Crowds surging around politicians. Requests for selfies, and friendly waves. Nothing unusual during election season — unless the politicians are from the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the ground they are walking is in Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC).
In the four years since the GRC fell to the Opposition, the latent hostility against the ruling party has cooled somewhat, say members of the team tasked with retaking the ward from the Workers’ Party (WP).
Gone are the Hokkien profanities and steely glares of the past. These days, there are some smiles, even cursory exchanges, and when PAP heavyweights come to town, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong did over the weekend, some residents are unafraid to show affection for the party’s leaders.
None of that, of course, suggests that Aljunied is there for the PAP’s taking, says the party’s five-man team. They are well aware that smiles and “hellos” do not translate into votes. But it is a big change from the outright hostility of 2011 and 2012, and for that they are grateful.
After all, since the GRC’s fall to the WP in 2011, there has been a palpable sense among residents that history has been made and that Aljunied as the new WP stronghold has to be defended.
REJECTED, INTIMIDATED, SCOLDED
At a PAP rally on Friday, Mr K Muralidharan Pillai — who has been serving in the Paya Lebar ward since 2012 — said his team has been rejected, intimidated and scolded by residents.
He recalled how a rental flat resident refused rice brought to his home and said he would “only accept Workers’ Party rice”. That was not all. Verbal abuse also followed, Mr Muralidharan, a partner at Rajah & Tann, one of Singapore’s biggest law firms, said. Eventually, more sinister forms of intimidation, such as the placing of joss sticks and offerings — usually used for funerals — outside the PAP branch office, ensued.
Residents were sometimes confrontational and aggressive, unnerving grassroots leaders from the ruling party.
Chief executive of an insurance firm Victor Lye recalled how he had to do his walkabouts around coffee shops and homes alone because his volunteers were afraid to meet residents.
“It was very hard to get my volunteers to come out, my volunteers were scared. They thought there was a huge takeover and people were so hostile, there was so much anger — I didn’t blame them,” the 52-year-old father of two told TODAY.
Mr Lye added that certain coffee shops in the Hougang area, in particular, were more hostile than the rest — a quality he attributed to the “Hougang siege mentality” — as the Single Member Constituency (SMC) has been a WP stronghold since 1991.
A week after news broke that executive director Chua Eng Leong had joined the PAP’s Eunos branch in May 2013, a man in his 50s shouted Hokkien profanities at him across the road. In the next few months, he would often come across residents who would fold their arms and give him the side-eye when he tried to approach them.
Undeterred, the team introduced several social programmes and interaction with residents has since improved, added Mr Muralidharan.
“I told myself that these people need help. And I was willing to send a signal to them that I’m prepared to help them. Some of them want to intimidate me and I want to tell them I won’t be intimidated. So I rolled up my sleeves and I tried my best to gain the trust of these people,” he said during Friday’s rally.
The team has been working to gain the trust of the people to turn the hostile sentiments around through the introduction of various schemes such as subsidised tuition and food distribution to the needy, Mr Muralidharan told TODAY during the walkabout over the weekend.
But he added: “We are still the underdogs here, we still have to fight very hard to regain the trust of the majority of the Aljunied residents, so we’re still in the fight mode.” Veteran politician Yeo Guat Kwang and former teacher Shamsul Kamar round up the PAP Aljunied team.
“To a certain extent, the ground got a lot warmer, but warm ground does not necessarily translate into votes,” said Mr Chua.
Over the weekend, PM Lee and ESM Goh visited Aljunied in a further bid to warm up voters in the constituency. The mood was jovial with PM Lee breaking out into a birthday song for a 94-year-old resident he met at a food centre. He also ran into a family he bumped into while holidaying in Hokkaido recently and signed a photo for them.
Despite the efforts by the PAP, some residents TODAY spoke to remain undecided on their choice, a ground sentiment Mr Goh had observed after his visit yesterday.
Ms Angie Ng, 53, who is self-employed, said while she felt that the WP took a longer time to complete the lift upgrading works near her home, she was also unfamiliar with the line-up of PAP candidates.
She added that she did not think the ground sentiment has changed much and residents have treated them in the same way as before. Likewise, recruitment consultant Jason Goh, 52, said in Mandarin he remains on the fence about who to vote for because “both the PAP and WP seem to be making credible arguments”.