Singapore GE2020: Contest heats up in East Coast GRC

Four days into the hustings, East Coast GRC is feeling the heat.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) and Workers’ Party (WP) are clashing in East Coast for the fourth time, and – as in past polls-the contest is shaping up to be one to watch.

Shortly after the slates were finalised on Nomination Day on Tuesday, banners and posters began going up around the constituency of 121,772 voters, which stretches from Bedok to Changi Village and includes the island of Pulau Ubin.

On the same day, the five-member teams from both parties began canvassing for votes, even as perambulating lorries broadcast messages exhorting listeners to lend support to their party’s cause.

Over the past four days, candidates from both parties have been spotted in the markets, food centres and busy thoroughfares of Bedok and Simei, distributing fliers and party paraphernalia.

“We are here to get to know our residents better and to understand their concerns, as well as how the Budget measures have been helpful to them,” Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who leads the PAP team, said during a visit to Block 216 Market and Food Centre in Bedok North Street 1.

He was accompanied by retiring MP Lee Yi Shyan and new face Tan Kiat How, 43, former chief of the Infocomm Media Development Authority, who will take over Mr Lee’s Kampong Chai Chee ward if elected.

In a Nomination Day surprise, Mr Heng, 59, filed his papers for the PAP’s East Coast GRC team, in a tactical move aimed at ensuring the party strengthens its support there.

Mr Heng is the leader of the PAP’s fourth-generation team, poised to be Singapore’s next prime minister.

Said Ms Suzanne Er, a human resource professional in her 40s: “Now that Mr Heng has moved here, the PAP’s margins will definitely increase. He is a strong anchor for the team.”

For some voters, the PAP’s decision to dispatch Mr Heng to East Coast is seen as a sign that the party cares about their constituency.

“I was very happy to hear that he is coming here, because it feels like he is closer to us,” said 74-year-old Ms Caroline Lim, who took a picture with Mr Heng during his visit to the food centre yesterday morning. “I think he is a sincere man.”

But others, such as Mr Tan L.B., 71, remain unconvinced. “The PAP candidates are all the same, like sons from the same father,” the retiree said in Mandarin. “It doesn’t matter to me which of them stands here.”

He is more impressed by WP candidate Nicole Seah, 33, whom he described as speaking with “vigour”. “She is someone who has ideas of her own,” he said.

Ms Seah, an associate director in a multinational marketing firm, was the star candidate of the National Solidarity Party in the 2011 election, and has made a comeback in blue after sitting out the 2015 General Election.

For the July 10 election, the PAP’s East Coast GRC team includes Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman, 54; three-term backbencher Jessica Tan, 54; one-term Fengshan MP Cheryl Chan, 44, whose single seat has been absorbed into the GRC; as well as Mr Tan Kiat How.

The WP slate led by lawyer Terence Tan, 49, the party’s deputy organising secretary, also includes Mr Dylan Ng, 44, who works in finance; former researcher Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim, 54; Singapore Cancer Society deputy director Kenneth Foo, 43; and Ms Seah.

None of them has contested in East Coast before. But with the exception of Mr Abdul Shariff, all have cut their teeth in previous electoral contests. Mr Foo was fielded in Nee Soon GRC in 2015, while Mr Ng and Mr Terence Tan were in the team that contested Marine Parade GRC that year.

WP chief Pritam Singh believes the PAP’s decision to field Mr Heng in East Coast says something about the ruling party’s assessment of its opponents. “I think they see the slate as a very strong one, and they know they will have to fight hard for every vote, as is what the PAP always does in every election,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

The group representation constituency has been contested since 2006, when a PAP team led by then Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar got a comfortable 63.9 per cent of the vote.

In the 2011 election – which saw a nationwide swing against the PAP – the men in blue, up against a team led by then labour chief Lim Swee Say, got more support.

The PAP team won 54.8 per cent of the vote in a tough fight, with East Coast the worst-performing GRC won by the party that year.

In 2015, when the PAP won 69.9 per cent of the vote nationwide, its East Coast team got 60.7 per cent.

This year, the team is guarded about its prospects.

The PAP’s Mr Tan Kiat How said: “There’s a very strong sense of community, kampung spirit in East Coast and Kampong Chai Chee, where neighbours look after one another and care for one another. This spirit of care and community is something that is valuable, and I hope everyone takes care of one another during this period.”

Speaking to the media at a separate walkabout yesterday, the WP’s Ms Seah acknowledged that her team faces an uphill battle.

“What we need to do is to ensure the WP team continues to push very hard to make every vote count,” she said. “We recognise the very strong possibility that there is going to be a freak election result that might potentially wipe out the opposition, and especially all of the hard work and the ground that the WP has gained over the years.”

Mr Foo, the WP candidate, said the party’s interactions with East Coast residents show they are concerned with more than just local, constituency-level issues.

“They’ve gone beyond just thinking about wanting to have a nice place to stay,” he said.

“Now they’re thinking about national issues – whether they want the future prime minister, or if they want a strong opposition party in Parliament fighting for them.”

Several voters interviewed acknowledge this dilemma.

An East Coast resident who wanted to be known only as Mr Liu Y.Z. said Mr Heng’s presence on the ballot made a difference to him. “He is supposed to be the future prime minister, so it does make me think harder,” said the 31-year-old who works in the financial tech industry.

Political analysts said that the fight will be close.

“My sense is that the fence-sitting voters in East Coast will be split between the PAP and WP,” said Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst for management consultancy firm Solaris Strategies Singapore.

He believes the PAP has an edge, and its incumbent candidates have worked the ground well, but added that the WP will also perform well.

Dr Felix Tan, an associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said the WP has fielded a good team that will put up a strong fight.

But he added: “There is a very high likelihood that those who are sitting on the fence will be voting for the incumbent. The WP is facing an uphill task to make any inroads in this constituency.”

• Additional reporting by Jolene Ang

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