SINGAPORE — Compared to some of the more fiery personalities in the Workers’ Party (WP), they are the quiet men of Singapore’s leading opposition party: former Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP) Gerald Giam, 42, and Leon Perera, 49.
And the duo have been given a huge remit for the 2020 General Election (GE). They are replacing two party stalwarts as candidates for Aljunied GRC – charismatic former party chief Low Thia Khiang, 63, and one-time star candidate and would-be party leader Chen Show Mao, 59.
Low, who is still recovering from injuries sustained during a fall in April, is not contesting the election. Neither is Chen, who launched a failed party leadership challenge against Low in 2016.
It is a study in contrasts. The soft spoken, understated and largely English-speaking Giam and Perera, versus Low, whose mastery of Mandarin and Teochew has few peers, and Taiwan-born Chen, who is almost as dazzling in Mandarin.
Asked about the perception that he and Giam are the quiet men of the party, Perera said with a smile, “Being loud and thumping the table is not necessarily the most effective way to bring progress in politics for the country.” He pointed to his and Giam’s record of speaking up in Parliament. From 2011-15, Giam filed 150 parliamentary questions, while Perera has also engaged in numerous Parliamentary debates.
Perera has been assisting incumbent Aljunied MP Sylvia Lim in her Serangoon division for the past two years. Giam began actively walking the ground in Aljunied in April, when he was asked to take over Low’s duties. “From then on, I was on the ground every day. It’s a lot of making up for lost time, in a way. That was also a challenging period because of the circuit breaker. So we couldn’t actually go knocking on doors.”
What about Chen Show Mao?
Speaking to Yahoo News Singapore at Serangoon Garden Food Centre on Friday (3 July), the elephant in the room – Chen’s absence – made for a sometimes awkward conversation. Low, Chen and former Hougang MP Png Eng Huat asked to step down from their roles as MPs, according to the party.
However, both Low and Png have been actively campaigning alongside the Aljunied team. By contrast, Chen has been conspicuously absent from the campaign trail, though his social media posts show that he remains active with the party behind the scenes.
Asked if residents have brought up Low and Chen to them, Giam said, “It’s mostly questions from residents being concerned about (Low’s) well-being. He has built up a lot of very close relationships with residents there. He has really touched the lives of many people.”
Pressed on whether residents ask why the two men are not running, Perera acknowledged, “Of course that comes up, and Mr Png as well because it’s a contiguous SMC, a lot of connections in Hougang. But I think people do understand that it is about leadership transition and generational succession.”
WP’s Chinese voter base
The absence of Low, Chen and Png – the latter has been replaced by Dennis Tan in Hougang SMC – means that the party has lost its most proficient Mandarin and dialect speakers.
Party chief Pritam Singh even apologised for failing to send a candidate to participate in a recent GE debate in Mandarin on national television, admitting that the WP lacked individuals with the required proficiency in Mandarin. East Coast GRC candidate Kenneth Foo subsequently took part in a live Mandarin debate organised by Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao.
Is the WP then concerned that it might alienate its historically Chinese voter base?
Giam acknowledged, “It's something that we need to continue to work at: attracting talent to come in and join us and be willing to be counted as well. Some of those talents have to be proficient in not just Chinese but Malay and Tamil as well.”
While both men readily admit that the standard of their Mandarin is far from “fantastic”, as Giam put it, they insist that they have no issues using the language to interact with residents.
And what of the optics of Low and Png continuing to campaign for the party? On Thursday, when Low walked Kovan Market, he was greeted by residents like a rock star. “Of course, their proficiency in the language is very, very high, and they are almost part of the furniture in Aljunied and Hougang. They’ve been there for some time, they are extremely well known.”
He added, “We have got to fill some big shoes. We have our work cut out for us.”
The value of social media
In the 2020 campaign, the WP’s social media strategy has impressed, with slickly produced videos and posts. In particular, new candidates Jamus Lim, 44, and Nicole Seah, 33, have made waves on social media, especially after the former’s stellar performance in a live debate with Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. Does online buzz translate to votes?
While praising Lim and Seah’s “common touch” and “ability to communicate with people”, Perera added that Singaporean voters are discerning. “I don't think that having social media effectiveness makes up for a lack of substance on policy, makes up for a lack of seriousness or a lack of integrity.”
He added, “So, you know, we stick to fundamentals. We have good candidates in terms of policy, in terms of character, we walk the ground, and we work very hard.”
And when asked about a meme circulating that claimed Lim would have received flak instead of praise if he were a PAP candidate, Perera responded, “What probably impressed people is the conviction and the passion, not just the eloquence or the policy knowledge. I think if a PAP candidate can show that kind of sincerity, conviction, that kind of passion... it's hard to fake these things... unless you’re a very experienced kind of con artist, in most cases, people can tell.”
Giam added, “He is a good individual and a good candidate in his own right.”
The NCMP scheme
With endless talk of the efficacy of the NCMP scheme and the spectre of an opposition wipeout, what of the argument that the NCMP scheme provides a platform to get elected to being a full MP, as in the case of Sylvia Lim?
Giam responded, “Well, I think that was probably a side effect of what they intended. I don’t think they (the ruling party) intended for NCMP schemes to be created so that opposition MPs could profile themselves.”
But nevertheless, isn’t it a positive side effect, given the name recognition that both he and Perera have earned as NCMPs? Perera noted, “I did say in Parliament during the debate on the 2016 constitutional amendment that in point of fact, if you look at the history of the entire NCMP scheme, every single NCMP has gone on to lose the next election they contest. So how positive is it?
“There was only one exception, that was Sylvia Lim. She was NCMP from 06 to 2011 and then she went on to win. Every other NCMP went on to lose.”
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