Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hello, Chiam... ...goodbye walkover?

Aug 13, 2010

Since the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC was created in 1997, its constituents have never had a chance to vote. This will change if opposition MP Chiam See Tong crosses over from his ward for a make-or-break bid in the next polls. Can his spillover popularity translate to vital votes? Or is this PAP bastion impossible to breach? What are the issues that may light up the hustings? Jeremy Au Yong, Cassandra Chew, Chong Zi Liang and Janice Heng find out if the ground is astir.

GENERAL elections are something of a non-event in Bishan-Toa Payoh group representation constituency (GRC).

Since it was created in 1997 - taking in Toa Payoh GRC and half of Thomson GRC - there has only been one outcome at the polls: a walkover for the People's Action Party (PAP).

To find a contest, one would have to go back more than 20 years to 1988 when PAP's Leong Horn Kee defeated the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) Ng Teck Siong in what was then a single-seat ward in Thomson.

However, if all goes according to plan for opposition veteran Chiam See Tong, the next election will be different.

Mr Chiam intends to make Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC the battleground of his first, and probably only, GRC bid.

Last week, the Singapore People's Party (SPP) chief confirmed his intention to contest the constituency.

The six-term Potong Pasir MP named his wife Lina Chiam as his successor in the single-seat ward he has held since 1984, thus freeing him to contest in the neighbouring GRC.

In recent years, there had been speculation that opposition parties like the Workers' Party (WP), SDP and the National Solidarity Party (NSP) were all eyeing the ward. In recent months however, it looks like only Mr Chiam is seriously laying claim.

The WP shut down its central area committee earlier this year, saying it was deferring to Mr Chiam and leaving Bishan-Toa Payoh to him.

Why Bishan-Toa Payoh? To Mr Chiam, it is a no-brainer as he feels some of his Potong Pasir popularity has spilled across the street.

'Bishan-Toa Payoh - we are neighbours and I feel an affinity to them.

'When I went campaigning I felt that the atmosphere was very good. Actually no one said anything bad. Not one single bad remark. All the remarks were very encouraging,' he says.

But he is more than aware that this contest could very well be the toughest one of his political career. 'Winning won't be easy,' he admits frankly.

Battleground Bishan-Toa Payoh?

THE GRC is predominantly Chinese, but within its five electoral divisions stretching across Bishan, Thomson and Toa Payoh, it is possible to find nearly every level of society living in nearly every type of dwelling.

There are old public housing blocks - Toa Payoh was one of the first satellite towns built in the 1960s. There are privatised HUDC blocks, a block of newly opened elderly-friendly flats, an executive condominium, and The Peak, which is a public housing development designed, built and sold by private developers.

There are one-room rental flats for the low-income as well as luxury condominiums and landed properties for the high-income.

And where Toa Payoh has a large proportion of elderly residents, Bishan has a considerable number of young couples.

If Mr Chiam hopes to make inroads into such a diverse estate, he knows he is going to require a strong team. This explains why he views a merger with the Reform Party as key to his battle plans.

A merger could see the Reform Party offering two former government scholarship holders - Mr Tony Tan and Ms Hazel Poa - to the slate.

According to a document on the proposed merger leaked to the media in May, any joint GRC team is likely to include party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam, son of the late opposition icon J.B. Jeyaretnam.

The two parties conducted a joint walkabout in Block 152, Bishan Street 11 in April.

Since then, the merger has gone off the rails somewhat, following what seemed to be some disagreement over the terms within the Singapore Democratic Alliance. The SDA, which Mr Chiam chairs, is a coalition of three opposition parties.

Recent remarks from both sides indicate that it could be back on track.

Said Mr Chiam last week: 'I hope there is no impediment for me to join forces with Kenneth Jeyaretnam. I think we will make a very good team.'

Similarly, a press statement from the Reform Party stressed that it was still keen on opposition unity.

'Even though there is no iron-clad guarantee that talks will be successful or that there will be an eventual alliance outcome for this GE, it is clear that the foundations for building future unity are now firmly in place,' it said.

The two sides are also said to be planning a second joint walkabout in Bishan- Toa Payoh GRC by the end of the month.

On the part of the PAP MPs, they say they welcome any contest.

Says Education Minister Ng Eng Hen, who is the MP for Toa Payoh Central: 'We are looking forward to a contest. Our assumption, from the last day of the last election, is that it would be contested. So we work hard for our residents... They know what we stand for. We just leave them to decide.'

Local issues

ACROSS the board, residents seem quite content with the state of their estate. In the two weeks that Insight spent speaking to some 60 people living in the GRC, no major municipal issues were raised.

The sentiment expressed by Madam June Fong, 52, a sales representative who has been living in the area for 20 years, is typical.

'There's nothing that I can complain about. So far, so good,' she says, noting that there are good schools in the area and the neighbourhood is well-served by MRT stations.

There are three MRT stations and two bus interchanges in the GRC. As far as upgrading is concerned, the GRC has had its fair share. All five MPs can name projects in their estate they are proud of.

In Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng's ward of Bishan East, for instance, every single one of the around 90 HDB blocks has undergone at least some kind of upgrading programme.

A 2008 nationwide survey by the Housing Board had 97 per cent of Bishan residents saying they were satisfied with the facilities in their estate. This is higher than the national average of 95.1 per cent.

Over in Dr Ng's Toa Payoh Central ward, there is a unique cluster of four-storey HDB blocks served by lifts.

Ordinarily, these blocks would not have qualified for lift upgrading as there are insufficient economies of scale to ensure the lifts would meet HDB's cost limit of $30,000 per unit.

But on the urging of Dr Ng, HDB managed to produce an engineering solution to lower the costs. The stairwells were gutted to save money on lift shafts and small lifts were installed, large enough for just one wheelchair and two people.

One beneficiary is 78-year-old Leong Foo Yin, a retired shopkeeper who lives on the third floor of one of the blocks.

'I'm very glad to have the lifts, especially when I am carrying heavy things. It used to be I had to climb the stairs every day, it's a lot of exercise,' he tells Insight.

Another highlight of the GRC is the $1.8 million Bishan Active sporting facility opened two years ago in MP Zainudin Nordin's Bishan North ward.

The 24,000 sq m facility has jogging tracks, playgrounds and an exercise corner for senior citizens. It is also the home of the Singapore women's football team.

Throughout the five divisions, covered walkways, parks and playgrounds have sprouted.

If there is a potential local issue, it could be the plan to build a funeral parlour complex next to Bright Hill temple in Sin Ming.

It flared up during a ministerial visit in 2007, when residents complained that adding another funeral parlour was akin to turning the place into a 'funeral hub'.

In response, some changes were made. All incense burning would be conducted indoors and the tender for the complex was put off until an industrial building meant to block it from view was completed.

Says MP Hri Kumar Nair: 'The grassroots efforts definitely played a big part in postponing the decision on the funeral parlour.

'Right now, it is unclear what the status of the project is but we'll deal with it if it comes up again.'

The industrial building has been completed although the status of the funeral parlour complex is as yet unknown.

Residents say they have slowly come to terms with it. Says private tutor Doris Chew, 50: 'It's better now that the new industrial blocks are up. Of course I would still prefer if they don't build the parlour, but at least something has been done.'

National issues

WITH no outstanding municipal issues that could be fodder for the opposition, the next election is likely to be fought over national issues.

One could be the influx of foreigners, whose presence in two HDB blocks in Toa Payoh East is a daily reminder of the issue. Blocks 32 and 33 in Lorong 6 Toa Payoh, which are due for redevelopment, have been temporarily leased to Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) to house its staff.

While many residents have had no complaints about their neighbours, some are simply put off by the idea of blocks of foreigners living in their estate.

Says engineer Jason Ong, 55: 'Now that the integrated resort people are coming here, we're a bit worried about security. We don't know what kind of people are here.'

Mrs Josephine Teo, the MP for the area, admits that she was also hesitant about the blocks being leased. She set three conditions for HDB: the area must be spruced up, bus services must be added and it must generate business for the nearby Kim Keat market.

But the RWS dormitory aside, there are other Singaporeans who take issue with the number of foreign workers arriving in Singapore in recent years.

Mr Peter Chew, 51, says he has been squeezed out of the job market by foreigners. He has been unemployed ever since his electronics business went bust in 2008.

'Because of the foreign workers, who are so cheap, the terms of employment for Singaporeans are so terrible. I hope the PAP will do something about it. If this continues, and if Chiam See Tong can change it, I will vote for Chiam,' he says.

DPM Wong, who oversees population policies, says he understands Singaporeans' concerns about foreigners but stresses that the Government will always give priority to Singaporeans.

'Singaporeans come first,' he says.

'We hear Singaporeans' concerns and we have acted on them. We welcome foreigners to be PRs and citizens so long as they can contribute to Singapore, and we will do so at a pace that they can integrate into the community.'

Foreigners are also blamed for the hike in HDB prices, which is yet another bone of contention in the GRC.

Bishan - a well-connected, mature estate located close to the city - is considered to be the 'Tanglin of HDB estates' as far as property prices go. Little surprise then that it is home to the country's most expensive HDB flat.

A penthouse maisonette in Bishan Street 24 was sold in April for a staggering $900,000, or $170,000 above its valuation.

The feelings are mixed. While first-time buyers are upset at the high prices, home owners are quite pleased to see the value of their assets rising, even if they have no plans to sell.

One such owner is financial adviser Helen Seetoh, 48, who lives near the record-setting flat. She says: 'If the price goes up, you feel good, whether or not you want to sell. After I bought, in 1997, there was the financial crisis, prices fell to $260,000 to $280,000, it was very scary. Imagine if you buy at $400,000 and you sell at $260,000.'

For Mr Chong Qijia, 29, a manager in the finance sector, the escalating prices mean having to pay $30,000 cash over valuation for the four-room flat he bought to live near his parents.

'The first house isn't an investment, I need a place to live, so regardless of the price, I have to stay there, right?' he says.

A more recent issue is flooding.

In Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, some parts of Thomson were among the worst hit by the recent spate of flash floods.

Ms Makswiri Venka Taraman, 43, a sales assistant, recalls having to take off her shoes and wade through the water to get to work in Thomson Plaza.

Retiree Ho Ker Yong, 74, tells of how his kitchen was flooded up to his knee last month.

Understandably upset, they hope that more can be done to tackle the problem.

For Mr Ho, the efforts of his MP, Mr Nair, have been comforting so far. 'I was very touched when the MP came down almost immediately after the flooding to visit those who were affected. Usually MPs travel with an entourage but he was alone and didn't make a big show of it.'

Among the constituents interviewed, the controversies that once dogged the Home Affairs Minister and Education Minister seem to have fallen off the radar.

The 2008 escape of terrorist leader Mas Selamat Kastari is regarded as too old, and the debate over the mother tongue policy has been put on hold until the outcome of a review on the policy is released later this year.

DPM Wong, who is also Home Affairs Minister, says that voters should not base their decision on any single issue. 'There will always be issues building up from time to time. I think one has to look at the totality of what the Government has done, whether as a whole this is a good government, it has the right policies, it looks after the interests of Singaporeans.'

It is still early days and the ground has yet to stir.

Whether the pace will pick up will depend on ongoing talks between Mr Chiam's party and the Reform Party and whether they can put up a strong and credible team.

But whoever the challengers may be, they will have an uphill climb.

Given the level of satisfaction and state of the wards, many constituents say that it will be difficult to convince them of a need for change.

One fence-sitter, taxi driver Chen Fook Heng, 54, puts it this way: 'I'm over 50, and I've only voted once. But even if you get to vote, the PAP will still win.'


'Because of the foreign workers, who are so cheap, the terms of employment for Singaporeans are so terrible. I hope the PAP will do something about it. If this continues, and if Chiam See Tong can change it, I will vote for Chiam.'

Mr Peter Chew, who has been unemployed since 2008

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