Friday 11 November 2011

What has changed and what hasn't, after GE 2011?

It has been six months since May's watershed general election.
Do voters detect change on the ground and nationally?
How are politicians trying to win over constituents ahead of their next electoral bout?
By Andrea Ong , Teo Wan Gek , Janice Heng & Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 11 Nov 2011

AMONG opposition voters who live in Aljunied GRC, the first to fall to an opposition party, the euphoria from General Election 2011 lingers.

When Insight visited the group representation constituency last week, five residents said the new Aljunied-Hougang Town Council cleaners are friendlier, more hardworking and smile more than those under the town council run by the People's Action Party (PAP).

Such feedback leaves Workers' Party (WP) MP for Aljunied GRC Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap bemused. After all, the WP town council has retained the cleaning contractors used by its PAP predecessor.

That reality squares better with the responses of another 25 Aljunied residents, who said little has changed in the estate since the May 7 polls.

Still, there are residents like housewife Lilian Chih, 63, who only have praise for their new MPs - in her case, Mr Pritam Singh.

Recently, she asked him when her wooden door and metal grille would be upgraded. He explained that such upgrading falls under the purview of the Housing Board, not the WP, but he was 'very polite and kind', she says.

She gives the PAP credit for giving Singapore 'a reliable government' but likes the WP because its MPs 'seem humble'.

The six months since the May 7 polls have been a 'honeymoon phase' when Aljunied voters tend to be more forgiving, says Dr Reuben Wong of the National University of Singapore.

'Besides having a reserve of goodwill, it's also lots of hard work on their part,' notes Dr Wong. 'The WP is very organised. They want to make sure they hit the ground running so voters don't suffer for having voted them in.'

Dr Wong reckons the 'honeymoon' may last up to a year.

'I think by next May, people will make demands of them just as they make demands of any PAP MP,' he says.

PAP MPs - and there are 81 of them compared to six from the WP - are not taking it easy either but their residents seem less inclined to heap praise on their efforts.

An exception is 60-year-old Mr Ramlan, a retiree, who went to see his PAP MP Tin Pei Ling recently for help to pay for his kidney dialysis and diabetes treatment. 'The MP and grassroots leaders were really concerned,' he says.

That is the picture which emerges from Insight's interviews with more than 80 residents in three GRCs - Aljunied, Marine Parade and Bishan-Toa Payoh.

These were where the PAP faced off with teams from three different opposition parties, winning two of the three electoral contests.

The feeling on the ground

AT THE estate level, the dust has mostly settled in all three GRCs, with most residents seeing few changes of note.

In Aljunied GRC, though, the fact that 25 out of 30 residents polled said the estate is no dirtier than before, is itself significant.

As recent graduate Derrick Teo, 24, who lives in Eunos ward, notes: 'Aljunied has not gone to pieces, as some may have expected from a GRC not under the PAP. In that sense, the WP has done a good job.'

Adds housewife Ong Poh Hong, 56, from Serangoon: 'I was quite surprised that it didn't get dirtier.'

The ability of an opposition party to run a town council and keep an estate clean and upgraded has been called into question by PAP leaders time and again.

During this year's hustings, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew warned Aljunied voters that they would 'have five years to live and repent' if they voted for the WP.

It is little wonder then that the WP has made getting its politics at the local level right a priority of the past six months.

'Aljunied-Hougang Town Council strives to maintain as high a standard as practicably possible,' WP and town council chairman Sylvia Lim tells Insight via e-mail.

'Perfection in town management is not possible, but we are committed to try harder,' she adds.

In her Serangoon ward, she has been keeping an eye on a foreign worker dormitory in Serangoon Gardens, mindful that it had been a contentious issue for many residents.

To date, she has not received any serious adverse feedback from residents living near the dormitory, which opened in 2009.

She visited the dormitory in July to get an update from the police and dormitory managers on the security arrangements and infrastructure in place.

For instance, Wi-Fi was installed in the dormitory to 'keep many workers quietly busy in their leisure time', says Ms Lim.

As for PAP-run Marine Parade GRC and Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, residents there said life has returned much to the way it was before the polls.

In May, the PAP team in Marine Parade GRC led by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong came up against a National Solidarity Party (NSP) team which included newcomer Nicole Seah, 25. The PAP team won with 56.6 per cent.

Over in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, the PAP team led by former Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen fought off a challenge from a Singapore People's Party (SPP) team led by opposition veteran

Chiam See Tong. The PAP team won with 56.9 per cent of the vote.

But the excitement of the hustings is now a distant memory to residents like taxi driver Lim Jek Kang, 70.

The Marine Parade GRC resident vaguely remembers Ms Seah from the election but has not seen her since May.

His estate has not changed much, he adds, a view shared by four in five of the 55 Marine Parade GRC and Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC residents interviewed by Insight.

Bishan North resident Cecil Ng, 32, a clinic manager, says: 'Life is still as such.'

Civil servant Mohd Yusof, 40, notes that his Toa Payoh North precinct has already been upgraded, 'so you can't really expect changes in that sense'.

A minority of residents in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC said their PAP-run town council has become more responsive to residents' feedback after the polls. Some also noted new upgrading works in their neighbourhood.

Residents in both GRCs have few complaints, although one or two said they hope security can be beefed up to deal with an increased number of foreign workers in their estates.

Working the ground

WHILE the newly elected WP MPs in Aljunied GRC have drawn the lion's share of attention since the polls, PAP MPs have been quietly making changes to the way they reach out to residents on the ground.

In Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Dr Ng says the MPs have started new activities to 'reach out to younger and middle-income residents who don't normally attend 'traditional' activities'.

These include a pet interest group called Paws-N-Friends, town hall dialogues, golf fellowships, and a club to help children with special needs and their parents, says Dr Ng, who heads the GRC.

In Marine Parade GRC, Mr Seah Kian Peng now makes it a point to meet every member of the family on his house visits. If parents open the door, for instance, he will ask to meet their children, who may otherwise stay in their rooms.

Dr Wong of NUS says such efforts are a good move as the demographic the PAP is 'losing touch with the fastest' are the younger, better-educated voters from the middle- to upper-income groups.

The PAP MPs are also increasing the volume and channels of their communication with residents. Besides using social media, Bishan-Payoh GRC MPs Hri Kumar Nair and Zainudin Nordin hold informal breakfast sessions in their wards.

Says Mr Zainudin: 'I think people need to feel we are there for them. We don't want them to feel that each time they see me, it's for complaints.'

The GRC teams in Marine Parade and Bishan-Toa Payoh are also projecting a more united image to residents.

In Marine Parade, Mr Goh, who stepped down from the Cabinet after the election, now makes unannounced visits to the Meet-the-People sessions (MPS) of other MPs in the ward at least twice a month.

Says Mr Seah: 'Mr Goh himself wants to get to know the ground better. These visits allow him to see the different problems faced by residents in each ward.'

The five Bishan-Toa Payoh MPs go on house and market visits together to show residents that 'all five MPs are here for you and residents can approach any of us', Dr Ng says.

PAP MPs who did well in other constituencies are not resting on their laurels either.

Minister of State for Health Amy Khor, the highest-scoring PAP MP in the election at 70.6 per cent, has launched a new series of dialogues for young professionals and tertiary students, in addition to her regular sessions with residents. She plans to start interest groups for running and hip hop dance.

On her recipe for success, she says: 'I don't have a pugilistic manual that imparts high level skills and can ensure resounding victory.

'It's plain old hard work, lots of legwork, a pair of listening ears and loads of sincerity and empathy.'

As for opposition politicians who lost at the polls, a handful maintain a presence on the ground.

The NSP intends to contest Marine Parade GRC again, says secretary-general Hazel Poa, 41. It plans to distribute food to lower-income households next month and start an area committee for the GRC.

Ms Seah has started a tuition project for low-income students in MacPherson ward, which has drawn over 40 students.

The SPP has visited rental flats in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC to listen to residents and give out biscuits and drinks in what it dubs 'MPS at the doorstep'. It also plans to hold 'kopitiam MPS'.

In Aljunied GRC, the WP is building up its own grassroots network, the Aljunied Constituency Committee (AJCC), to organise activities for residents.

Last week, WP chief Low Thia Khiang and Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong led a group of residents on a tour of Kunming in China.

Because the AJCC does not receive government funding, the WP events tend to be run on a tighter budget than those organised by the People's Association (PA) grassroots groups.

Residents have mixed reactions to the no-frills, low-key approach. Some praise the WP MPs for being down to earth. However, other residents complain that the WP events are too low-key and not well publicised.

'I have been trying to find out what they have been doing, but so far nothing has happened,' laments tutor June Yio, 53.

Residents are also used to the Residents' Committee (RC) practice of calling or knocking on their doors to invite them to events. But at least four said RC activities have been cut down and are not as big in scale as they used to be, post-GE.

But Eunos Citizens' Consultative Committee chairman Sim Wai Chin, 63, says: 'There is no change to our activities, our grassroots leaders are working harder than before.'

However, Paya Lebar resident Alice, 54, a childcare teacher, says: 'The RC used to come around every three to six months to sell tickets to their events, but they've been completely quiet since the GE. I haven't seen the WP around either.'

At the national level

THE biggest changes residents have observed since May have been at the national level. More than half of the more than 80 residents polled mentioned post-election policy changes such as the raising of the income ceiling on Build-to-Order (BTO) HDB flats and moves to slow the inflow of foreign workers.

Some said the Government now seems more willing to listen. Tuition teacher Chan Hon Wah, 45, who lives in Toa Payoh North, says the new policies and MPs' speeches in Parliament 'seem to show more care for the people'.

Some Aljunied GRC residents are proud that their MPs have added to the diversity of views in Parliament.

Serangoon Gardens resident Juianna Tee, 46, a kindergarten teacher, feels competition keeps the PAP on its toes.

Driver Mohd Hashim Abdul Wahab, 50, who lives in Mr Low's Bedok Reservoir-Punggol ward, says the WP slogan of 'towards a First World Parliament' still resonates with him.

He adds, however, that both PAP and WP need 'time and space' to adapt and grow in the post-GE landscape.

Other residents are more sceptical about change at the national level and are adopting a wait-and-see approach.

Mr James Giang, 60, who is semi-retired and lives in Thomson ward in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, says: 'There's been a lot of talk in Parliament. But it's still early. I don't see any change yet.'

The cost of living remains a big concern for residents like freelancer Lim Lui Hoon, 57, who worries about higher prices of transport and food.

Madam Lim, who lives in Toa Payoh Central, hopes the Government can fix these 'big issues' as well as keep her living environment pleasant.

Countdown to the next polls

FOR politicians who plan to contest the next polls, the clock has already started ticking.

At the six-month mark, what is clear is that MPs are hard at work on the ground and residents are watching and taking note, even as they go about their daily lives.

Retiree Yee Yih Chang, 79, of Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, sums up the situation thus: 'Life goes on as normal.'

Mr Yee says that what matters to residents like him is that MPs - whether from the PAP or opposition - 'serve the people'.

'Together, we go on house-to-house and market visits. Our message to them is that all five MPs are here for you and residents can approach any of us.'
Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Defence and an MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, on the five MPs in the GRC working as a team.

'The change I see is on the national level. After the GE, when Low Thia Khiang talks more, residents get more. I followed the parliamentary debates last month and I see the WP's performance as a good sign. I don't feel that they are against the government.'
Aljunied GRC resident and grassroots member Mogan Hua. The 62-year-old secretary has not observed changes at the municipal level.

'Some take the view that with their problems - the case they bring before you - you're good only if you can solve it. If you can't solve it, you are no good.'
Mr Seah Kian Peng, an MP for Marine Parade GRC, on the higher expectations that residents have after the election.

'I am worried about the future of my son and whether he can earn a good living.'
Marine Parade GRC resident Mrs Guo, 56, a housewife who is concerned more with national issues than municipal ones. Her 18-year-old son is studying at an Institute of Technical Education college

'Life goes on as normal. Whoever's here, it's still the same. Even if it's the opposition, as long as he can serve the people, it's good.'
Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC resident Yee Yih Chang, 79, who is retired.

'We don't really compare our work with what the PAP has done previously. We started with a blank sheet of paper and plan on developing our ideas organically as far as possible. I am a big fan of out-of-the-box thinking.'
Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh, on things that the Workers' Party's MPs have done differently, such as holding Meet-the-People sessions at void decks instead of indoors.

Fewer residents seek help from WP MPs
THE Workers' Party (WP) increased its vote share nationally at the May polls - but the number of residents seeking the help of WP MPs at their Meet-the-People sessions (MPS) in Aljunied GRC is lower compared to when the ruling party held the constituency.

On average, each WP MP sees only 20 to 30 each week, says the MP for the Kaki Bukit ward, Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap.

In contrast, the five People's Action Party (PAP) MPs in Aljunied GRC used to see 60 to 80 residents each.

Mr Faisal is puzzled by the difference, but believes a possible reason is that some residents feel government agencies will be more receptive to letters written by PAP MPs.

Political scientist Reuben Wong notes: 'There is a strong perception that if your MP is in opposition, he is less able to move heaven and earth for you and get government agencies to respond. This began with then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong saying after the 1991 elections that he will be 'a little deaf' to residents in opposition wards. The impression has stuck since then.'

Another reason: Aljunied residents have been turning up at the MPS of neighbouring constituencies such as Pasir Ris-Punggol and Hougang.

Mr Desmond Choo, the PAP candidate for Hougang at the last polls, says that some residents in Aljunied GRC have made their way to his ward to see him for help. He holds coffee sessions with residents every Monday, a variation of MPS.

A third reason, observers believe, is that, rather than going through the MP, some residents are going direct to the Community Development Councils (CDC) and Citizens Consultative Committees for help. These administer the Government's ComCare funds for needy Singaporeans.

A fourth reason is the limited availability of financial assistance from WP MPs.

Both Mr Faisal and Ms Sylvia Lim advise needy residents who approach them to go to the CDC.

Ms Lim says the WP has set up a welfare fund, and 'has plans to implement it': 'While we believe the responsibility of providing a good social safety net rests squarely with the Government, the Aljunied Constituency Committee would look into providing some interim assistance and help in special cases.'

For residents who do avail themselves of the WP MPS though, one aspect in particular seems to win them over: the MP's physical visibility.

Serangoon resident Oh Tee Beng, 39, who is unemployed, has met his MP, Ms Lim, twice since the May elections.

'I like that nearness; it makes them more accessible. There's no additional barrier,' he says.

The five WP MPs have been holding their weekly MPS in seven different void decks in the constituency, setting up makeshift offices with tables and chairs.

They have their own styles of operating. For example, Ms Lim has a system where after residents have taken a queue number, they can wait at home, and WP helpers will phone them when their turn nears.

Mr Low Thia Khiang sticks to his pen and paper system which he has used since 1991 in Hougang, his former constituency. Over in Kaki Bukit ward, laptops are a fixture at every table.

At Mr Faisal's MPS, he is ensconced in a corner of the void deck, behind a light blue partition where he meets residents. To be more efficient, he is piloting an electronic database system, which may be rolled out to the other wards in Aljunied GRC in future.

The WP's void-deck MPS stands in contrast to most PAP MPS which are held within the confines of PAP Community Foundation kindergartens.

Once decried by opposition MPs like Mr Chiam See Tong as a disadvantage to opposition MPs, the open air void-deck MPS has helped the WP gain political mileage among some voters.

Three weeks after the May 7 polls, the Housing Board reversed a 20-year-old policy that barred political parties from renting void-deck office space at the same subsidised rates as community organisations. However, the WP decided against taking up the offer, citing the high costs involved. It continued to hold its MPS in the open.

That open concept pleases Eunos resident Yap Khim Choo, 34, a housewife.

'I see my MP Pritam Singh more often now. I see him every week when I walk past the block where he has his MPS. I can see him at work,' Madam Yap says.

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