The Workers' Party (WP) unveiled Lee Li Lian, 34, as its candidate for the Punggol East by-election at a media conference at its party headquarters at Syed Alwi on Monday morning.
The move, if successful, will secure the country's most successful opposition party a seventh elected seat in Parliament, not counting the additional two Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) posts it already has.
Lee, an in-house trainer at a financial institution, last contested the Punggol East ward at the 2011 General Election. She has been with the party for six years and has held various posts
including president of the youth wing and is its current deputy webmaster.
Describing her maiden election experience as "fulfilling and enriching", she faced off against the People's Action Party's Michael Palmer and won 41 percent of the valid vote in a three-cornered fight.
Lee had been one of several frontrunners expected to be named as WP's candidate, with NCMPs Gerald Giam and Yee Jenn Jong also rumoured to be in the running. But it's believed Lee got the nod because of her familiarity with residents in the single-member constituency.
"Over the years, we have found Li Lian to be a sincere, reliable and committed person, a team player with a heart for the people," said WP chairman Sylvia Lim at the unveiling.
"We considered her to be the best candidate, because she has the best experience in the ward... we also believe that her personal attributes are quite suitable for the area so despite the fact that the NCMPs were considered we feel that she is the best to represent WP at the by-election."
Asked whether Lee might be shortchanged in any way because of the belatedness of the party's announcement, Lim voiced her confidence that the residents in Punggol East are already familiar with her.
"Li Lian pounded the ground in 2011, and I think Punggol East remains largely the same... we do have plans for ground campaigning this time round, but we believe that we're not shortchanging Li Lian or the residents because they already know her from previously... we believe that it (our ground campaign) is within our schedule," she said.
Lee, a Teochew by heritage, admits she is more fluent in Hokkien and Cantonese, but says she has no problems communicating with a largely Teochew-speaking elderly resident population, having worked for some time in Hougang -- a constituency that is also dominated by Teochew-speaking residents.
"I have no problem communicating with them (residents) -- somehow or other you are able to get the message through," she told Yahoo! Singapore after the press conference.
At the same time, Lee shared more about her ground-level experience: this included planning and executing grassroots events in Hougang SMC, conducting welfare visits and helping with the constituency's education trust fund. She also assisted Aljunied MP Pritam Singh with his Meet the People Sessions in Eunos, acting mostly as his translator but also assisting with the preparation of letters of appeal, among other grassroots work.
"(Working on the ground was) where I got to really build rapport with residents -- know them, understand them inside out," she said, adding that she still did visit Punggol East "from time to time" because of residents whom she continues to keep in touch with -- some of whom even volunteered with the Workers' Party and would invite her to community events.
The eldest of three girls, Lee is currently married with no children. She lived in Marine Parade for 25 years before moving to Ang Mo Kio in 2005. She has also been serving as Aljunied MP Pritam Singh's legislative assistant.
"Given my experience as a ground activist for the past six years, I have met and interacted with people from all walks of life," she said. "This enabled me to better understand the needs of a wide spectrum of our population."
Why WP 'was not in Punggol East' since GE 2011
Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang also took the opportunity to explain why his party members, including Lee, might not have been as visible in the constituency since after the last general election.
"The Workers' Party is a small party with limited resources, so I decided our priority should be on Aljunied GRC... (and that we should) cease all ground activities at the constituencies we contested," he said.
Low said they initially planned to resume activities once things in Aljunied had "stabilised", later last year, but the Hougang by-election threw their plans off. They have kept in touch with Punggol East residents, however, through sales of their Hammer publication in the area near their market.
"We've had many residents who frequent the market and all that. They're not unfamiliar with us," he added.
Explaining further the delay in the leadership's decision on their chosen candidate, Low stressed that the party is a serious one, which "consider(s) very seriously who to field and the quality of the candidate".
"We make sure that our candidates, when they are elected, they are prepared to work and connect with the people and not just going to Parliament and talk," he said. "But you have to do your work on the ground. You have to run the town council, and you really have to... solve people's problems when you're elected. That's why we're very careful in who we field and when we consider, we consider a lot of factors."
Seeming silence to SDP overtures
Low and Lim continued to deflect any questions posed to them that were linked to overtures from the Singapore Democratic Party over the weekend, maintaining repeatedly and simply that their focus was to offer a choice to voters.
Pressed on the possibility of votes in Lee's favour being diluted by the presence of other opposition candidates in the hustings, Lim said, "It's not our right to tell people what to do, and everyone who believes that they want to contest has the right to do so, so we respect that, but are focused on our own aims."
Lee also said her campaign message is to focus on the needs of the Punggol East residents.
"I think that's very important; that's the role of an MP, you see, (and) that's what we're focusing on," she added.
Punggol East, an SMC with over 31,000 voters, will go to the polls next Saturday on 26 January. PAP unveiled their candidate, 40-year-old surgeon, Koh Poh Koon, last week.
Several other opposition parties, including the Singapore Democratic Party and Reform Party, have also signalled their interest to contest but have yet to officially name any candidates.
They will have until this Wednesday Nomination Day to do so.