Straits Times: Team Opposition carves out the turf

INSIGHT SATURDAY

PART 1 EYE ON THE OPPOSITION

In the first of a three-part special on the electoral landscape, Insight finds out the tactics and targets of the opposition camp

BY SUE-ANN CHIA & PEH SHING HUEI

ONE Saturday two months ago, two men, their faces beaded with sweat, knocked on Madam Rita Kalwani’s door. They had on sky-blue polo T-shirts with a small hammer logo. One of them, Mr Tan Wui-Hua, pulled out his name card and pressed a copy of The Hammer into her hands.

“Why are you here?” asked Madam Kalwani, 49, an assistant physiotherapist. “I thought Workers’ Party only focused on Hougang.”

Hougang, led by WP’s secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, may be the party’s sole domain for now but the party is not content with just one seat come the next General Election. Hence, the visit by those two men and many more party members every week, to hundreds of homes scattered islandwide.

The stop at Mdm Kalwani’s though was not random. Her estate is just next to Hougang and comes under Aljunied GRC.

The WP is hungry for the GRC.

As Mr Tan told her that morning: “The pie is big enough for all of us.”

Which way to slice the pie and how to enlarge their share are delicious obsessions of opposition parties these days as they get into election mode.

Just what are they up against? For a start, a People’s Action Party (PAP) which took 82 out of 84 seats in the 2001 polls, vacuuming up 75.3 per cent of the votes, a 10 percentage-point increase from 1997.

WP’s Yaw Shin Leong, 29, concedes: “We are facing veteran warriors. Compared to them, we are still young in battle experience.”

Still, the opposition is gearing up for what it hopes will be a good fight against the PAP which goes to the next electoral battle with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the helm.

In the opposition camp, there are new faces. Youth wings have sprouted. Workloads have been assigned, areas have been carved out. Members have been spotted at hawker centres, heartland malls, or doing house-to-house visits every weekend.

Among the three major parties – the WP, the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) – the WP’s hammer seems to be aiming for the most number of hits this election.

It is the opposition party to watch.

Election pie

DR POH Lee Guan, 44, is no stranger to Nee Soon. The WP’s first assistant secretary-general grew up in the area and contested and lost at Nee Soon East in 2001.

But he has been pounding the streets there during the last three years.

The WP has just set up committees to divvy up the battleground: into the Northern, East and GRC area committees.

Dr Poh, a senior business management lecturer, chairs the Northern Area Committee. veteran Tan Bin Seng heads the East and WP chairman Sylvia Lim leads the GRC Area Committee which is looking at Aljunied GRC and Hougang.

Steering clear of the spotlight, the party’s key office-holders declined comment. Several insiders, however, did let on details even if no one would give firm numbers on membership, circulation of The Hammer and other party updates.

Compared to the WP, the other parties appear less aggressive and less organised in their outreach activities.

The SDA, which comprises four parties and is led by Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong, goes on almost weekly walkabouts in places such as Tampines, Hong Kah, Whampoa, Bendemeer, Chua Chu Kang and MacPherson.

“We have covered most of the areas that we planned to contest and we are really well-prepared for any snap election if any,” says Mr Desmond Lim of the SDA.

The alliance includes Mr Chiam’s Singapore People’s Party (SPP), National Solidarity Party (NSP), Singapore Justice Party, and the Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS).

If the WP is an “A” in terms of readiness and the SDA is a “B”, the SDP, led by Dr Chee Soon Juan, would be a dismal “C”.

The SDP – which won three seats in the 1991 polls – has been fairly quiet, save for the sporadic selling of its newsletter, The Democrat. It unveiled a new website recently and four new faces joined its central executive committee (CEC) last month. But Dr Chee has not been spotted working the ground. One likely reason is that he cannot contest in the next elections, due by 2007.

He was fined $4,500 for speaking on religion at the Speakers’ Corner in 2002. Those fined at least $2,000 cannot run for elections for five years.

But a couple of SDP members like old-timer Wong Hong Toy and Christopher Neo are soldiering on. They visit the Jurong area with a few comrades every weekend. Says Mr Wong: “We go around to hawker centres and coffee shops every weekend to make sure they recognise our faces.”

The hot spots

THE biggest showdown could be in Aljunied GRC. WP chairman Sylvia Lim, 40, a first-time candidate, could lead the party’s “A” team to challenge Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo’s group.

The WP team tried to make a bid for Aljunied in 2001. But a botch-up with its nomination papers disqualified it.

Researcher James Gomez, who led the 2001 team, is expected to join Ms Lim in the GRC again. The other candidates could be Mr Tan Wui-Hua, the party treasurer who is a chief financial officer, and new CEC member and computer sales businessman Goh Meng Seng.

With Mr Low’s Hougang ward encircled by the Aljunied GRC, the party is hoping that support for him could spill over to the GRC and help it land the much-coveted GRC.

Concedes a PAP MP who declined to be named: “It makes sense for the WP to target Aljunied. It can capitalise on Mr Low’s popularity in that area.”

The WP’s other team, which could be a younger one headed by newcomer and lawyer Chia Ti Lik, 32, is eyeing Sembawang GRC. A few factors make it a GRC with appeal.

One, long-time anchor man, Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan, is expected to step down. Second, the GRC has not been tested for 17 years. The last time, in 1988, the late Harbans Singh’s team, despite not being taken seriously, won nearly 30 per cent of the votes.

But hotter action in the north could well be in the single-seat ward of Nee Soon East. Dr Poh is expected to head there again, provided PAP incumbent, Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee, keeps his promise – made during the last GE – to keep it a single seat.

Insiders also say that medical doctor Tan Bin Seng, who heads the party’s East Area Committee, is surveying the Joo Chiat single-seat ward of PAP’s Mr Chan Soo Sen.

While the WP is training its sights mostly on the north-east, the others are marking their own territories – the SDP in the west and the SDA in the south-east. While they may formalise a pact later, for now, there is a tacit understanding not to stray into one another’s turf.

Most of the SDA’s attention is on the south-eastern zones of Potong Pasir and nearby Jalan Besar GRC, as well as Tampines GRC – all areas it vied for in 2001.

Mr Chiam, 69, has said he will go for his sixth win at Potong Pasir. He’s upping his house-to-house visits and throwing more block parties, sources say.

NSP secretary-general Steve Chia intends to go west again. His target: Chua Chu Kang, where he scored enough votes to be the highest-scoring opposition loser in 2001. He works the ground there twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

In case the electoral carpet gets pulled under him, he’s also sniffing out neighbouring Hong Kah GRC. “We don’t know how the electoral boundaries will change,” he says.

New blood and renewal

AT 31, Mr Martin Lee is NSP’s youngest member. The car dealer was Mr Chia’s election agent in the 2001 polls and joined the party shortly after.

Asked about the fabled fears people have about joining the opposition, he retorts: “What’s there to be afraid? We are all Singaporeans, not terrorists. We want to make things better for the country.”

Mr Lee typifies the new emerging profile in the opposition camp: Young, outspoken.

Party sources, however, say it’s still an uphill struggle winning new converts.

The NSP has brought in fewer than five newbies over the past year, including a software engineer.

The SPP has at least one new member, who is now in its CEC. Mr Elvin Ong, 27, is a final-year polytechnic student.

Renewal over at SDP seems to be at snail’s pace, even with a new CEC line-up that has four new faces. Mr Christopher Neo is a crossover from NSP. The other three have been with it for four or more years.

By far, the WP has been the most successful at reeling in young members. It recently set up a youth wing.

The party has also drawn the likes of lawyer Chia Ti Lik, once a Young PAP member, and computer businessman Goh Meng Seng, 35. Both are in the new CEC.

Ms Jean Conceicao, an Institute of Policy Studies research fellow who studies civil society, is among those who have noticed the growing prominence of WP on the ground, especially the younger professionals joining its activities. “Whether this is enough and translates into votes in the next elections is another question,” she says.

Team Opposition is hoping the answer is yes.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AARON LOW


New faces in the opposition


FRESH BLOOD: Newcomers (from left) lawyer Chia Ti Lik, 32, and computer retailer Goh Meng Seng, 35, of the Workers’ Party; and car dealer Martin Lee, 31, of the National Solidarity Party.