From the site of a historic opposition victory in 2011 to the scene of a nail-biting near-loss for the Workers’ Party’s A team in 2015, Aljunied GRC has been in the heat of battle for two elections running and looks set to be so again.
This time, the incumbents will be heading to the polls without their stalwart, former leader Low Thia Khiang, and the WP’s star catch of 2011, Mr Chen Show Mao. Both are stepping down; Mr Low – who is recovering from a fall – after 29 years as an opposition Member of Parliament, first as the MP for Hougang and then as leader of the Aljunied GRC team.
Taking no chances, given the razor-thin 50.95 per cent share of the vote that it won by, the WP has decided to field its A team of party chief Pritam Singh, party chairman Sylvia Lim, Mr Faisal Manap and two seasoned Non-Constituency MPs, Mr Leon Perera and Mr Gerald Giam, in Aljunied GRC.
Under its new leader, Mr Singh, the WP appears to be putting emphasis on holding on to its sole group representation constituency, ahead of growing the party’s reach by fielding some of its seasoned hands elsewhere.
For the People’s Action Party, this is a chance to regain the only opposition-held GRC before the 4G leadership takes over the reins.
« I believe PAP wants to go all out to win back Aljunied, as they are seeking a strong mandate to legitimise the 4G leadership for the next phase for Singapore, » says former PAP MP Inderjit Singh.
Even so, the party appears to be fielding the same team as in 2015, with the exception of two new faces. Few expect it to send in one of the party’s big guns to take on the WP team.
For the WP, losing Aljunied under its new leader could mean an electoral wipeout with almost no elected opposition seats in Parliament, barring its Hougang stronghold, assuming no other opposition party snatches a seat from the ruling party elsewhere.
This is a scenario the WP has repeatedly urged voters to avoid. Having elected opposition MPs, it says, will improve the sensitivity of the Government to citizens’ concerns and serve as a check and balance on the ruling PAP. It will also build up opposition members to be effective parliamentarians and town councillors.
Mr Pritam Singh, 43, said there should be at least a third of elected seats in opposition hands, « regardless (of) which party is running the country and which party or parties are in the opposition », so that the ruling party cannot change the Constitution at will. Amendments to Singapore’s Constitution require a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who just announced his retirement as MP, has called the opposition’s narrative of parliamentary checks and balances a « seductive lie ».
The check comes from within, or the « integrity of the leadership in PAP », he said during an unveiling of party candidates for the 2015 General Election. « For many years, the PAP was the only party in Parliament. Had the PAP gone corrupt in those years? »
Conversely, it is the integrity of the WP leadership that the PAP has called into question. The High Court found last October that Mr Pritam Singh, Ms Lim and Mr Low had breached their duties towards Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC), said to have made millions in improper payments under their watch.
The High Court judge found that the Aljunied GRC MPs had acted dishonestly in awarding a managing agent contract to one of their supporters without calling for a tender. They had thereby put their own political interests ahead of that of residents under their charge, the judge said.
They have appealed against the ruling.
AHTC turned in an unqualified financial statement, where auditors concluded that the town council’s affairs had been presented fairly in all aspects, this year.
Mr Inderjit Singh says: « The AHTC issue likely eroded some votes among older residents and won some sympathy votes among the younger residents. So on balance, I don’t see it making a huge difference. »
THE COVID-19 FACTOR
Just as the PAP’s 2011 loss of Aljunied came on the back of wider public unhappiness over issues such as the cost of living and frequent train breakdowns, analysts say the GRC could again become a proxy national referendum on government policies.
This time, they say, it is jobs and the economy, both of which have taken a hit due to the Covid-19 pandemic, that weigh on voters’ minds.
The Singapore economy is expected to shrink by up to 7 per cent this year, making it the worst recession since independence in 1965. Total employment registered its sharpest-ever quarterly decline in the first quarter of this year.
National University of Singapore associate political professor Bilveer Singh says Covid-19 is « political, economic and social – there’s nothing that it does not touch ».
Voters, he says, will consider whether the Government has done enough to support Singaporeans during the pandemic, where it may have dropped the ball, and what it may do when the pandemic is over, such as raising taxes.
The Government has stressed that saving jobs and creating better ones are its top priority. It has pulled out all the stops with $93 billion worth of Covid-19 support measures across four Budgets, which could draw up to $52 billion in past reserves.
Key initiatives include the Jobs Support Scheme to subsidise wages and help firms retain workers, and the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package to create 100,000 vacancies, traineeships and skills training places over the next 12 months.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has said the impending hike in goods and services tax will not take place next year, but will have to be done before 2025. He repeated previous pledges that financial packages would be implemented to help people, especially the less well-off, cope with the tax, as had been done before.
SIM Global Education associate lecturer Felix Tan thinks bread-and-butter issues will prevail in Aljunied GRC.
« Most Singaporeans are pragmatic, » he says. « In times of a crisis, voters will be a bit more cautious and will likely gravitate towards a party that is better able to meet their needs. »
A case in point is the 2001 General Election, which took place amid a recession and rising security concerns in the wake of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.
The PAP won comfortably with walkovers in 55 out of 84 seats, garnering 75.3 per cent of the vote, an increase from the 65 per cent achieved in the 1997 General Election.
Yet, with economic pain being felt from job and wage cuts, and more looming on the horizon, anxious voters might also signal their unhappiness with their votes.
Then, there is also the Low Thia Khiang factor, says Prof Bilveer Singh, pointing to the former WP chief’s iconic stature in opposition politics in Singapore.
He says that while the 63-year-old Mr Low will not contest the election, he could give the WP team in Aljunied a boost by simply making an appearance. Voters might be moved to ensure his legacy of winning a GRC for the opposition is not wiped out should the WP fail to hold on to the seat this time.
Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin says Mr Low’s personality and his background resonate with Hougang and Aljunied residents. « For people who have voted for him because he speaks their language and is very much their kind of man, it is going to be a lasting influence. »
The WP announced last Thursday that Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, 49, and former NCMP Gerald Giam, 42, will replace Mr Low and Mr Chen, 59, in its Aljunied team.
Rounding off the slate are Mr Pritam Singh, Ms Lim, 55, and Mr Faisal, 45, all familiar faces to the residents there. The WP chief said last Friday that he did not rule out Mr Low supporting the campaign in « one way or another ».
Mr Perera and Mr Giam were part of the WP team that contested East Coast GRC in the 2015 General Election and are seen as key members of the WP’s next-generation leadership.
Hoping to rewrite electoral history this year in the PAP camp are artificial intelligence fintech chief executive Victor Lye, 58; lawyer Alex Yeo, 41; marketing director Chan Hui Yuh, 44; bank executive Chua Eng Leong, 48; and Centre for Domestic Employees executive director Shamsul Kamar, 48.
Ms Chan did not stand in the last election but has been active in the Serangoon ward since 2014. Mr Yeo was appointed to Paya Lebar in 2017, after his predecessor Murali Pillai was elected MP for Bukit Batok in a 2016 by-election.
The team is likely to remain intact, although last-minute swops cannot be ruled out. In 2015, veteran MP Yeo Guat Kwang, who served four terms in office – one of them in Aljunied – replaced Ms Chan just two weeks before the election, when she pulled out due to family commitments.
Former Cabinet minister Lim Boon Heng has been advising the candidates and making the rounds with them.
This would not be the first time a political veteran has been roped in. In 2011, Mr George Yeo brought in Mr Chin Harn Tong and Mr Sidek Saniff, both former MPs for Aljunied GRC, to speak at stadium rallies.
Formed in 1988 by absorbing the then Aljunied, Kampong Kembangan and Kampong Ubi single-member constituencies, Aljunied GRC today comprises a large part of Hougang, Paya Lebar, Serangoon Gardens, Serangoon North, Bedok and a sliver of Tampines.
Home to 151,007 voters, it was the closest fought GRC in 2015, with a result close enough to trigger a recount that went into the wee hours of the morning.
It was not the WP, but the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) that was the first opposition party to set its sights on the GRC.
Led by Mr Jufrie Mahmood, a well-known opposition figure in the 1980s and 1990s, the SDP won 43.67 per cent of the popular vote in the 1988 election. It would return to Aljunied nine years later, but with a lower vote share of 33 per cent against the PAP’s 67 per cent.
The PAP cemented its grip on Aljunied over the next eight years, picking up along the way wards that had strong opposition support, such as the Eunos and Kaki Bukit wards of Eunos GRC in 1997, and Punggol East and Punggol South in Cheng San GRC in 2001.
A last-minute bungle with incomplete nomination papers disqualified the WP from contesting the GRC in 2001.
The party returned to the fray in 2006 in what was dubbed a clash of the female Lims: PAP’s Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, then the highest-ranked woman holding the transport and finance portfolios in government and head of its Women’s Wing, versus WP’s Sylvia Lim, the first woman to chair an opposition party, in her maiden electoral outing.
The PAP team won with 56.1 per cent of the votes to the WP’s 43.9 per cent – the ruling party’s narrowest win in a GRC that year.
More changes were made to voter districts ahead of GE2011. Over 20,000 voters originally in Aljunied were rezoned to Ang Mo Kio GRC, and some to Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.
Unhappy with what he charged was the PAP’s gerrymandering, Mr Low decided to raise the stakes.
The respected Teochew-speaking WP chief left his stronghold of Hougang for the first time in the 20 years since being elected MP, to lead the charge in neighbouring Aljunied. Explaining his decision to the media at the time, he said: « There was the Cheng San GRC and what happened to it? We have to break through a GRC and let (the PAP) learn a lesson. »
The high-stakes gamble was rewarded with six seats in Parliament – the first time since 1966 that there had been six elected opposition members and besting the record of four seats in 1991.
Four PAP big guns in the GRC lost: Mr Yeo, Mrs Lim, Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed, who was touted as the next Speaker of Parliament, and Mr Ong Ye Kung – who contested and won in 2015 as part of the Sembawang GRC team and is a member of the 4G leadership.
In 2015, the PAP team comprising veteran MP Yeo Guat Kwang, Mr Lye, Mr Chua Eng Leong, Mr Shamsul Kamar and Mr Murali lost to the WP by a razor-thin margin with 49.05 per cent of the vote share – an improvement over the 45.3 per cent of four years earlier.
The Aljunied GRC result, which is expected to be close, turns on these questions: Will the WP’s A team, comprising its top leaders and some new faces, resonate with the residents of Aljunied, now that Mr Low has called time on his political career?
Will they lean towards the PAP, which has unleashed massive fiscal firepower in recent months to protect lives and jobs, and promises a steady hand to steer the country through choppy waters? Or will they vote for a strong opposition in the belief that the PAP will be returned to power in any case?