COMMENT: PAP should give new candidates more play

People's Action Party first assistant secretary-general Heng Swee Keat (centre) with the party's new candidates for the GE (from left) Ivan Lim, Nadia Samdin, Edward Chia and Desmond Tan. (Photo: PAP HQ)
People's Action Party first assistant secretary-general Heng Swee Keat (centre) with the party's new candidates for the GE (from left) Ivan Lim, Nadia Samdin, Edward Chia and Desmond Tan. (Photo: PAP HQ)
People's Action Party (PAP) vice-chairman Masagos Zulkifli (centre) with the party's new candidates for the GE (from left) Yip Hon Weng, Fahmi Aliman, Hany Soh and Don Wee. (Photo: PAP)
People's Action Party (PAP) vice-chairman Masagos Zulkifli (centre) with the party's new candidates for the GE (from left) Yip Hon Weng, Fahmi Aliman, Hany Soh and Don Wee. (Photo: PAP)

By Bertha Henson

Old habits die hard, which was why I was nosy enough to dig up what I can about the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) first eight candidates. It seems that the first press conference conducted via Zoom was a washout, as the media could only get two questions in before it was time for its second press conference. Only a handful of questions got into the second one.

It must have been a disappointment for both the media and the candidates, who would probably have been carefully prepared for their debut press conference. There was more on what the chairmen of the press conferences, PAP bigwigs Heng Swee Keat and Masagos Zulkifli, said than from the people vying for our vote for the first time.

I asked some media friends if there were any press releases or resumes released. Of course, there were. The PAP is too seasoned in the business of campaigning to have ignored such critical material.

But what I was most surprised by was the lack of attention paid to these write-ups of the PAP hopefuls, which have become even more important given the lack of contact between the media and newsmakers during this COVID-19 outbreak.

All eight of them sounded like they went through the same writing course conducted by an automaton specialising in vague messaging and motherhood statements like “I want to make a difference to __(fill in a group)__”, “improve awareness”, “creating positive experiences”.

There was the usual bio-data, some background on family upbringing, educational credentials, career path as well “personal statement” and “focus areas”. I was impressed with none of the write-ups, which I hope is no reflection of the quality and calibre of the candidates, but an indictment of the PAP’s communication machinery.

There was a good mix of backgrounds: Ex-civil servants including one general, Mr Desmond Tan; two women, including Ms Nadia Samdin who is just 30 years old; and Timbre founder Edward Chia. There was also Mr Mohamad Fahmi Aliman, better known as the former deputy CEO of Muis and whom the PAP said “was one of Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) highest ranking Malay/Muslim regular officers”.

All are married and with the exception of 30-year-old Nadia, all have children. What struck me as strange was that the PAP didn’t say when they all became party members, choosing instead to focus on the grassroots work of those who had done some.

The PAP made much of those who took the “unconventional” route to success: Mr Ivan Lim, 42, who started work at Keppel Offshore and Marine after his O levels, was given a company scholarship to study at Singapore Polytechnic and later obtained a First Class honours from the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne. He is still in the same company, as general manager of the company’s specialised vessels.

There was Mr Don Wee Boon Hong, 43, also lauded for taking the “unconventional education path”. A polytechnic graduate, he could be a poster boy for any continuous learning campaign, taking up part-time courses to become a chartered accountant. Then he went on to collect post-graduate degrees from three different universities. He was then working as a “non-executive” in an unnamed local bank. I see that the media has pried out the name of the bank: He is a vice-president at UOB.

The PAP repeated the phrase “unconventional route” for lawyer Hany Soh Hui Bin as well, pointing out that the 33-year-old was from the Normal Academic stream of an un-named neighbourhood school before going on to an un-named polytechnic and getting a law degree from an unnamed overseas university.

I suppose the PAP recognises the criticism that it fields candidates who seem to have come from a cookie-cutter mould, hence its emphasis on the “unconventional route” of its new candidates. Even Desmond Tan, 50, the ex-People’s Association CEO and brigadier-general, was said to have come from a “simple family” – whatever that means – and an “average student” at Queenstown Secondary Technical school.

These examples defy the usual perception of a PAP candidate born with a silver spoon in the mouth, who sailed smoothly from a gifted programme in a brand name primary school to Express stream in a brand name secondary school and then to junior college and a fancy university with scholarships.

Of the eight, Mr Yip Hon Weng, 43, seems to fit the bill. A government scholar who joined the Administrative Service and with several post-graduate degrees to his name. His last position was Group Chief of the Silver Generation office. What I found most intriguing about the man was his first bachelor’s degree, in Physical Education, Sports Science and Mathematics. Quite a combination!

The PAP said it was fielding 26 candidates, so that means another 18 to go. I hope that it would allow for more questioning by the media, or at least make the new candidates available for questions with voters. They come across, predictably, as big-hearted Singaporeans who care for the underdog and seem only interested in becoming good MPs for the estate rather than parliamentarians reflecting on government policy.

I would have loved to hear these bright people answer some questions which would reflect on their expertise or the commitment to serve. A few that have been floating in my head:

For Desmond Tan: What is the difference between running the People’s Association and running a team in the SAF?

For Edward Chia: What are the pluses and minuses for SMEs as a result of the four COVID-19 budgets?

For Nadia Samdin: How would you deal with those in the Malay/Muslim community who think you should be wearing the tudung? (sensitive yes, but legitimate, methinks)

For Yip Hon Weng: What do you say to the Singapore Democratic Party’s proposal to give $500 to low-income retirees?

Getting answers from them would be a lot more useful than reading their resumes and hearing them recite from a script.

There is another reason the PAP should pay more attention to these introductory sessions. It shouldn’t come across as complacent, perfunctory or merely going through the motions. The power of technology has been harnessed to great effect by opposition politicians. The kind of attention the Workers’ Party paid to its introduction video shows that it wants to capture the hearts and minds of the voters. The SDP put themselves out for a two-way conversation, live on Facebook last night.

Some unpredictability on the PAP’s part would be nice. We still have two more days to go before candidate No. 26.

Bertha Henson is a veteran Singapore journalist who now lectures at NUS. The views expressed are her own.

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