PAP firming up its line-up?

PAP firming up its line-up?
PM Lee Hsien Loong (front) arriving at the Chong Boon Secondary School polling station with his fellow PAP candidates for the Ang Mo Kio GRC during the General Election in 2011.

AS THE talk of an impending next General Election (GE) heats up, a flurry of activity has been taking place among potential People's Action Party (PAP) candidates on the ground.

Hopefuls are going through final-round interviews with the senior party leadership, while those who have already passed this hurdle are being slotted around the island where existing MPs are set to step down.

For this GE, which must be called by January 2017, the PAP leadership has taken the strategy of exposing its hopefuls early and openly.

Insight has encountered over 20 on the ground understudying MPs in community work, some having been in place since as early as 2012. A few were formally named by the ministers in the group representation constituencies (GRCs) they have been deployed to.

Last April, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen introduced corporate chief Chong Kee Hiong and economist Saktiandi Supaat at a community event to reporters, noting that they were among potential candidates already active on the ground.

Earlier this year, the two were appointed members of the Bishan-Toa Payoh Town Council.

Other potential candidates on the ground have taken up official positions as grassroots leaders or members of party branch executive committees.

The ruling party has long faced charges - not just from opponents but also from its own rank-and-file activists - that some candidates are "parachuted" into branches just before elections. They arrive unused to the rigours of heartland campaigning, untrained in the art of connecting with ordinary folk, and ill-prepared for the media spotlight.

The apotheosis seemingly came in the 2013 Punggol East by-election, when the PAP fielded colorectal surgeon Koh Poh Koon, who had joined the party and been introduced to branch activists and residents mere weeks before the polls. He garnered 43.7 per cent of the vote, losing to Workers' Party (WP) candidate Lee Li Lian.

That prompted a rethink.

In the past, the PAP kept the identities of its candidates under wraps until just before its official media introductions just before the campaign.

This was to avoid thrusting the hopefuls into the public spotlight until they were officially confirmed as candidates, but also to avoid alarming incumbent MPs who may have preferred not to make way for new blood.

But the party leadership seems to have judged that these costs are outweighed by the need to train candidates who are effective and comfortable on the ground.

"The Prime Minister said (in 2013) that even if he felt his candidate was the most suitable one, time is needed for people to warm up to him," says Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) senior research fellow Gillian Koh.

"The strategy of giving more time for would-be candidates to work the ground not only allows the voters to get to know the person, but for the party to see how the ground is responding. It is a necessary strategy for managing risk for the party."

Veteran MP Charles Chong, who helms the Joo Chiat single-seat constituency, tells Insight that "it is the candidate, and not the party, that counts today".

"If you put a candidate in a constituency at the last minute, voters will feel that they have been taken for granted."

But for a select and closely watched group of candidates - those with ministerial potential - a long lead-in time is often not possible.

Those in the civil service's elite administrative service cannot be involved in politics. They must resign from the public service before entering politics, often remaining jobless for a few months through the campaign and polling period, and then are made office holders soon afterwards.

In 2011, this was the path taken by Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, and labour chief Chan Chun Sing.

For the coming GE, watchers expect to see the same number or more of these "big gun" candidates fielded, given Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's declaration last month that the coming polls are "about leadership renewal".

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan also notes that the PAP must now contend with electoral vagaries upsetting its leadership-renewal plans - as when former top civil servant Ong Ye Kung, touted as being of ministerial calibre, failed to win a seat in Parliament after the PAP's Aljunied slate lost their seats to the WP in 2011.

"A buffer may have to be placed in terms of numbers (of ministerial-calibre candidates)," he says. "The pace of leadership succession has taken on a greater urgency, so we can expect the renewal process to be even more rigorous this time."

Talk is that those from the top government ranks who may take the plunge include Chief of Defence Force Ng Chee Meng, 47, Chief of Navy Lai Chung Han, 42, Chief Guards Officer Melvyn Ong, 40, and second permanent secretary of the Ministry of Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat, 42, who was formerly principal private secretary (PPS) to then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Another former PPS to Mr Lee, current Changi Airport Group (CAG) chief executive Lee Seow Hiang, 45, may also decide to take up the call to join the Government.

His entry into politics, after seven years at the helm of a corporatised CAG, will help defuse charges that the PAP's slate of new leaders lacks private-sector experience.

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