“In Potong Pasir, it's upgrading v kampung spirit” declared The Straits Times on 16 August 2015. But ground-level sentiments reveal two other facets to the Potong Pasir voters: their sense of fair play, and a prioritising of national issues.
Earlier this week, The Online Citizen spoke to 8 Potong Pasir residents, ranging from a new resident of 2 years, to a long-term resident of 59 years. All of them described the town’s recent development of amenities and infrastructure: the (re)opening of NTUC, the 2015 opening of Potong Pasir Waterfront by MP Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, and malls and condominiums that are currently being built. Most of the interviewees acknowledged that the developments brought convenience, attractiveness, and a potential boost to property value.
“My mom gets to shop at the nearby NTUC and use the nearby POSB; the riverside view has improved, which makes jogging along it a more pleasant experience—and there is a new and free gym, which is above and beyond what most constituencies get. For that I have to thank the past Potong Pasir voters who made this area an opposition stronghold, such that the PAP will dangle such crunchy carrots today.” (Anonymous, early 20s, resident for 4 years)
“It is certainly good to have new developments in the area as the interest will lead to further projects, i.e community hospital, full shopping malls etc. And these will only serve to further benefit the people living in the area.” (Anonymous, 25, resident for 20 years)
It may seem like pragmatism has won in Potong Pasir, with 50.4% voting for the PAP in 2011, perhaps choosing the prospect of upgrading over the ‘kampung spirit’ embodied by the Chiams.
But what almost all the interviewees also expressed—which was glaringly absent from the ST article—was a discomfort with the partisan politics that forced Potong Pasir into this hard bargain in the first place.
“I can understand my neighbours’ needs not to be neglected any more. Look, we've been step-children for so long. Can you blame them for wanting some goodies now?” (Sophia, 56, resident for 7 years)
No fair play
“It’s hard to be impressed by someone who breaks your legs and gives you crutches. I am not impressed by the addition of NTUC or POSB as I am aware of the history of Potong Pasir, which lost its original NTUC and POSB after Chiam won elections in 1984 and 1988 respectively. So in a way, I feel that Potong Pasir has just gotten back what it was owed.” (Anonymous, early 20s, resident for 4 years)
Six out of eight interviewees highlighted that the town’s current rapid development is a direct result of PAP’s victory in 2011, in the same way that the town’s enforced stagnation in the past 27 years was due to its status as an ‘opposition ward’.
Two interviewees recalled how Silo Supermarket (the predecessor of NTUC FairPrice), the PAP kindergarten, POSB, and even the Sennett Community Centre that residents had raised funds to build, were all shut by the government when Mr Chiam See Tong first became Potong Pasir’s MP in 1984.
At the time, Mr Chiam had publicly protested against the CC’s closure, arguing that the government had committed a breach of trust by forcibly changing the CC’s purpose to an administrative office. This charge was denied by then-Minister of State for Community Development, Mr Chng Jit Koon, who replied that Sennett CC’s closure was “to make better use of the resources at such centres”. But just to make matters clear, a Straits Times article on 31 August 1991 emphasised: “No PAP services in Potong Pasir if Chiam wins”.
More recently, this was also played out in the opening of Woodleigh MRT station in June 2011, a few months after the elections—and 8 years after it was built. It was by far the last station on the North-East Line to open, and was described by Mr Sitoh as being part of his five-year plan for residents. “With the opening of Woodleigh Station, step by step our vision for the Potong Pasir residents is becoming a reality,” he said.
“I do think the government has played punk in how taxpayer dollars were never spent in Potong Pasir. They used us as an example to show people what would happen if you vote opposition — no upgrading, no development.” (Anonymous, 49 years, resident for 49 years)
The ‘kampung spirit’
The amenities were gone, but the vibrant community thrived during Mr Chiam’s 27 years as MP. Almost all the interviewees spoke with fondness of the ‘kampung spirit’ Potong Pasir had in those years, strengthened by Mr Chiam’s sincerity in his interaction with people.
“[Chiam] spent a lot of time visiting Potong Pasir, sitting in coffeeshops talking to people, looking into problems at Meet-the-People sessions. He drew people to him, as a simple person really working for the welfare of the people.” (Anonymous, 90, resident for 59 years)
And as the ST article mentions, there is still a longing for this same spirit. But based on our interviews, it appears that Mr Sitoh and his team have been trying hard to recreate this quality with many community activities, although with limited success currently.
“The amount of notices and advertisements for town council activities have increased by more than half. [But] our old town council notice boards were replaced with a bunch of soul-less propaganda and announcements about upgrading pointing to the PAP's role. No pictures of residents or activities anymore.” (Anonymous, resident for 37 years)
The same resident also spoke of how immediately after the 2011 election, “the kampung ambience of my area was replaced by an ‘art gallery’ along the bridge over the canal”. Unfortunately, residents never saw any art put up, only posters that stated ‘A project by Potong Pasir Town Council’, which “looked institutional and too glitzy”. “Potong Pasir residents know very well how to discern kampung spirit and sincerity from superficial relationships,” the resident added.
“The People’s Association organises some activities. But this is more for racial and religious harmony, not really kampung spirit. For kampung spirit, you must be there to talk, mix with people, like a family. Sitoh seems largely concerned with more lifts, facilities, amenities for Potong Pasir, rather than anything else.” (Anonymous, 90, resident for 59 years)
The concern for national issues
In spite of the residents’ varied concerns about PAP management, many were neutral or positive about Mr Sitoh. Although one described him as “business-like and aloof” (Anonymous, resident for 2 years) and another as “a bland, functional member” (Anonymous, resident for 37 years), while others simply said that they had never met him, some interviewees acknowledged that he seemed effective and sincere—qualities that Potong Pasir had grown to appreciate about Mr Chiam too.
“Mr Sitoh has been very receptive to public queries and feedback and has been keen to remain low-profile. I do also salute him for keeping an amiable relationship with the Chiams and applaud him for conserving the upgrading plaque that was erected for Mr Chiam 15 years ago.” (Resident of Block 134, resident for almost 40 years)
But more than their practical concerns for upgrading and a general desire to bring back the ‘kampung spirit’, all interviewees said they ultimately prioritised national issues over local municipal ones. Some elaborated that they wanted an MP who would be able to speak up credibly and effectively to debate national issues.
So who would be the best person for the job? In 2011, Potong Pasir had to choose between Mr Sitoh and Mrs Chiam, both untested. But in 2015, residents would at least have seen them both in Parliament.
As a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, Mrs Chiam spoke up for 83 out of 113 parliament sittings, with a 98.3% attendance rate, on topics ranging from lapses by the People’s Association, MAS Bill, Budget 2015, the Liquor Control Bill, foreign domestic workers, policy on exiled Singaporeans, Lifelong learning etc.
As Potong Pasir’s MP, Mr Sitoh spoke up for 39 out of 111 parliament sittings, with a 96.5% attendance rate, on topics ranging from the Lift Upgrading Programme, HDB’s Free Parking Scheme, foreign policy, Professional Indemnity Plans for Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Budget 2015 etc.
The situation in Potong Pasir is not as simple as a choice between upgrading or the ‘kampung spirit’. Condominium and business developers are now building Potong Pasir’s new facilities, and having been kickstarted into motion, the upgrading will likely continue regardless of MP. Similarly, the elusive kampung spirit is one that could possibly be forged again over time with Mr Sitoh at the helm, or eroded, even with Mrs Chiam as MP.
Either way, the residents of Potong Pasir seem to want much more than that. Perhaps it might be the candidate’s contribution to national-level debate that will finally win the vote.