisis, says SIM Global Education associate lecturer Felix Tan.

Countering this is the WP’s argument: that the election outcome is crucial for Singapore. With Aljunied being the opposition’s fortress, to lose it would be tantamount to handing the nation to the PAP.

On this, the people of Aljunied GRC will have the final say.

Singapore GE2020: Get full election coverage on our dedicated site here.

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