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SINGAPORE — Even if the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) candidates were to lose at the upcoming General Election (GE), they would still return to their respective electoral divisions as grassroots advisers under the People’s Association (PA), said the anchor for the Workers’ Party (WP) team contesting Marine Parade GRC.
“The PAP candidates have been saying that ‘we've been serving you, give us another chance, we want to be here with you’. The reality is, even if they lose the election, they're not elected as Members of Parliament in the GRC or the division they're in, they will still be back as grassroots advisors under the PA,” said Ron Tan, 35, describing what he called a “win-win situation” for voters.
“There'll be two sets of people that'll be able to write in letters for you. Because as opposition candidates, if we lose, we lose all rights to be your voice. But PA grassroots advisers can write in for you as well. So look at Aljunied and Hougang (in previous Parliaments): they've got choices. The residents have choices from both sides. So why not Marine Parade?”
Tan was speaking to Yahoo News Singapore at a coffeeshop in Eunos Crescent on Thursday (2 July). He leads the WP team which include entrepreneur Yee Jenn Jong, 55, and three new faces: IT professional Nathaniel Koh, 36; lawyer Fadli Fawzi, 39; and Grab driver Azhar Abdul Latip, 33.
They are up against the incumbent PAP team led by Speaker Tan Chuan-jin, 51, Senior Minister of State Edwin Tong, NTUC FairPrice Group CEO Seah Kian Peng, and newcomers Dr Tan See Leng and Fahmi Aliman. In GE2015, the PAP team garnered 64.1 per cent of the vote.
In opposition wards, the losing PAP candidates in past GEs were typically grassroots advisers. For example, Lee Hong Chuang, who was defeated in Hougang SMC by the WP’s Png Eng Huat in 2015, is the grassroots adviser for the ward. Former Potong Pasir MP Sitoh Yih Pin, who lost twice to opposition veteran Chiam See Tong before being elected in 2011, was also a grassroots adviser in the ward for a decade before becoming an MP. Similarly, the losing PAP Aljunied GRC teams in GE2011 and GE2015 comprised grassroots advisers.
Grassroots advisers, who are appointed by the government, hold considerable powers. For example, all MPs must go through them to raise municipal projects for consideration. They have often been accused of being partisan.
‘You must be resilient’
Yee is the most experienced of the Marine Parade candidates, having run veteran Charles Chong to the wire in GE2011 in the now defunct Joo Chiat SMC and serving one term as a Non-Constituency MP (NCMP). He also anchored the WP team in Marine Parade in GE2015, which garnered 35.9 per cent of the votes.
Given the slow pace of opposition gains in the last decade - the balance of power in the last two Parliaments remaining relatively unchanged - has Yee ever thought of throwing in the towel? The father of three demurred. “If you want to be in opposition, you must personally be resilient. Because we don't come into these elections thinking that, oh, the PAP are easy meat. They have been winning non-stop since independence...it is so difficult to break them down. This is just a life that people who want to come in, you just have to take it as it is.”
Yee pointed to the WP’s electoral victory in Aljunied GRC in 2011, which provided a platform for the party’s candidates like former NCMP Dennis Tan to serve and prove themselves to residents. “Without Aljunied, there is no Dennis today, I can tell you for sure, because what can I do as an NCMP when I'm just going there, knock on doors. After a while, you find that you can't really serve the residents because the government just ignores you.”
Dennis Tan, who gained 42.5 per cent of the vote in Fengshan SMC in 2015, is the WP’s candidate for Hougang SMC, succeeding incumbent Png.
Yee also stressed that voters must play their part. “Singaporeans must also feel that they believe that it is important to have a Team B, that they cannot leave the PAP to have the monopoly of wisdom. If they do that, and we continue to have some grounds, then we can go forward.”
To run or not to run
So what of the perennial fear factor: have the candidates ever felt that they missed out on opportunities or were discriminated against because of being in the opposition?
Koh, who has been with the WP for nine years, said, “The short answer is no. Because in the jobs that I've had, the various companies that I've worked for, I've conducted myself professionally. There is a barrier between politics and your professional life. That fear to me is unfounded.”
Also disagreeing, Azhar said, “I think when someone chooses to fight under the banner of the opposition, that person has to understand that it will be a very tough journey. (But) my entire family, my relatives are all fully behind me. I've gotten words of encouragement from people I don't even know, who's been messaging me and that keeps me going strong.”
For Ron Tan, it is the culmination of a journey that began in 2012, when he faced a choice between the PAP and the WP. “To be honest, I was approached by the RC chairman in my estate, on or around the same time I started with Workers’ Party.”
Today, the contracts officer has deep roots in the WP: he ran as a candidate for Nee Soon GRC in 2015 and is also married to a fellow party member. “I would say that I'm aligned with what Fadli said earlier: join the underdog because it's a tougher fight.
“After exposing myself to how things are in Singapore, I realised that it is important to have an opposition in Parliament to really voice out for people who fell through the cracks.”
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