Singapore GE: Analysts pick East Coast and West Coast GRCs, Bukit Panjang SMC among electoral battles to watch

Political analysts say the decision to move Heng Swee Keat was intended to stave off the Workers Party’s threat in the East Coast Group Representation Constituency. — TODAY pic
Political analysts say the decision to move Heng Swee Keat was intended to stave off the Workers Party’s threat in the East Coast Group Representation Constituency. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, July 1 — With the battle lines drawn at the close of Nomination Day, political analysts said that the East Coast and West Coast Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) and the Bukit Panjang single-seat ward are among the key contests to watch in the coming polls.

It was confirmed yesterday that the ruling party’s first assistant secretary-general Heng Swee Keat would lead a team in the hotly contested East Coast grounds, leaving his Tampines stronghold after nine years to face off with the Workers’ Party (WP), which is the main opposition party.

Desmond Lee, the organising secretary of the People's Action Party (PAP), will shore up the party's slate in West Coast, where it is in a straight fight with the Progress Singapore Party (PSP). Lee is the minister for social and family development.

That two Cabinet ministers — Lee and S. Iswaran, the minister for communications and information — are on the PAP’s West Coast team further underlines the electoral challenge posed by the PSP team led by Dr Tan Cheng Bock, the analysts said.

At the same time, Dr Paul Tambyah, chairman of Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), defied expectations to contest in his old grounds of Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, moving to the Bukit Panjang Single Member Constituency (SMC). His move is geared at raising the odds of SDP clinching at least one seat at the polls, analysts said.

Here are some takes by analysts on the key match-ups to watch in the polls.

East Coast GRC

It was only about half an hour before candidate nominations closed yesterday that Heng was driven into a nomination centre at Bedok North, confirming talk that he would move out of Tampines GRC, where he had been a Member of Parliament (MP) for nine years.

His candidacy for East Coast GRC was confirmed 90 minutes later, setting Singapore’s political scene abuzz with excitement, given Heng’s pivotal role in PAP’s plans for the next term of government, should the party prevail at the GE.

Heng is deputy prime minister and finance minister. He is widely expected to take over from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has stated his wish to step down from the post before he turns 70 in 2022.

Political analysts said that the decision to move Heng is intended to stave off WP’s threat in the constituency.

Associate Professor Alan Chong of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) said that voters were “unlikely to want to unseat” Heng.

It is a “sure sign that the PAP wants to stem this idea” that WP could eventually wrest East Coast GRC from its grasp, he said.

Political analyst Woo Jun Jie said that the move showed a need for PAP to shore up its East Coast team, after the retirement of incumbent MPs Lim Swee Say and Lee Yi Shyan.

Dr Felix Tan, an associate lecturer in international relations at SIM Global Education, said it was a signal that PAP does not want WP to make inroads anywhere, particularly in East Coast GRC.

Political commentator Eugene Tan, a law lecturer with the Singapore Management University (SMU), said that it was “highly unusual to redeploy a prime minister-in-waiting.”

He noted that the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his successor, Goh Chok Tong, had stayed in their wards in all their electoral contests.

“Similarly, PM Lee has been MP of Teck Ghee SMC and later Ang Mo Kio GRC since he entered politics,” Tan said.

He suggested that PAP had “perhaps overstated the WP threat” in East Coast.

Political scientist Walid Jumblatt Abdullah of NTU said that Heng’s move was “extremely bold and courageous.”

He noted that PAP typically gets a lower vote share in constituencies contested by WP than in those that are not.

Heng is, therefore, putting his credibility on the line if the East Coast team were to receive a vote count significantly lower than the national PAP average.

In the last election in 2015, PAP won East Coast GRC with 60.73 per cent of the votes, with WP drawing 39.27 per cent.

But in 2011, WP put up a strong showing in the constituency, garnering 45.17 per cent of the vote.

This time, WP has a strong slate in East Coast that includes former National Solidarity Party member Nicole Seah, Assistant Professor Walid noted. 

Even so, Dr Woo said that if Mr Heng’s team does not get a higher vote share than the national average, it would not be a surprise, given that WP has had a strong record in East Coast.

“I do not really think it will hurt his mandate as a potential PM,” Dr Woo added.

“The key is just to win, and after that, it is how he establishes his style in the realm of policy.”

West Coast GRC

A fierce contest is also brewing between PAP and PSP in West Coast GRC, not least because of Dr Tan, a former PAP member-turned-opposition leader.

Dr Tan, who heads PSP, was the PAP MP for Ayer Rajah — which was absorbed into the GRC — for 26 years until 2006.

Walid and Dr Woo said that the participation of two ministers from PAP showed how seriously it is taking the threat posed by Dr Tan and his team. 

Chong of NTU said that the “shrewd” move was a signal by PAP to voters that they must vote carefully.

But he noted that the contest was still one to watch, given the buzz surrounding PSP, which has managed to draw “disproportionate” levels of publicity even though it is facing its first election.

Tan of SMU said that PAP was taking the challenge seriously, given that its West Coast line-up has two incumbent fourth-generation ministers.

This is also the case in Tanjong Pagar GRC, where incumbent PAP ministers Chan Chun Sing and Indranee Rajah are contesting. Chan is the Minister for Trade and Industry, while Indranee is the Second Minister for Education and Finance.

At a press conference yesterday afternoon, PAP chief Lee Hsien Loong said that having two ministers in a GRC was not uncommon, however. It has happened in Marine Parade GRC, for instance, where its team had once included outgoing Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, former Cabinet minister Tan Chuan-Jin and incumbent Senior Minister of State Edwin Tong.

Bukit Panjang SMC

Another constituency to watch, the analysts said, is Bukit Panjang.

In one of several surprise moves yesterday, Dr Tambyah, an infectious disease doctor, swooped in to contest the seat. He will face PAP’s Liang Eng Hwa, who had similarly moved out of the adjacent Holland-Bukit Timah GRC.

In GE2015, Dr Teo Ho Pin from PAP won Bukit Panjang SMC with 68.38 per cent of the votes, while SDP's Khung Wai Yeen received 31.62 per cent. Dr Teo is retiring as an MP, while Mr Khung will be part of SDP’s Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC team.

Dr Tambyah had been expected to lead SDP’s team in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, which he contested in 2015.

The manoeuvre, analysts said, showed a shift in SDP’s strategy as it moves its best candidates into single-member wards.

SDP’s secretary-general Chee Soon Juan is up against PAP’s Murali Pillai in Bukit Batok SMC.

Walid felt that it was a smart move by SDP, as Dr Tambyah has shown himself over the years to be a constructive opposition candidate. His chances of being elected were much higher in a single seat than in a GRC, he added.

Tan said that SDP’s tactical change was “different and refreshing.” “They sense that this GE is the best time for them to secure at least Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) seats,” he said, referring to the best-performing losing opposition candidates, who are given seats in the House.

Other seats to watch

Aljunied GRC: It remains to be seen if WP can retain control of the constituency, which it has held since 2011. Assoc Prof Chong of NTU believes that WP, having fielded its heavyweights there, stood a good chance at fending off PAP again. “If they cannot hold it with Pritam Singh, Sylvia Lim, Gerald Giam and Leon Perera, (among others)... then everywhere else is at risk.”

 

Marine Parade GRC: A longstanding battleground of WP, Marine Parade is also one to watch because the opposition party is fielding more quality candidates this time around, Walid said. Its slate there includes former NCMP Yee Jenn Jong and lawyer Fadli Fawzi.

The new Sengkang GRC: Walid noted that both PAP and WP have strong line-ups here. PAP’s team is led by Ng Chee Meng, while Amrin Amin, a new face in the east, was a popular MP who represented Sembawang GRC. WP also has a good slate, which includes former World Bank economist Jamus Lim and social activist Raeesah Khan.

Surprise changes

Apart from PAP, SDP also had a few surprises up its sleeves.

Besides Dr Tambyah’s move to Bukit Panjang, the oposition party fielded an unexpected Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC line-up.

Benjamin Pwee, who had been walking about Yuhua as recently as Monday night, is being fielded in Marsiling-Yew Tee instead.

So is Mr Khung who, until lately, had still ben doing outreach activities in Bukit Panjang.

Tan said that the moves could all have been intended.

“Opposition parties and candidates often engage in posturing to throw off PAP as to who is contesting where,” he said. “PAP practises that, too.”

Walid agreed, saying that the moves were “at least partially tactical” and were not unique to SDP. He said that the shifts involving PAP’s Heng and Lee were also done suddenly.

Indeed, Dr Chee told reporters that his party’s eleventh-hour changes were done to maximise the chances of its candidates getting into Parliament.

While some of PAP’s moves took some by surprise, Tan does not view them as last-minute switches but rather as PAP keeping its cards close to its chest.

“Redeploying a minister is a particularly significant decision and a considered one. It may be one of several options that the party may have for a particular ward,” he said.

“Ultimately, for PAP, it is about fielding a team or a candidate that can secure victory and attaining any other secondary objective.” — TODAY

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