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Where will Chiam contest?

Ng E-Jay/

Mr Chiam See Tong and Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam during a joint walkabout at West Coast GRC on 16th March

Breaking the GRC barrier will be a crucial goal for the opposition in the next election. With so many pressing issues causing worry and frustration amongst Singaporeans – from foreigners, to housing prices, to the cost of living – there is not a better time for the opposition to finally put to rest the parliamentary dominance of the People’s Action Party (PAP).

Mr Chiam See Tong, Secretary-General of the Singapore People’s Party (SPP), was the first amongst the opposition representatives in Parliament to announce that he is stepping out of his Potong Pasir constituency to contest a GRC. Recently, it was also revealed that his wife Mrs Lina Chiam will be contesting Potong Pasir as his replacement.

The decision could not have been easy, and Mr Chiam surely knows the risks involved in such a move. Nonetheless, with age advancing on him, and having suffered a serious stroke, he must have also realized this is probably his last chance to leave behind a historical legacy – to be the first opposition candidate to win a GRC. Whether or not he does so, history will record that he was prepared to act for the greater good of the opposition, and also for the nation.

However there remains doubt as to where exactly he will be contesting. Last year, Mr Chiam indicated that he was interested in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, and even went on a highly publicized joint walkabout there with the Reform Party’s (RP) Kenneth Jeyaretnam. More recently, during the opposition horse-trading talks, SPP staked its claim on Bishan-Toa Payoh, and it is widely believed that other parties which were originally also interested in Bishan-Toa Payoh deferred to SPP in this regard.

But in the middle of this week, the Reform Party posted a message on its Facebook page, together with photographs, revealing that Mr Chiam had joined them on an outreach activity in West Coast GRC. This story was also picked by Lianhe Zaobao on Friday.

According to the Zaobao article, Mr Chiam remains interested in Bishan-Toa Payoh, and he was quoted during a Meet-the-People’s session as saying that he has always yearned to contest there. In the article, reporter Yew Lun Tian also says Mr Chiam remains reluctant about joining Kenneth Jeyaretnam in West Coast, calling it an “electoral Siberia” (approximate English translation). The reporter speculates that an alternative option might be for Kenneth Jeyaretnam to join Mr Chiam in Bishan Toa-Payoh instead.

If both the leaders of SPP and RP join forces to gun down a GRC, it would make for a very interesting electoral battle indeed. As far as news reporting and voter attention is concerned, it may even eclipse the Workers’ Party (WP) gambit in Aljunied and the National Solidarity Party’s (NSP) contest in Tampines. Everyone will be enthralled by having two oppositionleaders in a single GRC team.

The million-dollar question that remains however is whether Chiam will join Jeyaretnam in West Coast, or whether Jeyaretnam will join Chiam in Bishan Toa-Payoh. It is conceivable that pride and ego is at stake here. The opposition leader who abandons his original plans and joins the other in the latter’s preferred constituency might be deemed as acknowledging that the other chap is politically stronger.

Ultimately it might come down to which side has more bargaining power. Mr Jeyaretnam’s party has recently been weakened by the mass exodus of 30 members, so RP cannot claim to have better resources. This is also Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s first electoral battle, and he must defer to Chiam as far as experience and political wit are concerned. However, one advantage that Mr Jeyaretnam has is the good name of his father, the late JB Jeyaretnam, who is revered by opposition supporters.

SDA's Desmond Lim

On the other hand, Mr Chiam has also been politically weakened by his public spat with Mr Desmond Lim, Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), of which SPP had been a component party until last month.

Mr Chiam’s party also cannot boast of the kind of renewal and rejuvenation that have taken place in parties like the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), NSP and WP. Today, the SPP comprise primarily of veterans who have had years of electoral experience, but who are nowhere as prominent as opposition figureheads like Low, Chiam, Jeyaretnam, Sylvia Lim, Goh Meng Seng, or even rising stars like Vincent Wijeysingha and James Gomez of the SDP, or Eric Tan and Yaw Shin Leong of the WP.

It would be taxing for Mr Chiam to join Mr Jeyaretnam in West Coast GRC, as the area might be unfamiliar to him and it is far away from his Potong Pasir stronghold. However, one benefit of such an arrangement is that SPP’s resources can be freed up to assist Mrs Lina Chiam in her bid to secure PotongPasir – there is no guarantee at all that she will be victorious in her husband’s absence.

If Chiam joins Jeyaretnam in West Coast GRC, it will be to the long term advantage and benefit of RP, which would have put in a very memorable contest in that GRC, and laid a firm foundation for future electoral battles in that area regardless of the outcome of the 2011 contest.

In some sense, it would be a purely selfless act of Chiam. His party, the SPP, would not gain as much as RP or Kenneth Jeyaretnam. The public would likely remember Jeyaretnam, rather than Chiam, as the leader of the West Coast opposition challenge.

Which constituency Mr Chiam is really eyeing is anyone's guess- for now.

Given Chiam’s age and experience, and the fact that this is Jeyaretnam’s first electoral foray, some might argue that it would be more gentlemanly for Jeyaretnam to join Chiam in Bishan Toa-Payoh instead. The downside is that Bishan-Toa Payoh has traditionally been regarded as a PAP stronghold and the ground might not be as sweet as West Coast. The chances of victory could be slimmer, although in my personal assessment, the opposition team is likely to garner at least 40 per cent of the votes in Bishan-Toa Payoh.

There is one final outcome that few have considered – and that is whether Chiam will turn up at a GRC at all on Nomination Day itself. Given his state of health, he may well decide against contesting in a GRC altogether at the last moment. However, he would then be seen as backtracking on his earlier promise and it will not be good for his legacy.

Thus far, Chiam contesting in Bishan Toa-Payoh still remains the most likely scenario, but things are in a state of flux and come Nomination Day, Chiam may well pull out a surprise for everyone. I do not profess to know what the final outcome will be, but I hope it will be an exciting one.