More young faces heading PAP offices

SINGAPORE - As the electoral cycle crosses its mid-point, the People's Action Party (PAP) has been injecting young blood into its ground operations.

At least five activists in their 30s and 40s have been appointed branch secretaries in recent months - a post usually held by older PAP members with decades of experience and is a pipeline for new politicians.

Of the five, some - like top property lawyer Jerry Koh, 47, and Mr Henry Kwek, 37, the executive director of food supply company Foodtraco Supplies, - have been propelled to the role within a few years of joining the party.

Mr Koh is branch secretary for Serangoon, in Workers' Party-held Aljunied GRC. Mr Kwek is branch secretary in Chong Pang, the ward helmed by Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

The other three newly appointed young guns are Mr Joshua Yak, 34, in Boon Lay, Mr Chew Weiqiang, 30, in Potong Pasir, and Mr Wong Hao, 36, in Kaki Bukit.

The politicians they serve are Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, Potong Pasir MP Sitoh Yih Pin and Aljunied GRC candidate Ong Ye Kung respectively.

Branch secretaries are the ranking activist in each of the PAP's 87 branches and act as the MP's "overall-in-charge" point man. The group, which meets every two months at the PAP's headquarters, has yielded election candidates as it is a high-profile and demanding position from which the mettle of potential politicians can be tested.

MPs who are former branch secretaries include Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Gan Thiam Poh, Nee Soon GRC MP Patrick Tay, Choa Chu Kang GRC MP Alex Yam and Potong Pasir's Mr Sitoh.

The post is a demanding one. Kaki Bukit's Mr Wong said that he is in the constituency three nights during the week and during the weekend.

The manager in a semi-conductor firm and father of a three-year-old said that it has been "quite stressful" since he became branch secretary last November. "But when (Mr Ong) approached me, I felt I can do more for the party, and that's why I agreed," he said.

Boon Lay's Mr Yak, who manages a family business in interior furnishings, has a 14-month-old child and a baby on the way. He wants to change the way the party is perceived.

"People have this image that PAP activists are rich people or towkays, but we are fellow human beings off the street," he said. "There is a disconnect between what people think the PAP is and what it actually is."

The young branch secretaries also want to modernise operations, such as by automating processes for Meet-the-People sessions.

Mr Sitoh, who appointed his 30-year-old branch secretary this month, said that he himself was, at age 27, one of the youngest to hold that role in the early 1990s.

"I always believe that you should give young people a chance, just as I was given a chance. But there is no substitute for experience, so I will be keeping a close watch on him," he said of Mr Chew, a software specialist.

The appointments come as PAP leaders send a steady stream of potential candidates to its network of branches to gauge their suitability for politics in the next general election, likely to take place in 2016.

This group will grow, say MPs, after Parliament is prorogued in April. Already, two from the list of speakers at the PAP convention last November are seen as likely politicians: polytechnic lecturer in international relations Khartini Khalid, 37, with the Joo Chiat branch, and lawyer Benjamin Tay, 34, with the Woodgrove branch in Woodlands.

But one prominent group of PAP candidates will not appear on the ground until very close to the general election: those in the administrative service and armed forces.

These top public servants are barred from taking part in political activity while employed by the Government.