Tuesday 22 September 2015

In PAP’s fight for votes, a formidable weapon - Boots on the ground

The road to winning voters’ hearts began long before the phrase GE2015 entered the popular lexicon earlier this year
By Kelly Ng and Toh Ee Ming, TODAY, 19 Sep 2015

While other People’s Action Party (PAP) branch activists were celebrating victories in their constituencies at the 2011 polls, those for the Aljunied GRC were reeling from the party’s historic defeat at the hands of the Workers’ Party (WP).

It was a low point for the team, even though they took comfort from a personal call made by the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew to Ms Cynthia Phua — who was among the defeated PAP candidates — to ask if she was okay.

“Everyone else was celebrating, but Mr Lee still remembered us, the defeated party ... we were very touched,” said Mdm Michelle Leong, 55, an activist of 10 years, and the Paya Lebar branch’s assistant secretary.

But she wasted little time dwelling on the setback. For activists such as Mdm Leong and others in the party who saw their candidates narrowly avoid defeat in 2011, the road to winning voters’ hearts began long before the phrase GE2015 entered the popular lexicon earlier this year.

And efforts like theirs — which range from helping residents with their problems, organising community events, cooking for other volunteers at gatherings, and driving candidates around during the campaign period — are indispensable to the PAP, which managed to bounce back from an all-time low in popular vote share in 2011 (60.1 per cent) to a landslide victory with 69.9 per cent of the vote at the Sept 11 polls. Not only did it wrest back Punggol East from the WP, it also closed in on the WP in Aljunied GRC, and pulled away from the Opposition in wards like East Coast GRC, Potong Pasir and Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, where observers had anticipated closer fights.


In the wake of the blow dealt by the 2011 General Election, PAP activists had drawn flak for reportedly not providing candidates with a true picture of ground sentiment, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had to come to their defence. Activists had been honest, but the party might not have “picked up and interpreted it correctly”, Mr Lee had said.

Activists who worked the ground in Aljunied told TODAY how the team could sense the hostility on the ground in 2011 during campaigning. “On the municipal level, we have given them lift upgrading, drop-off points, paved pavements, repaired whatever was malfunctioning...everything we could, we did it for them,” said an activist who declined to be named. “I think it was the national issues - foreign workers, transport, housing - that was making people unhappy...we had no control over these issues.”

Nevertheless, after the 2011 polls, hundreds of party activists and grassroots leaders delved right back into relentless ground work, where they also experimented with new avenues of outreach, while seeking to regain their residents’ trust and identify where help was most needed. It was a job that required off-beat approaches, a listening ear, and, perhaps most of all, wearing out lots of shoe leather.

For Mdm Leong, a manager of a job placement centre, for instance, this meant popping by the Paya Lebar branch office daily to check if her help was needed. Besides helping to hold PAP CaRES sessions — which function like Meet-the-People sessions (MPS) run by MPs — her team also conducted weekly house visits, which helped them get a feel of ground needs and sentiment. They learned, for instance, that those residing in private estates seemed more open to the idea of giving the Opposition a chance.

In Aljunied’s Kaki Bukit division, which houses a high proportion of elderly residents, volunteers initiated the Kaki Bukit Befriender Team programme, which engages older folk who live alone, through informal chit chat sessions, house visits, and phone calls.

Over at East Coast GRC, activists started holding mobile MPS in 2013 to reach out to needy and time-strapped residents. This entailed having two teams of activists and volunteers from Young PAP doing house visits and follow-ups.

PAP Bedok branch secretary Larry Chua, 39, said the GRC’s anchor minister Lim Swee Say had set a new approach for his activists that centered on “deep engagement” and “personalisation”. For instance, Mr Lim started “chit-chat sessions” on weekends for specific blocks of residents. “Instead of having mass events, we meet (residents) in smaller groups, so they get to interact with (Mr Lim) more personally,” he said.

This brought a warmer reception from residents. “Residents used to say they don’t see us… nowadays when we go on house visits, they remind us that we have met recently,” said Mr Chua, who runs his own business.

Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa, meanwhile, said his team has been conducted fortnightly house visits since 2011. “We cannot work alone, I have over 100 volunteers who look after different things and … at every point, it gives us direct access to what residents feel and think,” he said.

At Fengshan, which was part of East Coast GRC before it was carved out for this year’s election — and where a tight race with the WP had been anticipated — activists had re-organised themselves to tackle issues by niche. For instance, Ms Diana Pang, who is branch treasurer and chairwoman of the ward’s Women’s Wing, specialises in caring for seniors and young families.

Ms Pang, 41, said this allowed each activist to play to his or her strengths. “I am a young mother myself...I planned some budget planning seminars for young couples, and I hope to do more of those,” said Ms Pang, who has a four-year-old daughter.

In Potong Pasir, which the PAP won by the slimmest of margins in 2011 — 114 votes — the priority was to push through improvements promised to residents.

Said Potong Pasir activist Chua Kian Meng, 58, who has been treading the ground for Potong Pasir MP Sitoh Yih Pin since 2001: “The first 10 years (from) 2001 to 2011, we were constrained because Mr Sitoh was not the MP, so there were a lot of things that we could not do. Nevertheless, we kept on accumulating all the feedback… we do this very consistently and we try to also build trust.”

Even before 2011, activists had done two rounds of resident surveys. Improvements that were later introduced, such as lift upgrading, brighter corridor lighting and home improvement programmes, were things residents wanted, “not what we think residents want”, pointed out Mr Chua. “Since the people gave us a mandate (in GE2011), even though it was not a very strong one, we had to deliver,” he added.

At the Sept 11 polls, Mr Sitoh improved on his vote share, winning 66.4 per cent of the votes, compared to 50.36 per cent in 2011.

Reaching out to residents in these ways requires considerable commitment on the part of activists. Potong Pasir’s Mr Chua Kian Meng spends every evening at the constituency’s coffeeshops chatting with residents. The senior vice-president at Maybank Kim Eng lives in Bukit Timah.

And such is Ms Pang’s dedication to her work in Fengshan that four years ago, she moved to the ward from Woodlands. “I have built up relationships with the people here, it feels like ‘jia xiang’ (hometown in Mandarin),” she said.

Activists also make it a point to keep up morale and team spirit among volunteers, by organising monthly gatherings and birthday celebrations.

Said Bedok’s Mr Larry Chua: “It is important to give them a sense of belonging, nobody comes here to get paid...These (gatherings) are small forms of recognition (for their work).”


While most PAP activists and volunteers interviewed by TODAY also sit on the People’s Association’s (PA) grassroots committees, they are quick to point out that they keep a clear line between serving the community and their political affiliation.

Bedok’s Mr Chua, who is also assistant secretary for the division’s Citizens’ Consultative Committee (CCC), said: “We may wear multiple hats, but not at the same time...There is no conflict of interest because we will never make use of community facilities for party activities and campaigning purposes.”

While Punggol East CCC chairman Raymond Lye has known veteran PAP MP Charles Chong since the 1990s and volunteered in his latest campaign in Punggol East, he stressed he does so in his personal capacity.

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC PAP activist Brian Tan said grassroots work is a “great feedback mechanism”. “We are there with the residents and see which processes are working well,” said Mr Tan, who is also member of the Toa Payoh Central CCC.

Fengshan’s Ms Pang, who also serves as treasurer for her division’s CCC, acknowledged her grassroots involvement offers useful feedback on what constituents’ concerns are. “We receive more genuine feedback which is related to the ground, some of which we have experienced ourselves before....many of our (PAP Women’s Wing) White Papers were also drawn up based on this feedback from the ground,” she said.

Indeed, a strong grassroots background appeared to be a plus where candidates were concerned, with activists saying they were happy that people who already have knowledge of the ground were thrust into bigger roles - instead of having high-fliers “parachuted” into a ward.

For example, Fengshan MP Cheryl Chan, a newcomer to politics who captured 57.5 per cent of the vote, was chairman of Fengshan division’s Community Club Management Committee. “Residents are also glad that Cheryl (used to be) one of us...Residents see us everyday, they are confident that we will be able to serve them right from the start,” said Ms Pang.


But gathering feedback and acting as a sounding boards is just part of what an activist does.

Over the years, they have helped potential PAP candidates build rapport with residents ahead of elections, as well as identifying pressing issues and raising them to MPs or candidates.

For example, lawyer K Muralidharan Pillai, who was part of the PAP’s team in Aljunied GRC this time around, was branch secretary of the party’s Bukit Batok branch until 2012, when he moved to Aljunied GRC to serve as Paya Lebar branch chairman.

In the predominantly Chinese-populated ward, Mr Muralidharan initially faced difficulties communicating with elderly residents. Some seniors had trouble pronouncing his name, and activists often stepped in to help with translations, said Mdm Leong.

With a touch of pride, she added: “But he put in the effort to learn, and eventually picked up Mandarin and Teochew himself, and could strike up simple conversations with them. The residents are so comfortable with him now, they ask ‘Hey, where’s the Indian guy?’.”

Fellow Aljunied GRC candidate Shamsul Kamar, who took over as Kaki Bukit branch chairman early last month, after Mr Kahar Hassan was asked by the party step down, also said he took a “consultative approach”.

Although a former grassroots leader from 2006 to 2011, Mr Shamsul said he relied on veteran activists for advice.

Kaki Bukit branch secretary Nicholas Soon said: “ Coming in, the first thing he wanted to know was the concerns of residents here. Immediately, we agreed that we have a big proportion of elderly, and we needed to solve their issues quickly - which was a challenge because he had such a short runway.”

Mr Shamsul recounted how his volunteers had alerted him to a recent drowning incident at Sungei Api Api canal at Pasir Ris Park. He later visited the grieving father and helped him with financial needs, while his Kaki Bukit Befriender Team provided moral support.

“I couldn’t have known if my grassroots leaders hadn’t told me... their role is critical, and I can’t do it alone, trying to manage the estate on my own, thinking I know everything,” he said.

Mr Charles Chong — who was MP of Joo Chiat from 2011 until he was fielded in Punggol East for this election — also agreed that activists were important in identifying pressing issues as they know the ground first-hand.

“They are familiar faces, so even if the resident does not know me or has not met me, it helped in facilitating the contact with the resident and I,” said Mr Chong.

Upon learning that Mr Chong was going to be fielded in Punggol East, Mr Raymond Lye began rallying others to help in the campaign. He said: “For those who didn’t know Charles, I would tell them ‘Trust me, I’ve known Charles a long time, he’s a good guy, and he deserves our support.” 

That’s not all. Frequently, supporters bring their professional skills to bear, too.

During the recent campaign, for example, Mr Lye, who is a lawyer, drew on his legal expertise to affirm the oaths of nomination forms, and also helped draft flyers. As part of the publicity team, he also advised Mr Chong on media outreach strategies.


By the time Nomination day rolled around, the activists had already mustered armies of fellow activists and volunteers to help out over the campaign period. Many took leave from their day jobs for all nine days of campaigning, so that they could help with the neighbourhood walkabouts and with campaign logistics.

Some Aljunied activists volunteered to ferry Mr Shamsul around, for example, fearing that fatigue might affect him. Others served as media liaisons, setting up WhatsApp group chats with the media to disseminate updates on party activities. A 70-year-old Hougang resident even woke up at 6am every morning to make porridge for the Aljunied team.

As Polling Day drew closer, the Aljunied volunteers worked overnight on a last-minute plea to voters, fighting fatigue to finalise the draft and design of flyers before heading out the next morning to distribute them.

Beyond offering sheer might and manpower, the activists also doubled up as the candidates’ personal cheerleaders, endorsing them during walkabouts and giving them moral support behind the scenes.

Mr Shamsul recalls how his activists offered reassurance when other volunteers expressed worries about losing. “Every night, they sent me messages, telling me ‘You can do it’, because we were the underdogs,” he said.

At Bedok, meanwhile, Mr Larry Chua felt that the groundwork had been laid well in advance, and was less concerned about talk that East Coast GRC team was shaping up for a close fight. “What we needed to do had been done over the last four years, so the nine days, while very tiring, were not back-breaking for us,” he said.

He added: “Although we were silently confident, speculation was widespread that we might not win East Coast, but we did not let that demoralise us.”


Potong Pasir’s Mr Chua Kian Meng likened the GE results to constituents’ assessment of his team’s work. “If you’ve consistently done your homework, and you can do well, the teachers will give you a fair assessment. We were not concentrating on the Opposition’s efforts, we just continued to perform… and the rest is for the residents to see for themselves, for them to decide,” he said.

Despite the loss in Aljunied, activists were heartened by the marked difference in residents’ sentiments. The PAP’s vote share in Aljunied GRC also rose to 49.05 per cent, from 45.28 per cent in 2011.

Mdm Leong said with a laugh: “People in private estates actually come out and give us a warm welcome nowadays. In 2011, it was just the dogs who came out (to greet us).”

Her team has also pledged do better in trying to identify gaps, and see if there are areas where they failed to “touch base”.

Also high on the agenda for Potong Pasir’s Mr Chua is finding successors to maintain a core of dedicated activists in the next two to three years. “I think we’ll start off from within our constituency, try to get more people to be involved, which I think I should be able to find some good ones around,” he added.

Party activists and grassroots volunteers stressed that their passion to serve residents keep them going, even in Opposition-held wards.

Said Kaki Bukit’s Mr Soon: “While some things are under the jurisdiction of the (WP-run) town council, we can still help in things like community development and welfare. We still want to help as much as we can, make a difference… (show that) PAP is still here to stay.”

Additional reporting by Laura Philomin

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