Friday, December 24, 2010

Battle looms large on western front

IF YOU are unable to find handy, foldable maps of West Coast GRC, there is a perfectly sound reason.

The West Coast Town Council just cannot figure out a way to fit its boundaries into a sheet larger than two pages of this newspaper.

From one end in Tuas to the other in Sentosa Cove, the constituency spans some 25km.

Given its flat oblong shape, it is often represented as five disparate wards, floating around the page like pieces of a puzzle.

Residents identify more with their wards of Clementi, Boon Lay or Telok Blangah than with their group representation constituency (GRC), which they view as just an abstraction, a logistical arrangement which has stumped the opposition and resulted in walkovers since 1997.

The GRC's five wards range from the relatively new Pioneer estate established less than a decade ago to the old Telok Blangah area built in the 1970s, from the working-class neighbourhood in Boon Lay to the landed gentry in Sunset Way.

Even the profile of foreign newcomers changes from one end of the GRC to the other. While residents in Pioneer, Boon Lay and West Coast endure the presence of foreign worker dormitories in their heartland, Clementi denizens jostle with expatriate professionals working in the educational institutions and research hubs in the area.

A four-room HDB flat costs less than $400,000 in Pandan Gardens in the Ayer Rajah ward; its equivalent in Dover in the Telok Blangah ward would easily command a premium of $100,000 more.

'We're actually strung up across the entire coast,' notes the GRC's anchor minister Lim Hng Kiang. 'It presents a lot of challenges because it's very hard to promote a GRC perception or image among the residents.'

The GRC holds only two constituency-wide events a year, leaving other occasions - including National Day - to be celebrated in more ward-specific ways.

Mr Lim puts it this way: 'If we hold a function in Clementi town, first of all we have to bus everybody there. And secondly, the guys in Jurong West will say, 'what's that got to do with me?' '

Opposition? Let's listen

WHAT many GRC residents have in common, however, going by a straw poll, is the wish to cast a ballot on Polling Day.

Since 1997, when Mr Lim, then the National Development Minister, led the People's Action Party (PAP) team to a convincing victory over a Workers' Party team, no opposition party has contested the GRC.

'The opposition should come here, because I want a chance to vote,' says psychology student Kausalya Arasu, 22, noting that in the 20 years that her family has lived in Clementi Central, her parents have voted only once.

Many of the 50 residents polled express an openness to hearing out opposition candidates, with only 15 declaring their staunch support for the PAP with or without an election.

Unlike GRCs such as Tanjong Pagar and Marine Parade, which are led by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, respectively, West Coast is not headed by a figure of national prominence.

Although Mr Lim is a veteran Cabinet minister, having headed the National Development, Health and now Trade and Industry portfolios, he is considered more a scholarly technocrat than a political bulldog. In fact, he has not been part of the PAP's central executive committee since 2002.

Grassroots leaders and observers credit the GRC's walkover record more to its size and unwieldiness. Opposition parties find it hard to muster the resources to cover the vast and sprawling terrain during the campaigning period.

More significantly, the GRC is so diverse in residential profile that an issue of concern to voters in Boon Lay may hold no water in Telok Blangah.

But of late the ground is beginning to stir. Assuming electoral boundaries remain largely the same in the coming elections, West Coast GRC residents are virtually guaranteed of a political battle and one with an echo of history at that.

The Reform Party, set up by the late opposition stalwart J. B. Jeyaretnam, has declared its intention to contest in the area and has been actively canvassing the GRC for a year now. Party activists have been sighted about twice a week in different spots around the GRC.

Mr Jeyaretnam fought in the Telok Blangah ward twice when it was a single-seat constituency - first in a by-election in 1979, and then in the General Election of 1980 when he came close to victory with 47 per cent of the vote.

The Reform Party is now led by his son Kenneth Jeyaretnam, a former hedge fund manager, who says that West Coast GRC is his party's 'first priority'.

'Many of the older voters remember my father,' he tells Insight. 'Several people started crying when they remembered the kindness he showed them.'

He recounts how an old resident told him that the late Mr Jeyaretnam, a lawyer, had helped him with his legal troubles over 20 years ago, and charged him a fee of just $1.

Mrs Betty Walter, a 70-year-old retiree who has lived in her Telok Blangah flat for three decades, can still recall the senior Mr Jeyaretnam making 'fiery' speeches in front of her block.

'It was always very exciting when he was around,' she says. Of the younger Mr Jeyaretnam, she says that he is not as 'boisterous' as his father when canvassing the ward, but she hopes that he will contest the area as 'Singapore needs an opposition'.

But will name recognition be enough for the Reform Party?

Mr Lim, Telok Blangah's MP since 1991, is no pushover. He is well-liked for his lack of airs. For younger residents like 35-year-old Christine Chng, a mother of three, the status quo is just fine.

'This area is quiet and nice,' she says. 'I have no complaints.'

MPs ready for battle

ALTHOUGH three of the five MPs of the GRC - Mr Arthur Fong, Madam Ho Geok Choo and Mr Cedric Foo - have never fought in an election, they are all bracing themselves for a contest.

'We relish having an opposition,' says Madam Ho, who looks after Boon Lay, 'because this will give us a chance to prove that we have done well.'

Because of the GRC's decentralised style and ward-specific needs, Mr Fong, who helms Clementi, notes each MP is compelled to operate as if his or her ward is a single-member constituency (SMC).

For example, the priorities in the mature wards of Clementi and Boon Lay are revitalisation, upgrading and the building of senior citizen facilities to cater to the sizeable group of ageing, long-time residents.

But in Pioneer, a 'brand-new' estate when Mr Foo took up the reins in 2001, the urgent task was to build up the town infrastructure from scratch, including a community centre and kindergarten facilities.

The emotive issue of HDB prices also manifests in markedly different ways in different wards.

In the Clementi and Telok Blangah wards, residents bellyache that the soaring prices of resale flats are preventing their children from settling down near them; in West Coast, their counterparts worry that the nearby foreign worker quarters are depressing their home values.

'You need to be able to hold up your own ground as a politician,' says Mr Fong. 'Residents may not have voted before, but we've come a long way and people know that.'

In the last few years, prestige projects such as the 9km stretch of parks known as the Southern Ridges have also boosted the GRC's cachet.

Linking Mount Faber Park, Telok Blangah Hill Park and Kent Ridge Park to West Coast Park, the project draws some 50,000 visitors a month and has won international awards.

The constituency is also set to benefit immensely from the MRT's Circle Line when construction is completed next year. Six stations are located in the GRC, linking the far-flung West Coast with the rest of the main line.

For residents like technician A. R. Ramlan, the PAP team's unchallenged decade has no downside. 'What can the Reform Party offer us?' the 42-year-old asks rhetorically. 'We are well taken care of here.'

Top issue: Foreign workers

WHILE the GRC has been uncontested since 1997, one pocket of residents did have the opportunity to experience ballot box action.

In 2001, voters in the then Ayer Rajah single-seat constituency returned their veteran backbencher, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, to Parliament with an astonishing 88 per cent of the vote over Mr Tan Lead Shake of the Democratic Progressive Party - the highest a PAP politician has garnered in recent history.

Since Dr Tan took over the ward in 1980, he has never polled below 70 per cent. But when he retired in 2006, the constituency was absorbed into West Coast GRC.

It is now part of the Ayer Rajah-West Coast ward under Senior Minister of State for Education, and Trade and Industry S. Iswaran.

If you walk into the PAP branch at Teban Gardens, you will see Dr Tan's face still plastered on collages which adorn the walls. Residents interviewed have fond recollections of the good doctor who made a name as a vocal critic in Parliament.

But in recent years, the presence of foreign workers' dormitories has not only become an issue in the ward but also in Boon Lay, Pioneer and West Coast.

Foreign workers have become a common sight in housing estates, whether picnicking with friends at void decks or using the exercise facilities.

Retiree Margaret Ng, 60, moved to the Teban Gardens area for its peaceful atmosphere and view of the sea. While she admits that the foreign workers are generally well-behaved, she says she is still 'intimidated and (made) uncomfortable' by their numbers.

To alleviate residents' unease, a slew of measures such as uniformed patrols have been taken, notes Mr Iswaran.

Efforts are made to persuade the dormitory management to build recreational spaces and beer gardens within their quarters so that the workers are less likely to leave the compound.

Some residents say they are discomfited by rumours that a set of old blocks near Pasir Panjang wet market may be leased to companies to house foreign workers.

The blocks will be vacated next year after their residents move to a new estate under the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme, which offers residents brand new flats in a nearby estate rather than an upgrading of their existing blocks.

Grassroots leaders believe the rumours may have been spread by unscrupulous estate agents to talk down flat prices in the area, but admit that no one knows for sure until the Housing Board announces its plans.

In Pioneer, MP Cedric Foo says that the installation of closed-circuit television cameras in estates thronged with foreign workers has given residents 'a sense of security'.

'Residents realise that it's being installed and they feel so much better,' he says. 'It goes a long way, having a constant persistent eye on the lookout.'

Of the 20 residents in Insight's straw poll who flag the foreign worker dormitories as a concern, most acknowledge that the MPs and grassroots leaders have done their best to address the situation.

But some, like procurement engineer Teo Siew Chin, feel that the problem remains severe enough to warrant looking elsewhere for answers.

Calling her Jurong West estate a 'second Little India', the 30-year-old says she is 'not sure what kind of solution there can be as even if you move the dorms elsewhere, they will bother other residents'.

'I hope that an opposition party can do something about this problem,' she adds. 'I will listen to what they have to say.'

When asked about the issue, Mr Jeyaretnam says that his party will campaign on national issues and not local ones, as the country is too small. But he castigates what he calls the PAP's 'liberal foreign worker policy' for causing the current situation.

If the peculiarly-shaped GRC remains more or less intact when the electoral boundaries report is released, residents will have a chance to listen to an alternative voice from the Reform Party.

As the Insight straw poll indicates, the majority are willing to listen even though they are disposed to the PAP team. But whether they will be persuaded to act on it in the polling booth remains to be seen.

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