Putting residents first is party's mantra as it works to shed image of being out of touch
In Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Meet-the-People Sessions are on Tuesday evenings.
So a Writ of Election issued on a Tuesday made barely a ripple among the People's Action Party (PAP) branches in the GRC yesterday. There was no strategy meeting, logistics planning or party pep talk in any of its five divisions.
"The residents come first," said one activist with a shrug.
The one-liner has become something of a mantra for a renewed PAP's 2015 campaign.
In the past four years, it has worked hard to shed the image of being out of touch and complacent with the ground, factors which played a part in a vote swing against the ruling party in the 2011 General Election (GE).
Out went the pomp and ceremony of grassroots events; in came dialogue with small groups of residents. And as election season began in earnest over the past month, the "residents first" message has been front and centre.
New PAP candidates were introduced in heartland settings such as coffee shops and nursing homes, and most had been volunteering on the ground for months or years before their political debut.
More significantly, the PAP made it clear which candidates were standing where. In the past, new faces were introduced with no confirmation until Nomination Day of where they would contest or which sitting MP they would replace.
This change, said party leaders, was in response to residents wanting to know earlier who would be seeking their vote.
Yesterday, party organising secretary Ng Eng Hen told The Straits Times before starting his Meet-the-People Session that the various moves were paying off.
"Our candidates' feedback is that when they're walking the ground, many of them say they're recognised, because they've been on the ground organising events, helping residents," said Dr Ng, who is Defence Minister and leader of the PAP's Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC team. "The face recognition is very strong. So I'm happy with it."
The party hopes this will reap dividends at the ballot box as well, as candidates' pictures will appear on ballot papers for the first time. The party's campaign has been designed to have "very few surprises", Dr Ng noted.
But it is keeping its cards close to its chest in one area. In past elections, new PAP candidates were all introduced by the time Parliament was dissolved.
This time, candidates for four GRCs and two SMCs have yet to be revealed by the ruling party. These are all constituencies which the Workers' Party (WP) is contesting.
"The PAP is probably holding back because they want to be sure who the candidates for the WP are in these areas," noted Associate Professor Alan Chong of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. "They are taking the opposition very seriously this time around."
The ruling party has also upped the ante in WP-held constituencies by sending veteran sitting MPs to contest those wards, rather than political unknowns as was its wont.
Mr Charles Chong is likely to move from Joo Chiat SMC to be the PAP candidate for WP-held Punggol East SMC, while Mr Yeo Guat Kwang is likely to move from Ang Mo Kio GRC to join the five-man slate for Aljunied GRC, the WP's crown jewel.
PAP MPs across the board have also put on a shield of political savviness. Several declined to answer questions on what local issues their residents are concerned about. Making this public would only be giving information away to opposition parties who have not been as active on the ground, they said.
At the national level, PAP leaders have repeatedly emphasised the message that this GE, coming in the year of Singapore's Golden Jubilee, is about securing the next 50 years by entrenching the fourth-generation of leadership.
To that end, top public servants like former defence chief Ng Chee Meng - the PAP's highest-ranking military catch to date - are entering politics now.
And compared with 2011, when the ruling party seemed to be caught back-footed by a wave of antagonism from the online space, it has adopted a welcoming posture this time around.
Socio-political websites have been invited to press conferences and granted exclusive interviews with new candidates, while party leaders routinely take to social media to post their thoughts.
"It's a matter of trying to improve their image and make them seem more approachable and down- to-earth," noted National University of Singapore political scientist Reuben Wong.
Be it the electorate's desire for more transparency and a greater say, an opposition presence that must be dealt with cautiously or a thriving new media sphere, the PAP of 2015 has sought to get in front of the waves of change which sent its vote share down four years ago.
But in the logistics of running national campaigns, the ruling party is a seasoned hand.
Asked how they were preparing for the campaign, many MPs and activists said the logistics had been mostly finalised months ago.
Printing of campaign materials? Purchasing of plywood boards and cable ties for posters? Rostering of hundreds of volunteers for the long days and nights ahead? Done, done and done.
One of the few things left to do, as many PAP candidates and volunteers did yesterday, was to apply for leave from Nomination Day through to Polling Day.
As Braddell Heights branch secretary Philip Tan put it: "We're all ready."
This article was first published on August 26, 2015.
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