PAP's new approach: Up close and personal

PAP's new approach: Up close and personal
Ministers (from left) Yaacob Ibrahim, Sim Ann, Choa Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamed and Lawrence Wong at an MCI Work Plan Seminar.
PHOTO: Berita Harian

With a 2015 General Election looking more and more likely, Insight takes a look at the campaign preparations of the ruling People's Action Party and the opposition camp.

MPs and activists say they have seen a positive difference as they move away from pomp and ceremony.

His home phone is ringing but retiree Ang Chee Teo isn't answering. He can't tell what the number is, but he has an idea who it might be.

"The PAP," he says. "They keep calling me and asking how to improve my area and if there is anything they can do."

Mr Ang, 81, lives in Joo Chiat, a single-seat constituency that the People's Action Party won by a mere 382 votes in 2011.

That near-loss - and the historic defeat in neighbouring Aljunied GRC to the Workers' Party - plunged the ruling party into a period of self-examination, out of which has emerged a PAP with a new approach to campaigning.

Aggressive, deep engagement of residents and a refined political instinct are now the name of the game for the party's operations on the ground. Across the heartland, gone are the days of pomp and perfunctory pleasantries for a party that is one of the longest continuously ruling ones in the world.

MPs and their activists have forsaken mass events for small groups of dialogue, junked awards ceremonies for hugging-and-sharing sessions and even moved their weekly Meet-the-People sessions from place to place, instead of one permanent location, to be physically closer to different groups of residents.

Party organising secretary and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen puts it this way: "After the last GE we took stock, we listened and we said, 'All right, this is what Singaporeans want, we have to get closer to them.'"

Speaking in today's exclusive interview, he emphasises that "the heart had not gone wrong", but acknowledges that the party had lost sight that "perceptions count".

In the four years since that bruising 2011 GE, the PAP's campaigning style has changed, he says. "I go into homes and stay much longer, spend time with the residents, and it's worked. People understand us. "People have commented (we're) working harder, so be it. We'll do what we need to do and we just leave the rest to the voters."

NEW RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

A national vote share of 60.1 per cent would have been considered a landslide in any other first-past-the-post country.

But in the days following the 2011 GE, the ruling party's rank-and-file were stunned and demoralised. Not only had Aljunied GRC been lost to the Workers' Party, but also during the nine-day campaign period, a wave of discontent and hostility had surfaced towards the men in white, even in constituencies without a credible opposition challenge.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised the electorate some soul-searching, and it was carried out. The four freshly elected young ministers - former top civil servants Lawrence Wong and Heng Swee Keat and former military leaders Chan Chun Sing and Tan Chuan-jin - took the lead in branch-by-branch post-mortem, collating activists' feedback on what went wrong and what to do next.

At the national policy level, activists urged action on a slew of fronts, from runaway housing prices to expensive healthcare, over-crowded transport systems and the intense influx of foreigners.

On the ground, they acknowledged that a certain complacency and distance had set in with the way they interacted with residents.

Admiralty activist Eliya Narasinghan, 35, says: "It's not okay just doing whatever we have been doing for the people. In the past, we didn't go on block visits that frequently, we didn't engage the residents that well and the Government was seen to have a top-down approach."

Whether they had shielded party leadership from the discontentment on the ground, or had under-estimated it themselves, the consensus was clear among the branch activists: A complete overhaul of engagement strategies was needed to win back hearts and minds for the PAP.

MPs began meeting their residents in smaller, more intimate settings. Some like Ms Low Yen Ling (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) have changed the way they give out Edusave bursaries. In the past, it was a mass ceremony involving hundreds of students and a quick handshake and photo with the MP.

Now, Ms Low splits up ceremonies into several small ones, where students are asked to express their appreciation to their parents with words and hugs, often moving them to tears. For Mr Ang, bursary ceremonies are not about just presenting cheques. He and his volunteers take bursary winners and their parents to various venues like the Science Centre for fun activities as well.

MPs like Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh) and Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) say that they have added "coffee mornings" or breakfast and dinner sessions to their usual block visits.

In these, a small group of residents - one block, or a few floors - are invited to dine with the MP and share their feedback.

"We have expanded the type of engagement and the type of contact," says Mr Zaqy.

Earlier this year, MP Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) started holding "mobile" Meet-the-People sessions, held at different locations each week, which take the MP and volunteers to residents' doorsteps. The way MPs and activists deliver assistance has also changed, says one activist from the Nanyang ward in Chua Chu Kang GRC.

Intimacy is now emphasised over big gestures, he notes. In the old days, food supplies to the needy would be given out at a big event culminating in MPs distributing food hampers. That has now been replaced by quietly going from door to door with the supplies.

"This is to show (residents) it's not for show, lah," he says.

See also:
Opposition parties ready, especially WP and SDP
PAP has made changes to policies and ties with S'poreans since last polls: Ng Eng Hen

NEW APPROACH COMES AT A COST

All of this has extracted a greater time and emotional commitment from MPs and activists. Kampong Glam activists, for example, say that their added events have meant a time commitment of 30 per cent more than before, while MPs like Mr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) spend only one evening every week at home with family.

No fewer than four PAP MPs have gone more or less full-time in the past few years: Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng, Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah, Marine Parade GRC MP Tin Pei Ling and West Coast GRC MP Foo Mee Har. Mr Baey notes he would not be able to be as active on his social media accounts if he had not left his managing director role at public relations company Hill and Knowlton in 2012.

Residents now alert him to problems via Facebook and Instagram and he can act on them at any time of the day. "I am quite on top of things happening there, and while not everything has been addressed, generally compared to my first term, I feel that I have accomplished a lot more (in my second term)."

But despite their renewed vigour, activists and MPs freely admit that their efforts will sway the vote only at the margins; Ground sentiment in a country as small as this one swings with the Government's national policy agenda.

On this front, PAP activists say that they are receiving a warmer reception on the ground thanks to moderating housing prices, a slowing influx of foreign workers and a shift to the left on social policies. When they do their rounds, there are now fewer complaints directed at the men in white on issues such as transport and housing, says one Taman Jurong activist.

"Now, it's more likely we get thanked by residents. 'Thank you for PGP, thank you for Chas' - it's like we can see things paying off," he says, referring to the Pioneer Generation Package and the Community Health Assist Scheme respectively. The latter gives the lower- and middle-income subsidised health and dental care at clinics.

Then there is the effect of the death of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in March at age 91. He was the PAP's founding secretary-general, and while few activists are willing to state it baldly, Mr Lee's passing and the emotional week of national mourning that followed have led to a noticeable surge in support for the PAP.

In Tanjong Pagar, where Mr Lee was MP for 60 years, activists say that about 10 volunteers from their Meet-the-People sessions have signed up for PAP membership every month since Mr Lee's death.

In the North, activists at Chong Pang - Law Minister K. Shan-mugam's ward - report a surge of 10 per cent to 15 per cent in volunteers after Mr Lee's death.

"I suspect that to the old, it was an affirmation of what they had gone through and what they themselves had experienced. For the young, it was a process of self-discovery," says Dr Ng Eng Hen of the experience of examining and celebrating Mr Lee's long life in mourning his death. He adds that Mr Lee's passing was "his last gift to us" in terms of the national unity it engendered.

"(But) I don't think it's wise for PAP to campaign on Mr Lee, I don't think people will buy it," he says. "You have to campaign and say, 'Vote for us if you believe that this is the type of Singapore you want, (and) that this is a PAP that keeps very close to the core values which he and his founding generation built Singapore on.'"

For some residents, Mr Lee was in death, as he was in life, the PAP's vote-winner.

One Simei resident who gave her name only as Mrs Wong, says that she is now leaning towards casting a vote for the PAP despite her 2011 opposition vote for the sake of balance in Parliament. "After Mr Lee passed away, during the week of mourning, we saw many documentaries about the country's history and what he had done for Singapore," says the 47-year-old. "I feel the PAP is quite capable and the Government has done a lot."

But just as popular national policies can warm up activists' welcome on the ground, so can national mistakes and gaffes wipe away hard-won inroads in an instant.

"You do your ground work the best you can, but voter sentiment is very much affected by national issues which we totally have no control over," says Nee Soon GRC MP Lim Wee Kiak. "That's the fact on the ground." In 2011, it was the case with unhappiness over overcrowding and infrastructural strain. Now, activists are worried headlines over public transport breakdowns or allegedly defective finishings in Design, Build and Sell Scheme projects have the potential to ignite national discontent.

The nine-day campaign is also a period of high emotions that can turn on a dime. In 2011, former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's comment that Aljunied GRC residents would "repent" if they voted in the WP rubbed voters the wrong way and contributed, many activists believe, to the PAP's defeat there.

"Even though things may seem well now, you do not know what the groundswell is like, and the emotions of the day itself are very hard to gauge," says Dr Lim.

"Even within that nine days, things can change rapidly. My take is to never be over-confident, and never take residents for granted."

HARD WORK IS PAYING OFF

Ultimately, only one question matters: Will the new PAP find renewed favour with the electorate?

Activists are careful not to appear over-confident, but the mood is unmistakeably buoyant as the next general election approaches.

Buona Vista activist John Ting, 59, says that "there's still uncertainty, but the activists are now a lot more comfortable and a lot more prepared". He adds: "I wouldn't say optimistic, I would say more comforted that things are taking effect and a lot of the hard work seems to be bringing in some fruits."

Among voters, there are those who have noticed and appreciated the PAP's efforts.

Jalan Kayu resident Neo Zhi Hao, a 28-year-old real estate professional, says: "I think the party has kept its promises and enhanced the standard of living from the last elections for young families and the elderly. All in all, I think we must reward those who have fulfilled their promises."

But others have chalked up the stronger performance - both in policies and on the ground - as an undeniable validation of the opposition's presence on the national political landscape.

One Paya Lebar resident, 69- year-old retired businessman Chua Teck Siang, puts it as such: "We can't just thank the PAP for the beneficial policies, we must also thank the WP.

Since they were voted in, you suddenly see the Government so kancheong (Cantonese for anxious) to give so many things, like the Pioneer Generation Package."

Which view wins out will be made clear sooner or later at the ballot box. For now, PAP activists are raring to hit the hustings - boosted by a sweet ground and encouraged by their ability to meet setbacks with renewal and drive.

Across the island, branches have been nailing down their campaign plans - identifying lamp-posts where posters will go up, booking companies to print their fliers and purchasing the right, durable shoes for the nine-day sprint at the end of a four-year-plus marathon.

All that remains is for the people to meet the candidates.

Most of the PAP's new faces - who will form a quarter of the candidates it puts up in the next GE - have been deployed to understudy sitting MPs at various branches, while talk swirls over the top civil servants and military men who are expected to soon resign high-ranking government posts and enter the political fray.

"We are 85 per cent ready," says one Tanjong Pagar GRC activist. "The last 15 per cent is about whose faces to put on the poster."

rchang@sph.com.sg

wongsy@sph.com.sg

rachelay@sph.com.sg

asyiqins@sph.com.sg

charyong@sph.com.sg

janiceh@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Marcus Lim


This article was first published on July 05, 2015.
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