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Kelvin Teo explains why this will not happen.

Will PAP send a Minister to contest Potong Pasir & Hougang?

Kelvin Teo

During General Election 2006, Goh Chok Tong was given a special assignment to assist the PAP candidates in the Opposition wards Hougang and Potong Pasir in electioneering. Despite dangling HDB upgrading carrots at Hougang and Potong Pasir residents, he still failed to secure victory in both wards.

In response, Dr Gillian Koh from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy raised a question: "If it is pitched as a contest between Mr Goh versus Mr Chiam and Mr Low, can the PAP and Mr Goh afford the strategy not to work" during a 2006 March interview with TODAY.

More recently, PAP member A.K. Lakshmanan, a long-time resident of Potong Pasir asked the PAP's central executive committee if the party had 'abandoned' Potong Pasir after losing in 2006. However, with the announcement that Potong Pasir and Hougang are eligible for the Lift Ugrading Program, some speculate an intensification of the PAP's intention to up the ante of its contest at those wards.

Now, let's take this scenario further into a hypothetical situation and address this question which speculators and observers may have been asking all along - if the PAP wants badly to take back Hougang and Potong Pasir and decides to send their ministers to contest there, would such a tactic be successful?

In order for such a tactic to be successful, the basic assumption is that a typical minister carries some sort of a 'sacred cow' status in the voters' eyes, so much so that they loathe to vote against the minister. This is a reasonable assumption, given the fact that a minister would have at least a considerable level of political cache.

However, there was a slight surprise that our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong secured a mere 66.14% of the votes at Ang Mo Kio GRC, close to the average that the other non-minister PAP members secured. To put the electoral competition into a proper perspective, Lee's party colleagues were up against seasoned opponents from the opposition camp whilst the former faced the 'suicide six' squad of relatively young candidates with no experience at the polls at all.

It is the Prime Minister whom we are talking about, and if we follow the basic assumption about the heavyweight status of these candidates (and hence the reference to them as "sacred cows), Lee would be expected to perform better than his non-minister party colleagues with the added fact that he was up against a bunch of newbies. This did not materialize as he only managed an average score.

Furthermore, ministers would have to deal with a certain 'bone' in their throats, which the non-minister PAP candidates may be spared from - the contentious issue of ministerial pay. The comparatively high remuneration that our ministers enjoy is not going to be popular among voters. Regardless of where they contest, inclusive of current opposition-held wards, they will have to deal with this 'bone'.

Affinity to personalities also plays a big role during a contest at an opposition-held ward. Mr Chiam is a familiar face at Potong Pasir in all his years there spent serving the residents. Mr Low Thia Khiang has an even more unique way of bonding with Hougang residents; he is renowned for attending funeral wakes. His PAP rival, Eric Low, at first tried to race with him in the funeral circuit by sending out grassroots supporters on bicycles, circling the void decks of HDB flats on a lookout for funeral wakes, which he would subsequently attend. However, Eric gave up after six months.

Low Thia Khiang knew who was having funeral since the application for funeral permits would be filed at the Town Council, which the latter has access to. According to Eric, the "blanket" with the condolence message would be sent out by Low Thia Khiang even before the coffin arrives. Due to Low's unique way of bonding, he has moulded into an appealing personality in his voters' eyes. If the PAP wants to send a minister to contest Hougang, it is very likely that the latter would have to 'race' with Low in the funeral circuit at Hougang.

Dialect also plays a part in establishing rapport between the candidate and the residents, especially amongst residents from the same dialect group including those who utilize that particular dialect as part of their daily lingua franca. There is no denying that Low’s fluency in his teochew dialect has not gone unnoticed among his voters. The Teochew dialect is predominantly spoken by Singaporean chinese residents at Hougang. They were originally from Kampong Ponggol, a predominantly Teochew community before relocating to Hougang. Although newer residents eventually came to Hougang from all over Singapore, there is still a sizable Teochew community present.

Hence, one cannot simply dismiss the effect of personality appeal of opposition candidates, and even if ministers are sent to contest Mr Chiam and Mr Low at Potong Pasir and Hougang (a hypothetical contest especially at Potong Pasir because Chiam is leaving his ward to contest in a targeted GRC for the next elections, and also this is his last contest due to old age and health issues), they need to win over voters with their own brand of personality appeal and that would take some time. Displacing the appeal of their opposition rivals could prove even tougher.

Therefore, even if a minister is sent to contest in an opposition-held ward, he may not even win. Firstly, it is not safe to assume that a minister portfolio would automatically win extra votes. Secondly, the minister candidate may not necessarily be successful in displacing the personality appeal that the opposition candidates have built up over the years. Hence, for the PAP to send a minister to contest against Mr Low at Hougang for instance would be as good as playing a high-risk game in which the former would have more to lose from such a gamble.