PAP Aljunied's 'No-hopers' fired up for next fight

Their names aren't among Parliament's list of 89 elected MPs, but that doesn't mean the People's Action Party candidates in the opposition-held Aljunied GRC have gone back to their day jobs and put their political foray behind them.

Far from it. The team dubbed the "suicide squad" remains intact - and hard at work for an election five years down the road, despite not wresting the GRC from the Workers' Party.

Since the Sept 11 General Election, the five-member team and their activists have been on the ground almost every day, making house visits, celebrating festivals, distributing close to 10,000 N95 masks to residents, and working on community projects like tuition for Primary 6 pupils.

"We will continue as any responsible team should. We do not simply appear for elections or 'champion politics'," says candidate Victor Lye, a director of an insurance firm.

He is in it for the long haul, having served in Bedok Reservoir-Punggol ward for the last 16 years. "We do what we can with our livelihoods and definitely have less time for leisure and family. But we are used to it," he says.

During the hustings, they were a team of relative unknowns up against WP heavyweights Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim.

As well as Mr Lye, the PAP team included unionist Yeo Guat Kwang, lawyer K. Muralidharan Pillai, senior bank officer Chua Eng Leong and then former teacher Shamsul Kamar.

In the end, not only did they improve the PAP's performance in Aljunied by about 4 percentage points, but they had also forced a recount. Mr Low and his colleagues narrowly held on to their seats with 50.95 per cent of the vote share.

Mr Lye is buoyed by the turn of events, but adds that they would be on the wrong path if they made decisions based on whether residents like them. He points to the ongoing town council saga - the Auditor-General found major accounting and governance lapses in the WP's processes - as a factor that affected residents' trust and perception of the opposition's capability: "Singapore must remain special with honest and capable leaders who care for our people, not power. Even the opposition must be held to the same standards of honesty and capability that people expect of the PAP."

And so the team stays on - unless PAP leaders decide otherwise - and their programmes are overwhelmingly self-driven.

"Pre- or post-GE, there has always been a good deal of branch autonomy on what we do for our residents. With the autonomy comes the personal responsibility to raise funds and garner resources," says Mr Pillai, who chairs the PAP Paya Lebar branch. "The motivation is always to make a positive difference on the ground, not to get approving nods or pats on the back from party leaders."

The team attribute their improvement to consistent, faithful work on the ground. "What we're doing now is simply continuing where we left off pre-GE2015," Mr Chua tells Insight. "With the exception of Guat Kwang and Shamsul, we've been here at least about 21/2 years."

Mr Yeo, a four-term MP, was deployed to Aljunied GRC from Ang Mo Kio GRC in a surprise move just before the hustings, while long-time grassroots leader Shamsul replaced Mr Kahar Hassan, the chairman of the PAP Kaki Bukit branch, who was asked to step down two months ago.

In the months and years ahead, the PAP team hope to deliver on the promises they made before and during the election. These include better access for young couples seeking childcare options and providing enrichment and mentorship opportunities that go beyond basic education taught in schools.

Says Mr Shamsul, now a deputy director at the National Trades Union Congress: "Residents have been encouraging when I meet them at markets, block visits and community events. They'd like us to continue our work in Aljunied, and we will continue to serve them to the best of our ability."

Adds Mr Chua: "Considering that Aljunied is still opposition-held, the reception on the ground after GE 2015 has been positive. Residents will wave at us and also acknowledge us when we greet them."

But the candidates would not be drawn into commenting whether the next election would likely be easier.

Nevertheless, political observer and former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin says Singapore can expect political parties serious about winning a GRC to be engaging constituents consistently.

In particular, "the PAP is not about to give up any seat and thus will work hard to capture Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC", he says. "The continued activities are important as residents want to see candidates being committed, and not just appear before elections."

If the PAP retains the team, it could go down well with self-professed middle-ground residents like Mr Donald Yap, 36.

He laments the fact that everyone in the PAP's 2011 team, especially then Foreign Minister George Yeo, left politics, with the exception of current Acting Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung, who was redeployed to Sembawang GRC: "My generation of voters needs some grit in our leaders. If these guys stay, they'll have my vote."

Former minister Lim Boon Heng, who led the PAP's task force in Aljunied GRC, tells Insight the team will continue to work the ground there.

"Considered as no-hopers, they almost pulled off an upset win. It showed that they connected with residents," he says. "Yes, the longer runway helped. It was needed, as the ground was difficult post-GE2011. Unfortunately not all of them had a long runway. Shamsul had only three weeks."

"After the election, they are known, not just in Aljunied, but nationally. They have begun planning programmes for residents, to meet the needs of residents in the respective divisions. These cover the disadvantaged, the ageing residents, the youth," he adds.

This article was first published on October 11, 2015.
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