Charles Chong prepares for stiff contest in 'homecoming'

Charles Chong prepares for stiff contest in 'homecoming'
Veteran MP Charles Chong, the People's Action Party's (PAP) candidate for Punggol East SMC, speaking at the launch of the party's election manifesto and slogan for the upcoming 2015 general election held at Infinite Studios near Portsdown Avenue on 29 August 2015.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

For veteran People's Action Party (PAP) MP Charles Chong, contesting in Punggol East is a little like returning home, with less hair. That is what he tells people he meets on his rounds and who recognise him from his time as an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC from 2001 to 2011.

The big difference this time is that Mr Chong, 62, a six-term MP who is also Deputy Speaker of Parliament, is entering an opposition ward to try to oust incumbent MP Lee Li Lian of the Workers' Party (WP).

Still, his familiarity with residents was evident during a morning community walk last Sunday in Rivervale. Several older residents, most with white hair or very little hair, gave friendly waves or smiles, with some stopping to chat.

As far as this veteran campaigner is concerned, every vote - whether from the young or old - counts.

"I think all of us here are very aware that this is ground held by the other party. She has been here for a couple of years, so she has a head start on me. We just have to fight to get every vote," he says.'

He is referring to Ms Lee, who won the single-member constituency in a by-election in 2013, after former MP Michael Palmer stepped down following revelations of an extra-marital affair. She beat PAP candidate Koh Poh Koon handily with 54.5 per cent of the vote in a four-cornered fight.

Dr Koh took 43.73 per cent of the vote while the Reform Party's Kenneth Jeyaretnam won 1.2 per cent. Singapore Democratic Alliance candidate Desmond Lim got just 168 votes or 0.57 per cent.

More importantly, the win by Ms Lee represented a swing of some 13.5 percentage points to the WP from the 2011 General Election, when she had stood against Mr Palmer and lost.

Mr Chong acknowledges the battle ahead will be a difficult one, but adds that he has been through tough fights before.

Speaking to The Straits Times at the PAP branch office in Punggol East, Mr Chong says that his hardest battle was back in 1991, facing off against the WP team led by Dr Lee Siew Choh in Eunos GRC.

"On polling night, I remember that it was all PAP at the start, then suddenly it turned all WP and at one point we were more than two thousand votes behind," he says. The PAP eventually took the ward, winning 52.38 per cent of the vote.

In the last general election, he was fielded against the WP's Yee Jenn Jong in Joo Chiat, where he won by just 388 votes.

"Am I on a suicide mission this time? I don't have bombs strapped to my chest," he says with a laugh.

Instead, he is going in with a clear plan. One part of the strategy is to simply use his old ties with residents to raise support.

"There has been some churn with people moving in and out. Not everyone knows me," he says.

For those who do not yet know him, his plan is to try to meet as many residents as possible and to take a cross-section of the population living there.

"There are too many blocks. Visiting all of them would mean just spending a very short time with each resident," he said.

So far, he has identified several issues that people are worried about at the local level.

One is the lack of childcare places in the area. "One resident told me he has had to wait a year for a place. The Ministry of Social and Family Development has said it will build more places come next year, but it's something we can pay attention to," he said.

Another is public transport, with some residents worried that when the new blocks come up, there will not be enough buses to serve the expanded population.

Complaints about estate cleanliness have also cropped up, and some blocks are showing wear and tear with paint peeling off the walls.

Younger residents, he said, have asked him what he intends to do for the estate. "I can help work out things like adding more childcare places by converting, say, PCF kindergartens to childcare centres, or asking the transport operators to start new services in the area. Those do not cost money for the town council," he says.

But in other areas, he can make no promises because "I don't have access to the books or how much the town council has left over".

In fact, that forms the second major plank of his strategy - pressing home the PAP's point that the WP has not been competent in managing the finances of its town council.

If he wins back Punggol East for the PAP, he plans for it to rejoin Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council, where it was previously before the by-election. "The residents will need to ask themselves if they are happy subsidising Hougang and Aljunied," he says.

But he admits the issue may not catch fire as the estate is relatively new. "It is new, so it's quite clean. But what will happen in two years when everything comes crashing down? Will the Government bail town councils out if the deficit continues to grow?" he asks.

For younger voters, he can also count on his experience in Parliament to win votes. As one of the more vocal backbenchers, he has gone against the grain by speaking on several controversial issues.

One was the parliamentary debate on Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men.

He and Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng were the only two PAP MPs to support a repeal of the law.

Punggol East resident Joshua Hew, 37, remembers Mr Chong for having a "liberal stance".

"If anything, at least he had the gumption to speak about something he believed in, rather than always following party lines," says the father of two.

Mr Chong, a Catholic, remembers getting an earful from his mother the day after he delivered his speech. "She called me and started scolding me. I told her I didn't know she listened to or read my speeches," he says.

"She told me it was because her friends in church started scolding her. I got an earful."

But given the persistent rumours about him retiring from politics, is this the veteran campaigner's last fight?

He replies: "I have been hearing those rumours for many years now... I treat every election as my last. That is the only way we ensure that we do our best, because that's how voters judge us."

This article was first published on Sept 1, 2015.
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