Friday, December 17, 2010

No more walkover for MM's stronghold?

Dec 17, 2010

This is a GRC where history runs deep and progress pierces the sky. Anchored by Singapore's founding father, it boasts breathtaking projects such as Pinnacle@Duxton and Dawson. Uncontested since 1991, it is now being eyed by the opposition. But would constituents really want a change?

By Andrea Ong , Tessa Wong

THIS is a place where the old and new jostle like doppelgangers.

[What kind of phrase is that? Are doppelgangers known to jostle? Are the old and the new so alike that they are practically doppelgangers?]

Towering over the sprawling constituency like seven sleek, monochrome sentinels is the Pinnacle@Duxton, the award-winning, 50-storey monolith that stands where the first rental flats were built in Tanjong Pagar.

The GRC has another towering monolith: Singapore's founding father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who has been MP for the Tanjong Pagar ward since 1955.

Flags and banners bearing his face wave in the breeze throughout the length and breadth of the GRC - his omnipresence perhaps explaining why the six-seat GRC has been uncontested since its formation in 1991.

The GRC, which is home to some of the oldest buildings and housing estates, is also experiencing the fastest and most extensive changes to its landscape and skyline. Developers are eagerly snapping up land within the GRC's prime location, which borders the Central Business District, Orchard Road, Bukit Timah and Little India.

Its overall development reflects MM Lee's emphasis on the importance of housing and urban rejuvenation at at the national and GRC level.
His five fellow GRC MPs attribute the estate's rapid development to MM's belief that housing is an asset that residents should own and invest in.

'Look at Pinnacle,' Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Lui Tuck Yew tells Insight. Such developments are 'a foretaste of what good planning and good governance can do to continually bring about new improvements and new life, even to the older parts of Singapore', says the MP for the Moulmein ward.

Indeed, rejuvenation is the buzzword here. Associate Professor Koo Tsai Kee, who has been MP for the Tiong Bahru ward since 1991 and who stands in for MM Lee at his Meet-the-People sessions (MPS), shares this anecdote.

At a Chinese New Year dinner seven years ago, then-Senior Minister Lee looked down at the crowd and told Prof Koo that more young people were needed. 'I told him, we have no new flats, how do you bring in young people?' recalls Prof Koo.

Young families were leaving the area because they could not find flats and existing old flats were too small. Schools in the area were closing down.

'That is how we started thinking of building the Pinnacle,' he says. In an e-mail interview with Insight, MM Lee notes: 'I asked HDB to do a nation- wide ballot (for the Pinnacle) because I wanted new blood in Tanjong Pagar and I wanted to bring younger people into Tanjong Pagar.'

Now, the place is bustling again. A PCF kindergarten opened near the Pinnacle in August, while a new primary school will start operating at Cantonment Road next year.

The ageing town of Queenstown is set to see a similar renewal, with three major residential projects coming up. SkyVille@Dawson and SkyTerrace@Dawson - both 40-storey, build-to-order projects - are expected to be ready by 2015. They boast flexible layouts and a park-like environment. The other Dawson development will take over the land now occupied by the food centre, flats and cinema near Margaret Drive, all more than 30 years old. It will have residential units, as well as community and possibly commercial space.

PAP'S trump card

DELIVERING on the promise of urban development has always been a major trump card for the PAP.

During his 1963 election campaign, MM Lee promised voters that the two rental blocks under construction in Duxton Plain - where Pinnacle now stands - would be completed.

He told them that if they voted for him instead of the Barisan Sosialis candidate, these blocks would be completed and would be theirs.

Today, the ultra-modern version of its Duxton Plain predecessor is sure to be a similar talking point in the coming polls.

For Pinnacle residents like engineering manager Raghu Veer, 45, it is an achievement which would cement their support for the ruling party.

'I'm proud to live in Pinnacle. After it won an international architecture award earlier this year, my relatives in France and the United Kingdom called me to say how lucky I was,' he says.

The three developments at Dawson fall within the Queenstown and Tanglin-Cairnhill wards, which are overseen by MPs Baey Yam Keng and Indranee Rajah, respectively. Both MPs say these projects will be a highlight of their next term if they continue to serve in the same ward.

They look forward to having a say in how facilities and spaces are planned. 'It's also a unique opportunity to build a new community spirit from scratch,' adds Ms Rajah.

GRC residents can also look forward to a slew of new facilities and upgrading. The Pek Kio Community Club in Moulmein ward will be rebuilt near Farrer Park MRT station by early 2013. It will have new amenities like an auditorium, music studios and an indoor sports hall.

But the fast pace of development has its drawbacks. While residents enjoy the new improvements and facilities, central location and convenient transport, they worry that these factors also drive up property prices and the cost of living.

Shipping executive Michelle Ho, 36, who moved to Redhill from Sengkang a few months ago, laments that her five-room flat cost $600,000, almost three times what the flat in Sengkang cost her.

Says Pinnacle resident Jenna Ong, 41, an assistant manager: 'My husband and I can't afford to get another flat after Pinnacle. This is the flat we're leaving to our eight-year-old son. I hope he will treasure it.'

Residents in the older, less developed areas feel a sense of neglect. They say their neighbourhood is rundown and unkempt.

Tekka resident Mr Wu, 43, who declines to give his full name, complains: 'I just feel the maintenance is not so good. A lot of these foreign workers defecate and urinate around my block. It's a more common sight than you would think.'

Changing population profile

ANOTHER price of progress in the GRC is the swift demographic change over the years.

When MM Lee first stood for election in his ward in 1955, he gave a speech titled 'Why I Chose Tanjong Pagar'.

He said: 'I wanted to represent workers, wage earners and small traders, not wealthy merchants or landlords. So I chose Tanjong Pagar, not Tanglin.'

Ironically, the affluent Tanglin area now forms part of the GRC. MM Lee tells Insight that his own ward has been transformed from a poor working class area to 'a middle upper HDB heartland'.

Managing the transformation of the population and the resulting divergences - in age, income, nationality and housing type - can be a challenge, say the MPs.

One big issue is the greying population. In Queenstown, one in four of the residents is aged 65 and above, much higher than the national average of one in 12, says Mr Baey.

He is planning grassroots activities and welfare programmes to cater to the elderly. The guest list for a free Chinese New Year lunch, for instance, will be expanded from 2,000 elderly residents this year to 6,000 next year.

In Radin Mas, where 20 per cent of the residents are 50 and above, its MP Sam Tan says he sees more elderly residents coming to him for financial help.

He is concerned that firstly they are not saving enough for their retirement, and secondly, that their children are not pitching in to support them.

The low-income group is also an area of concern. Ms Rajah calls her Tanglin-Cairnhill ward a 'microcosm of Singaporean society' as it ranges from the very rich to the very poor. It is home to both seven rental blocks in Henderson and Bukit Merah as well as landed property in Bukit Timah and Tanglin.

Over at the rental blocks, where drug problems used to be rampant, the area has been cleaned up, she says. There are reading programmes and a new computer centre to keep the less privileged children in the ward occupied.

Mr Lui's branch volunteers donate money from their own pockets to buy food and groceries for needy residents in the ward.

As the GRC extends to Little India and the CBD, it sees a high influx of expatriate professionals and foreign workers on work permits.

Many residents polled expressed concerns about the newcomers living in their midst. Some complained about them loitering at void decks, while others are displeased with their social habits.

Bukit Merah resident L. Kaur, 39, a cleaner who often visits Tekka Market, says she was robbed and harassed by foreign construction workers there last month.

Ms Rajah and Mr Lui say they have witnessed the effects of the tightened labour laws at their MPS in recent months.

They are seeing a spike in the number of foreigners asking for help with PR and citizenship applications and business owners and employees facing problems with their S-Pass renewal.

'This is a direct response to the policy change last year. It is an issue that will require more careful calibration,' Ms Rajah adds.

Opposition testing the waters

BUFFERED by MM Lee's presence, the GRC has seen walkover after walkover since its formation in 1991.

Of late, the opposition seems to be testing the waters. Members of the Workers' Party and the National Solidarity Party have been holding walkabouts in the area since the 2006 general elections.

The Reform Party (RP) has announced its interest in contesting the GRC. Its secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam tells Insight that whether RP contests in Tanjong Pagar would depend on whether it has enough candidates and resources.

Last month, both RP members and Mr Lui's Moulmein branch activists held Deepavali walkabouts at Tekka Market. They crossed paths, shook hands and exchanged newsletters.

Sources say the Singapore Democratic Party is also thinking of fielding a team comprising young members. It conducted walkabouts in Tanjong Pagar Plaza recently.

The most intriguing political question is whether MM Lee - who at 87 is the oldest serving MP - will continue to run (see other report).

Mr Baey says he is not surprised by the growing opposition interest in the GRC. 'They will enter if MM does not contest, and they are also staking their claim on the GRC to prepare for the future when MM may not be around. Any opposition party which contests in Tanjong Pagar will also get a lot of attention.'

Mr Jeyaretnam declines to comment on MM Lee's presence in the GRC. 'It will not be a factor in our decision to contest and we wish him many more years of good health and mental agility.'

But attention is zeroing in on RP because of the GRC's history. In 1981, Mr Jeyaretnam's father, Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam, swept to victory in a by-election which saw him wresting control of Anson ward from the People's Action Party. He held on to Anson, which now falls within Tanjong Pagar GRC, in the 1984 polls.

Is there still a JBJ support base? Mr Lui is doubtful, saying: 'I'm not so sure that the JBJ effect lingers for all that long. You can't be living on past glories. Kenneth Jeyaretnam is not his father...He's got to be able to show he's an independent man and that he's able to contribute.'

Still, all the GRC MPs are unanimous in their view that the opposition would not find much support among the GRC residents.

Insight's straw poll of 46 Tanjong Pagar GRC residents seems to support this. While some welcome a contest just to hear what the opposition has to say, none of the respondents say they would vote for the opposition.

The lukewarm response to a possible challenge was attributed largely to MM's presence and the perception that the opposition could not possibly do a better job than the PAP in developing the area.

Says air force technician Terence Tan, 39, a Tiong Bahru resident: 'I don't want to waste my time to vote unless the opposition can do a better job. But we're well taken care of here, and it's obvious who people would vote for.'

But those who want a contest say it would put the PAP MPs on their toes. 'The MPs may have gotten a bit complacent because they have Lee Kuan Yew here, so a contest will wake them up. The MPs could do better in getting out more to meet people,' says Tiong Bahru resident Caleb Wee, 46.

How is the PAP team bracing itself for the possible boundary changes? Mr Lui says: 'The message that has been going out to the six branches is: No.1, expect to be contested. No.2, be prepared to contest as an SMC.
'There is every possibility that there could be an SMC or even two SMCs coming out of the GRC. All of us must not only be ready to do battle as a GRC but we must be ready to stand independently on our own as an SMC.'

There has been talk that Mr Sam Tan might be moved out of the GRC to helm a single seat on his own. Another question is whether Mr Lui, who was promoted to full minister recently, may be posted to another GRC to anchor a team.

The minister says he will leave it to the Prime Minister to decide. 'But I would say I've benefited immensely from the guidance of MM. Just watching the man close up, you imbibe certain lessons. It's a worthwhile learning experience like no other.'

Will residents cling on to the iconic brand name of MM Lee and the PAP's track record, or will they be swayed by the allure of an opposition challenge?

MM: All parties welcome to contest

OPPOSITION parties are welcome to contest Tanjong Pagar GRC, but they may find it difficult to exploit issues to garner votes, says Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

'I would say there are no pressing political issues for the opposition to exploit. The people are happy,' he replies by e-mail to Insight's questions on the possibility of a contest.

Members of Workers' Party, Reform Party, National Solidarity Party and Singapore Democratic Party have been seen on walkabouts and house-to-house visits in the GRC in recent months.

MM Lee has been MP for the Tanjong Pagar ward since the 1955 Legislative Assembly elections and the anchor minister for the GRC since 1991.

As a single seat, Tanjong Pagar saw furious battles which Mr Lee won handsomely. Since it grew into a four-seat group representation constituency in 1991, and a six-seat GRC in 1997, it has never been contested.

Explaining why his constituents are happy, he points to the ward's transformation from a poor working-class area to a middle- to upper-income heartland.

When he first won the Tanjong Pagar seat, he recalls, 'there were many port workers and casual workers without homes'.

He notes that two blocks of rental flats - the pioneer project of the Housing Board's Home Ownership Programme - were built along Cantonment Road in 1963. Other estates such as Everton Park, Spottiswoode Park and Tanjong Pagar Plaza soon followed, housing port workers, executives and the working class.

Now, after extensive upgrading and the building of new projects like Pinnacle@Duxton, and with most first generation residents having paid off their loans, 'housing is not an issue in Tanjong Pagar', MM Lee says.

Neither is cost of living, he adds, noting that ComCare funds have not been fully disbursed as the ward sees 'very few' hardship cases.

As for the GRC's mature estates, he says there has been an effort to improve mobility through barrier-free access and upgrading.

When asked if the MPs are ready for the possibility of some divisions being carved out as single-member constituencies, he replies: 'They are all prepared.'

And on the PAP's line-up for the GRC in the next election, he would only say: 'Wait and see. PM will decide.'

It is the same response he gave last month when asked if he would stand in Tanjong Pagar GRC for the next election.

MM Lee had said then that he would stand if he was fit and if the PAP's secretary-general, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, decided to field him.

His fellow GRC MPs declined to speculate on whether MM Lee would continue to stand. But Mr Lui Tuck Yew, who oversees Moulmein, says: 'Singaporeans benefit significantly from his insight, from his connections, from the respect he continues to command in many different countries.'

The MPs speak of bigger-than-usual crowds at GRC events featuring MM Lee as the guest of honour. Mr Sam Tan, the MP for the Radin Mas ward, describes him as having the draw of a 'superstar': 'It's genuine. People gravitate to him, take pictures with him, and shake his hand. This enthusiastic crowd comprises different ages too, from young to old.'

What do the constituents think? In a street poll of 46 people, 29 are in favour of MM Lee continuing to stand, 12 are undecided, while five feel he should retire.

Civil servant Steven Tan, 42, agrees that MM Lee has done a lot for Singapore but feels that he should retire as he is getting old.

But to Mrs Siew Sim Cheng, 53, a Bukit Merah resident and housewife, age is not an issue. 'MM... may be old but he can still use his mouth and his mind,' she says.

A sense of reassurance is cited by residents who want him to stay. 'To a certain extent, because of MM, we do expect that this area would be taken care of,' says Mr Ray Wang, 29, an engineer who lives at the Pinnacle@Duxton.

Others cite his stature and legacy.

Says video editor Teo Wai Chin, 33, who lives in Everton Park in Tanjong Pagar ward: 'MM should stand if he wants to. It's more symbolic than anything else - for the longest time, this has been his ward.'


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