Face-off in Aljunied, Hougang
Updated: Jul 13
By Ethan Tay, Gwen Lee and Sean Lim
A People’s Action Party flag flies at the Eunos Branch Office, located at the PAP Community Foundation Sparkletots preschool, at Block 616 along Bedok Reservoir Road, on 3 Feb 2020. PHOTO: GWEN LEE
Walking around Aljunied GRC, it’s hard to tell the constituency is held by the Opposition.
There are practically no signs proclaiming the presence of the Workers’ Party (WP), which has held the ward since 2011. A lone Chinese New Year banner stands outside a Housing Board flat with a logo of the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC). No dashing photos of the MPs, no flashy yellow hammer.
A banner with Chinese New Year greetings from the Aljunied Hougang Town Council seen along Bedok Reservoir Road on 21 Feb 2020. PHOTO: ETHAN TAY
Instead, pictures of grassroots advisers from the People’s Association (PA) line the roads of the ward stretching from Kaki Bukit to Seangoon. This might be a sign of financial constraint on the part of the WP, or the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) determination to regain the constituency of some 150,000 voters.
A banner by the People’s Association’s grassroots advisers seen along Bedok Reservoir Crescent on 21 Feb 2020. PHOTO: ETHAN TAY
In wards held by the PAP, the grassroots adviser is almost always the constituency’s MP. At Aljunied GRC, three of five defeated PAP candidates who contested in 2015 now serve as grassroots advisers for the ward. They are Mr Chua Eng Leong, Mr Shamsul Kamar and Mr Victor Lye.
The other two candidates in the team were Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, who appears to have retired from politics after 18 years as an MP, and Mr Murali Pillai, who won in the 2016 Bukit Batok by-election.
Their roles have been taken over by entrepreneur Chan Hui Yuh and lawyer Alex Yeo respectively. This pits Ms Chan against WP Chairman Sylvia Lim in the Serangoon division and Mr Shamsul Kamar against Mr Faisal Manap in the Kaki Bukit division of Aljunied GRC.
WP MPs, PA grassroot advisers and PAP candidates in the 2015 general election in their respective divisions. ILLUSTRATION: ETHAN TAY
When WP won Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC in 2011, it wrested control of Aljunied Town Council and merged it with it’s own town council in Hougang to form Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC). The party also took over management of common areas around HDB flats and commercial properties.
But even though the PAP handed over municipal duties to the WP, the PAP’s presence is still entrenched at the community level with its network of PA committees, community centres and PAP Community Foundation (PCF) kindergartens.
A BATTLE OF BANNERS
The PAP’s strategy appears to be raising the profile of its grassroots advisers, who are also party members, wherever and whenever possible. It has many opportunities to do so as these advisers head the Citizens’ Consultative Committee which oversees grassroots bodies under the PA umbrella like the Residents’ Committee (RC).
WP chief Pritam Singh holds his Meet-The-People session (MPS) at the void deck of Block 615 along Bedok Reservoir Road on the first and third Monday evenings of the month. Directly across the road, Mr Chua Eng Leong holds his version of the MPS on the same day and time, in the air-conditioned premises of a PCF kindergarten. A PAP flag with the words “Aljunied GRC” flies outside the preschool. Behind it sits a white illuminated PAP signboard and a large printed logo pasted on a notice board below.
At HDB lift lobbies lie another battleground — notice boards. Those belonging to the RC are filled with publicity materials by the PA while AHTC’s notice boards have schedules for maintenance work and some announcements of WP’s activities.
At Hougang, PA grassroot adviser Lee Hong Chuang’s portrait — the PAP candidate who lost in 2015 — is plastered on numerous banners and RC notice boards. Photographs of the WP’s MP Png Eng Huat were rarely spotted.
Photos of Mr Lee Hong Chuang are peppered throughout a Residents’ Committee notice board at Blk 328 Hougang Ave 5 on 13 Feb 2020. PHOTO: GWEN LEE
And then there’s the fight for banner space.
There’s an etiquette to where each group gets to hang their banners, according to Mr Koh Choong Yong, vice-chairman of WP’s Hougang Constituency Committee. The poles where banners are hung are usually marked with either the PA or the town council’s logo. If not, it’s first-come-first-serve, Mr Koh said.
But that rule hasn’t always been followed. Grassroots volunteers in 2018 covered a WP banner with a PA banner with the adviser Mr Lye’s face on it. Mr Lye later apologised and the PA’s banner was removed.
ON THE GROUND
The tussle over banner space is emblematic of the bigger complaint of opposition MPs that the grassroots advisers are usurping their role as elected MPs. Advisers in the WP’s wards carry out roles traditionally associated with MPs, for example, by presenting government bursaries to constituents and carrying out government programmes.
So residents like Madam Poh, a 58-year-old housewife, can’t be blamed for believing that events around her neighbourhood were being held by the PAP, when it was in fact by the PA.
“For this area, PAP (holds) more activities,” said Madam Poh, who lives in Bedok Reservoir. “I usually attend exercise activities organized by the RCs, such as Zumba. I don’t see WP organising such events.”
For the WP, it’s a problem because it takes away opportunities for them to meet residents like Mrs Lim, 46, who lives in a private property within a territory under former WP chief Low Thia Khiang.
She said she hardly sees Mr Low but will meet her grassroots adviser Victor Lye once a year when her son receives an Edusave scholarship award. “I know Mr Lye is from the PAP and that Edusave is a government thing,” said Mrs Lim.
Mr Victor Lye presents an edusave bursary award to the son of Mr and Mrs Lim. PHOTO COURTESY OF MRS LIM
Most residents don’t, or can’t, make a distinction between the roles played by MPs and by grassroots advisers, said WP’s Mr Png Eng Huat, MP for Hougang SMC.
“Residents sometimes tell me ‘Mr Png, I am very happy that my daughter will be collecting bursary from you’. I have to explain all over again that it doesn't work this way here,” he told Class Notes.
The Opposition’s complaint over the years is that the PA has since deviated from its role of promoting social cohesion, instead advancing the political goals of the ruling party. The appointment of losing PAP candidates as grassroots advisers, in particular, has been challenged by WP as the “politicisation” of a government statutory board.
Mr Singh recounted this in one of his rally speeches in 2015: “When the Aljunied MPs took over the GRC in 2011, our first welcome gift from the PAP was the transfer of the leases of 26 community sites where Aljunied residents gather and bond, from the Town Council to the People’s Association. The seven Residents Committees in Eunos received a directive from someone, I don’t know who, not to engage or have meetings in the RC Centre with the incoming Workers’ Party Town Council.”
In March this year, WP MP Sylvia Lim asked Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong for the rationale behind the Housing Board’s issuing of temporary occupation licenses of state lands to the People’s Association for long durations of several years. Mr Wong skirted the question and went on to explain the State Land Rules instead.
The Government’s stand has been that opposition MPs are not appointed grassroots advisers because PA’s role includes having to explain government policies to citizens. “We do not presume that opposition MPs believe that they would be willing or able to execute this role for the government of the day,” PA’s deputy chairman Chan Chun Sing, who was then-Minister in the Prime Minister’s office, said in Parliament in 2018.
WP MPs can’t use the seven Community Centres’ (CC) facilities in their constituencies for their activities. The CCs serve as bases for grassroots activities in the estate and are where residents gather for classes and events held by the PA. It’s also where grassroots advisers hand out Edusave awards and distribute masks.
The first time an opposition party won a seat since Independence — when the late Mr J B Jeyaretnam from the WP took the Anson seat — former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and his team of younger MPs wanted to hand Mr Jeyaretnam control of the CC, Mr Goh revealed in the book Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story. Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew intervened, and CCs stayed with the PA statutory board instead of being passed to the incumbent party to run.
When the Government in January decided to give surgical masks to each household amid shortages islandwide from the new coronavirus outbreak, the PA was tasked with its distribution.
At Hougang Avenue 10, posters of the grassroots adviser Mr Lye’s mask distribution schedule were seen at the lift lobbies. Mr Lye said WP’s Pritam Singh gave him permission to put them up.
WP MPs, unable to front the distribution, went to RC offices to thank the PA staff and volunteers involved in the mask distribution.
Aljunied grassroots adviser Alex Yeo and Shamsul Kamar gave residents donated hand sanitisers and soap bars. Mr Shamsul Kamar made sure to affix his photo on publicity material for the distribution.
Hougang grassroot adviser Lee Hong Chuang gave out free hand sanitizers too. They were provided by Temasek Foundation which was giving them to all households in Singapore.
Mr Lee’s digital poster on Facebook announcing the collection of hand sanitizers. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/LEE HONG CHUANG
Grassroots advisers chair the Citizens’ Consultative Committees (CCCs) in their wards. If town councils want to get grants from the Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC) fund under the National Development Ministry for renewal projects in HDB estates, they have to get approval from these advisers.
WP MPs believe this puts Opposition town councils at a disadvantage. Last year, Mr Singh and grassroots adviser Mr Chua engaged in a war of words on Facebook over a ramp that took seven years to complete.
Mr Singh complained about the CCC’s tardiness in approving CIPC funding for the ramp. Mr Chua described his claims as “unsubstantiated” and a “red herring” to distract the public from the court case WP MPs and AHTC were embroiled in.
Class Notes previously reported that AHTC has been receiving much less in CIPC funds in past years than PAP town councils.
RELATED STORY: CIPC funds: Which town council got how much
Mr Singh said in a GE2015 rally speech that the CCCs “are intentionally organized to serve as a political tool of the PAP, and to make it difficult for any opposition party to make inroads into Singapore politics”.
WHO’S MEETING THE RESIDENTS?
Across Singapore, elected MPs organise weekly Meet-the-People sessions (MPS), where residents with personal grievances can seek counsel from the MPs themselves. In Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC, these weekly sessions are helmed by the WP MPs.
Not to be out-done, the PA advisers in these wards have started similar weekly affairs, carrying out the meetings in the capacity of PAP branch chairpersons. They sometimes go by different names — Ms Chan Hui Yuh’s sessions in her Serangoon Branch in Aljunied GRC go by “WeCare Sessions” while Mr Lee calls his events in Hougang SMC “Meet-the-Residents Sessions”.
On Feb 3, Class Notes visited Mr Singh’s MPS in Eunos ward, at the void deck of Block 615 Bedok Reservoir Road. It was a spartan set-up, with several plastic chairs for the residents, a few tables, two standing fans and an office chair for Mr Singh himself. Helping him was 36-year-old WP party member and IT professional Nathaniel Koh, along with six volunteers who manned the registration booth and drafted the residents’ appeal letters. There were about 25 residents waiting to see Mr Singh.
MP for Aljunied GRC Pritam Singh (left) conducts his MPS at the void deck of Block 615 Bedok Reservoir Road on 3 Feb 2020. PHOTO: GWEN LEE
At the same time that evening, Mr Chua was holding his own session at a well-lit PCF kindergarten across the road.
In Hougang SMC, Mr Png holds his MPS at the void deck of Block 310 Hougang Avenue 5, while Mr Lee conducts his consultations at a PCF Kindergarten under Block 328, a five-minute walk away. Both are held on Wednesday evenings.
Some residents Class Notes met have made use of listening ears from both their MPs and the PA advisers. At Mr Png’s MPS was Ms Sally Neo in her 50s, who wanted help with her hospital bills and plumbing issues. She had initially gone to Mr Lee as it was closer to her house, but switched sides after a volunteer there refused to write a letter for her.
Mr Png said the PAP’s MPS did not bother him. “The objective of an MPS is to make sure the resident’s problem is solved. Whether you solve it here or there, it must be solved,” he said.
Some residents Class Notes met at Mr Singh’s MPS had approached his PAP counterpart before. Madam Kalima, an unemployed resident, was seeking a recommendation letter for a customer service job in AHTC from Mr Singh. She said she had also gone to Mr Chua to enrol her grandnephew in a PCF kindergarten.
Not all residents know they have two places to air their grievances.
A couple, Mr Chris Lim, 54, and Mrs Lim, 47, were at Mr Singh’s MPS for legal assistance. They were flummoxed when told there were sessions by both the PAP and WP in their ward. “Isn’t this a WP constituency?” Mrs Lim asked.
Across the street, on the PAP side, 40-year-old Madam Halimah was waiting to see Mr Chua. “I never see that this is PAP MPS and that is WP MPS. I see this is MPS so I come for my issue,” she said. She added she knows her area is under the WP because Mr Singh visited her at her flat the week before, but she was not aware there were two MPS sessions under different flags in her ward.
“Residents who want to see the WP can go there and residents who want to see the PAP can come here,” said Mr Raymond Lim, a long-time volunteer at Mr Chua’s sessions. “It depends on (their) preference.”
Mr Singh said that a huge downside to holding MPS at void decks is the lack of privacy. “Some WP MPs would prefer placing a screen, but that’s about it,” he added.
The HDB allows MPs to build offices at void decks, but construction costs, and costs to dismantle them when no longer in use, need to be borne by the MPs. It may become a costly affair should an MP lose a general election, or if the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee redraws the boundaries and the MP no longer stands in that ward.
On the PAP side, Class Notes understands that branch chairpersons of their divisions, who are also grassroots advisers, can pay to use local PCF kindergartens for MPS sessions. Class Notes was unable to obtain the cost involved, which is said to be confidential information.
The PCF is a charitable organisation founded by the PAP that provides various community services, such as childcare and eldercare. The use of PCF premises for political activities have long been questioned by the Opposition. Mr Png recently asked in Parliament if PCF kindergartens should be used for political activities like the MPS. He was told the question has already been answered.
In parliamentary records, Class Notes found a statement given in 1993 by then Minister for National Development Lim Hng Kiang that the PCF could sublet its premises for up to 20 per cent of their operational hours per year for non-profit purposes, including MPS sessions.
When then-opposition MP Chiam See Tong asked Mr Lim whether the PCF had permission to use its premises for political purposes, the Minister said that MPS sessions are “occasional” and he does not require the PCF to apply for such permission.
The town council is where the authority of MPs really lies. It is also where WP MPs have received the brunt of its attacks. The AHTC has been described as incompetent management riddled with conflicts of interest, soon after the party took over the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council in 2011.
This culminated in a judgment in the High Court on 11 Oct 2019, which stated that three WP MPs — Mr Pritam Singh, Mr Low Thia Khiang and Ms Sylvia Lim — had breached fiduciary duties and were liable for damages that could amount to several million dollars. On Jan 3, the Ministry of National Development issued an order to restrict Mr Low and Ms Lim from handling financial matters in AHTC. The town council announced on Jan 17 that it will comply with the order.
The WP is appealing against the judgment. Although a civil case, the political future of the three MPs hinges on its outcome, especially whether they can afford to pay for damages should they lose the appeal. The law does not allow undischarged bankrupts to contest in general elections.
In the meantime, the political rivalry between the WP and PAP simmers on.
Last year, Mr Png, MP for Hougang SMC, wrote on Facebook that his residents told him Mr Lee, the defeated PAP candidate from the last election, had claimed he was implementing the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (NRP). Mr Png had to clarify that the main entity leading the NRP is the town council, not the grassroots adviser.
But this doesn’t mean grassroots advisers cannot get involved. They are appointed by the HDB to be part of the NRP working committee. Mr Png also said that Mr Lee goes around talking to residents during NRP works.
Class Notes caught a glimpse of this peculiar co-existence on Feb 1, at an NRP exhibition at Block 421 Hougang Avenue 10, in the Bedok Reservoir-Punggol ward under Mr Low Thia Kiang.
Mr Low was spotted at the exhibition introducing the NRP to residents, along with two WP candidates from GE2015 — Mr Adrian Sim, who contested Jalan Besar GRC, and Ms He Ting Ru, who contested Marine Parade GRC.
Also in the crowd was PAP’s Mr Victor Lye, the grassroots adviser of the ward. He was actively approaching residents, shaking their hands and engaging in small talk.
Mr Lye said that he makes frequent house visits, and when he does, he “wears two hats”. “At walkabouts or house visits, I introduce myself that I’m from the PAP. On dengue inspections, I introduce myself as a person from government agencies,” he added.
Both Mr Lye and Mr Low said that they have a cordial relationship, although Class Notes saw no interaction between them during the event.
But both sides are definitely keen on engaging residents. Even to the very end. Just look at the picture below.
WP’s banner (left) and PA’s banner in a funeral at Block 361 Hougang Ave 5 on 13 Feb 2020. PHOTO: SEAN LIM