Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Ang Mo Kio GRC: The Prime Minister's constituency

PM Lee Hsien Loong is anchor minister of Ang Mo Kio GRC, which stays with six members under Friday's boundary changes. But half are veteran MPs who may retire. Insight looks at possible young contenders in-waiting
By Charissa Yong and Tham Yuen-C, Assistant Political Editor, The Sunday Times, 26 Jul 2015

The 187,652 voters of Ang Mo Kio GRC - which remains one of two six-member Group Representation Constituencies under the latest electoral boundary changes announced on Friday - may have three new faces to cast their ballots for.

One of the GRC's current MPs, Mr Inderjit Singh, announced on Friday that he is retiring, and two others - Mr Seng Han Thong and Mr Yeo Guat Kwang - may follow suit but they declined to comment when asked about their future at a community event yesterday.

The three veteran MPs have been taking their likely replacements on walkabouts and constituency events for at least half a year.

These possible replacements for the three fourth-termers are all much younger - food-supply company executive director Henry Kwek, 39; colorectal surgeon Koh Poh Koon, 43; and Temasek Polytechnic School of Design deputy director Darryl David, 44.

Nearly every community event and home visit that Mr Singh, 55, attends, Mr Kwek does too.

And wherever 65-year-old Mr Seng goes, so does Dr Koh. Mr David also attends almost all the events that 54-year-old Mr Yeo does.

Small wonder then that the neighbourhood buzz has been that the long-serving trio are likely to retire from politics at the next general election, which must be held by 2017, but which many political watchers expect could be held as early as September.

The presence of the three dedicated potential candidates is a telltale sign, as the People's Action Party has been sending its hopefuls to constituencies early to give them more experience of serving residents on the ground.

The young guns, if fielded, could find themselves tested in "battle", too, as the Reform Party, which contested the GRC in the 2011 General Election, has been active on the ground there. Its secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam said on Friday: "I think it is important to challenge the PM on his home turf."

Additionally, under Friday's boundary changes, Ang Mo Kio GRC loses a western portion to Nee Soon GRC but absorbs districts from Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC as well as Sengkang West SMC that have seen population growth from new housing developments in recent years.

What effect, if any, will these young voters have in what has been until now a mature constituency, and what would established constituency voters make of a new, young line-up? Or will the fact that the Prime Minister is anchor minister make all this a moot point? Insight reports.


The newbies may be fresh faces, but two of them will be familiar to the general public, with Mr Kwek attending community events in Kebun Baru and Mr David in Ang Mo Kio-Hougang.

The most recognisable - in terms of the political landscape, that is - is Dr Koh. He was the People's Action Party's unsuccessful candidate in the 2013 Punggol East by-election.

Then, he was seen as a fresh face "parachuted" into the branch just before the election. Perhaps seeking to rectify this, he has been serving in Ang Mo Kio for more than seven months now.

Then there is Mr David, who in his younger days was known for hosting The Pyramid Game television show and being a sportscaster on local TV and sports channel ESPN. He later obtained a business degree from the Nanyang Business School and became a polytechnic lecturer.

As for Mr Kwek, he also has a business background. He is the executive director of food-supply company Foodtraco Supplies. And like Dr Koh, he is no newcomer to politics. He was a branch secretary for Chong Pang serving Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

As the ranking activist in a PAP branch, the branch secretary is the MP's point man for many tasks. The role is seen as good political training since it is a demanding one that tests the mettle of potential politicians.

Incumbents Mr Yeo, Mr Singh and Mr Seng all declined to comment when contacted. All three are veteran MPs who entered politics 18 years ago as candidates in the 1997 General Election and are now serving their fourth term as an MP.

If the three new faces seen shadowing them do end up joining PM Lee there, they will push down the average age of his team from 54 years to 46.

Still, the prospect of an inexperienced line-up cutting their teeth in Ang Mo Kio guided by an "elder" statesman of the calibre of PM Lee, 63, might not faze voters.

After all, the team will come under the stewardship of no less than the country's leader - and one who increased the GRC's share of the vote to 69.3 per cent in the 2011 General Election, beating the PAP's national vote share of 60.1 per cent.

Indeed, financial planner Pat Lee, who lives in an executive flat in Hougang Avenue 9, is not too concerned. The 60-year-old said brains and background matter more in choosing an MP.

"In terms of what I'm looking out for in candidates, it will have to be how smart they are and their background... I voted for the PAP the last time, (because) their candidates were better," she said.

For teacher Susan Wong, 50, though, it is the leader that matters. She said: "With PM in my area, I'm very happy."

The idea of living in the GRC led by the Prime Minister conjures up - to some Singaporeans at any rate - the idea of constant upgrades, sparkling clean estates and clockwork efficiency.

But while the GRC has seen its fair share of such pluses, living in a place run by the country's leader does not mean residents do not have the sort of grassroots gripes that bug Singaporeans in other districts.

At the municipal level in Ang Mo Kio, pesky animals have become causes of discontent. Rats and birds have terrorised some residents in PM Lee's own ward of Teck Ghee, for example.

Earlier this year, Teck Ghee Court Market and Food Centre was in the news when a woman having her meal there found herself with unwanted company: four large rats.

The Jan 22 incident prompted the Ang Mo Kio Town Council to release a statement saying it had informed the National Environment Agency to "continue educating stall owners and market tenants on the importance of good housekeeping inside their stalls and to exercise proper waste disposal" while continuing its "weekly treatment outside the market perimeter and bin centre".

Insurance agent Alvin Tan, 39, told Insight that he reckons the rats must have moved from another part of the GRC to his neighbourhood in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10. Every night, around 8pm, he sees "a lot of them" scurrying around the grass patches there. "I complained to the town council, but no one has come back to tell me if anything is being done," he grumbled. "I know this is an old estate, but the cleanliness needs to improve."

Meanwhile, birds are the cause of Madam Au Kio Moi's problems. The 58-year-old factory worker, who lives on the same street as Mr Tan with her two sons, said mynahs flying and defaecating in the area have made drying her clothes outside a daily game of chance.

"If you're unlucky, every other day your clothes will get bombed," she said in Mandarin.

Dealing with these on-the-ground concerns, in the comparative safety of the Prime Minister's own stomping ground, makes for ideal training should a young team be fielded that includes the three newcomers.


Still, for Ang Mo Kio GRC voters, the general election is not just about choosing their MPs.

Their choice has added symbolism, as it is seen as a signal of support for PM Lee and his party.

Back in 2011, his Ang Mo Kio team trounced their Reform Party challengers with 69.3 per cent of the votes, compared to the latter's 30.7 per cent.

In PM Lee's first general election as Prime Minister, in 2006, his team beat a Workers' Party line-up, winning 66.14 per cent of the vote share - just slightly short of the PAP's national vote share of 66.6 per cent at that time.

His predecessor as prime minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, was also challenged in his Marine Parade GRC twice - during the 1991 General Election and in a by-election that he called a year later. Both times, he had resounding victories of more than 70 per cent of the vote share.

Subsequently, he was never challenged again when serving as prime minister, and enjoyed walkovers from 1997 to 2001.

But gone are the days when constituencies go uncontested. In the 2011 General Election, opposition parties vowed to field a team in every constituency, and managed to, save for one.

With nine active opposition parties now, compared to six in the last general election, there is likely to be increased competition.

This time round, MPs and activists reckon the RP may be back again in Ang Mo Kio GRC.

Dr Intan said she saw RP members on walkabouts at Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 a couple of months ago.

The constituency's town council chairman and MP for the neighbouring Sengkang West Single-Member Constituency (SMC), Dr Lam Pin Min, has also spotted the RP team around Ang Mo Kio.

And Mr Jeyaretnam said on Friday: "Since GE 2011 we have been walking there regularly and now receive a very positive response from the residents."

So will PM Lee receive a strong mandate from constituency voters?

PM Lee himself, commenting on the polls in 2006 and 2011, had said that a vote share of above 60 per cent was considered "decisive" and a "clear mandate" by First World standards.

In interviews with voters in the area, most believe the PAP will win by a comfortable margin.

They cite as reasons the Government's concerted effort to address hot-button issues raised in the last election, specifically providing more help to the middle-income and the elderly and tightening the tap on foreigners.

Real estate agent Neo Zhi Hao, 28, from Serangoon North Avenue 4, said: "(They have) kept their promises and enhanced the standard of living for young families and the elderly. My mum gets subsidised health screenings."

Some 82 per cent of the GRC's 280,000 residents are flat dwellers. And about 65 per cent of them are working and middle-class families living in three-room and four- room flats.

But this might change slightly, with about 28,000 new voters joining the constituency following the electoral boundary changes.

Ang Mo Kio GRC has taken in residents from Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC's Punggol South, and Sengkang West SMC.

The Build-to-Order flats in this area are relatively new - an indication that residents there may be younger and more middle-class.


On his home turf, if crowds at community events are anything to go by, PM Lee already enjoys strong personal popularity. At these events, he is often mobbed by residents hoping to shake his hand, take a picture with him or of him.

Retiree Raza'ai Abbas, 80, who just saw Mr Lee last month, said: "He is always around."

In interviews, residents also describe him as upright, friendly and sincere. Said Teck Ghee resident Mary Lau, 68: "I like him because he runs a clean government. I hate corruption."

There are also those who feel, rightly or wrongly, that having the Prime Minister as an MP comes with some benefits.

Recent National University of Singapore graduate Chmel Oon, 23, who has lived in the constituency for 10 years, said: "The buildings are repainted very often and the place is very clean. We also have many amenities, and the food is amazing."

Even insurance agent Mr Tan, who is unhappy about the rat problem, said: "I will still vote for him, he's the Prime Minister."

Four years ago, PM Lee rallied his constituents in a constituency Facebook post just before the general election with the exhortation: "Together let us build a better home and tomorrow."

Since then, the constituency has seen a lot of upgrading, said Dr Lam, who is Minister of State for Health. His Sengkang West SMC comes under the same Ang Mo Kio Town Council.

More sheltered linkways, drop-off porches and fitness corners have been built in public housing estates. About 80 per cent of all lifts in the housing estates have also been fitted with closed-circuit TV cameras to improve security.

Some areas have new amenities. Jalan Kayu estate has a new sport hub with futsal, tennis and badminton courts.

More is in the works, with the constituency slated to become a cycling town, and Teck Ghee estate is undergoing a $38.3 million revamp to transform it into Singapore's second "green" neighbourhood.

Ms Minah Kshi, 36, a preschool teacher living in Hougang Avenue 9, has noticed all these improvements. "I'm probably going to vote for the PAP. They are doing a good job developing the residential areas in Hougang," she said.

But some are not won over. Mr Chew B.W. and his wife Sabrina, who live in a semi-detached house in Sembawang Hills, said not enough is being done for those living in private estates.

About 18 per cent of the constituents live in private housing, consisting of semi-detached houses, terrace houses and condominiums.

The couple, who have three children, said they find the rising cost of living hard to stomach. Mrs Chew, who is in the electronics manufacturing industry, said education, in particular, is getting too expensive.

A year of tuition at The Learning Lab for her son costs $4,000 and there are always other items to pay for, such as a $600 fencing costume for another child. Mr Chew said: "It doesn't mean we are rich just because we live here. The Government should also help people like us - we pay the most taxes."

Meanwhile, retiree Loong See Keng, 68, who lives in a nearby private estate with his daughter's family, is worried his retirement savings will not last. He budgets for $700 a month, but thinks it will last him only five more years.

"All along I voted for the PAP because I had a job, I had a good life. But the cost of living is really getting expensive, so maybe I will try opposition this time," he said.

There are also those who just want to see change or to have checks on the Government's power. They include cleaner Chia Yoke Leng, 45. This is even though she lives with her husband and three children in a five-room flat in Kebun Baru and feels that "everything in Singapore is very good already ... But PAP shouldn't have too much power".

But then again, for voters who are just looking for change, having half the GRC team possibly made up of new, young faces might be change enough. Apart from that, change might also come in the form of the Government's clear shift to the left in social support policies since 2011, with goodies for virtually everyone - from workers and companies to students and households to the elderly and vulnerable.

The question is whether these changes in policies and stances will be good enough for voters.

Additional reporting by Charmaine Ng and Nigel Choo

Columbarium least of concerns in Sengkang West
Childcare centres, bus services and eateries more pressing issues for young families
By Charissa Yong, The Sunday Times, 26 Jul 2015

While the nation's eyes were on the Fernvale columbarium saga in Sengkang West early this year, six months later, many residents in the single-seat ward say the controversy is almost a non-issue to them.

Plans to build the columbarium made headlines when buyers of the upcoming Fernvale Lea - Build-to-Order flats next to the plot - launched a protest, saying their sales brochures never mentioned it. They also questioned the decision to award a commercial firm the tender, when it involved land for religious use.

However, at the local level, Sengkang West's young population is more concerned about not enough childcare places, amenities such as bus services, and eating houses.

The new town has swelled dramatically in the past five years. Many new residents have young families. Since the single-seat district was carved out from Ang Mo Kio GRC for the 2011 General Election, resident numbers have doubled from 30,000 to 62,000.

In fact, its voter population was a hefty 39,587 before the electoral boundaries committee got to work. Last Friday, three polling districts on the western fringe of Sengkang West with 9,500 voters were absorbed into Ang Mo Kio GRC, bringing the SMC to a more manageable 30,097 voters.

A feature of Sengkang West is that all of its homes are Housing Board flats for now, as the private condominiums to be built in the area are not ready yet.

Nine in 10 of these HDB flats are BTO four- and five-roomers, which are popular among middle-income young couples looking to own their first home. Since 2011, 15 BTO developments with about 10,500 flats in total have been completed in Sengkang West.

The influx of young families means Sengkang West has a high demand for childcare places, along with the typical growing pains of a new town, such as the lack of sufficient amenities.

Take engineer Vanessa Tham, 33, who could not get her 18-month-old daughter a place in 16 childcare centres and was put on their waiting lists instead.

At the end of her tether, the mum approached Sengkang West MP Lam Pin Min. She says: "He helped us get her a place nearby. It's five LRT stops away from home, but at least she has a school now."

Dr Lam tells Insight he has been working with the Early Childhood Development Agency and HDB to increase the number of childcare centres in Sengkang West.

Where suitable, void decks have been converted into, or set aside as, childcare centres.

Fernvale Lea will also have a jumbo childcare centre with a capacity of 500, compared to the usual 80 to 100. It is scheduled to begin construction this September and be ready by the middle of next year.

Says Dr Lam: "Demand for childcare is still increasing because more and more people are moving into Sengkang West. Some have kids, some are going to have kids."

Also on the wishlist of residents are more feeder bus services serving the town. Now, they wait for several buses to pass before they can board one during peak hours.

Corporate communications executive Michelle Pereira, 31, says: "The buses are very crowded. It should be a 15-minute drive from home to my workplace in Changi, but I take at least an hour."

Residents also want more eateries near their homes for convenience, and note that there are so few in Sengkang West that the waiting times for food are long.

Says account manager Cheryl-lyn Tham, 44: "On weekdays, we have to wait 20 minutes for our food. On the weekend or public holidays, it's a 30-minute wait."

Residents note, however, that more eateries have opened, including in Seletar Mall along Sengkang West Avenue and the Anchorvale Community Club.

Meanwhile, teacher Aravinthan Kumaran, 33, wants a supermarket nearer where he lives, while 30-year-old engineer Saadiq Majid simply wants more ATMs.

Full-time national serviceman Raihan Sulaihan, 23, says: "I'd like more halal food options. Right now, the only nearby places... are in Jalan Kayu and McDonalds."

On national issues, however, it's being able to provide for their families and themselves that gets residents' attention.

Says Mr Nicholas Yeo, 33, who works in a bank: "As hard as we work, our salary raises can't catch up with inflation. Can the cost of living keep pace with my pay so I can provide for my family?"


As for the columbarium controversy, most of the 30 residents Insight spoke to say it will not be a factor in how they vote.

For one, many Fernvale Lea residents will not have moved into their new home by January 2017, the deadline for the GE to be held.

The estimated completion date is the third quarter of this year.

For others, it is a case of out of sight, out of mind.

Mr Yeo, an Anchorvale resident, says: "It won't affect how I vote because I don't live near the site. Anyway, wasn't the columbarium plan abolished?"

A new tender for a Chinese temple was called in May after the Government and a private developer said they would terminate a previous agreement.

The saga took another turn when residents were upset that Dr Lam sat at the same table as the commercial developer at a dialogue session he had organised between them and the developer.

This gave the impression that he was "against" residents, they said.

Fund manager Jimmy Koh, 30, says: "He didn't seem to get the residents' arguments or to be fighting for residents. His stance was quite clear, that it's in the purchase terms and conditions. He seemed more on the side of the developer."

In an interview with Insight, Dr Lam says: "I think I had the best outcome, considering MND (the Ministry of National Development) reversed the decision and the land is now up for tender. Probably some residents will still be upset, but we try to make good whatever we can."

He adds: "Some netizens felt I was taking sides, which I was not." The episode taught him that "when we organise dialogues, we have to be mindful even of where we sit".


Certainly, it shows how issues can suddenly emerge from left-field. But netizen involvement is not all knee-jerk reaction - social media helps solve problems too.

"I will usually tell residents, do tag me on Facebook if you have any feedback for me," says Dr Lam, explaining that doing so alerts him more quickly to estate issues.

He checks his Facebook feed personally, immediately informing the town council - of which he is chairman - about issues that crop up.

Real asset manager Evelyn Wong recalls how Dr Lam tackled the problem of an unevenly paved road near her home earlier this year.

"He got HDB and the town council together, and it was solved over one weekend. He resolves most issues within a week. Once, he even responded to residents within the hour," says the 31-year-old.

As to whether these "little things" will ultimately sway voters on the day, it remains to be seen.

Additional reporting by Charmaine Ng

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