Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The PAP's Aljunied dilemma

Dec 20, 2011

By Rachael Chang

THIS year, the word Aljunied entered into Singapore political lore, replacing the near-miss of Cheng San with reality, and joining other constituencies in the annals of history.

These include Anson, Hougang and - evidence that the political winds blow both ways - Potong Pasir, which is now back in the hands of the People's Action Party (PAP).

For the next five years at least, Aljunied GRC - the first to be won by an opposition party - will also be the pea under the princess' mattress for the PAP.

Now that the shock of losing a GRC earlier than expected is wearing off, the PAP must confront an unsettling question - what next?

Over the past few months, the PAP has made a number of significant moves in Aljunied GRC. Former party chairman Lim Boon Heng, who retired from politics before the May General Election, has become their 'military adviser' there, and is recruiting activists to join a taskforce.

Party sources told The Straits Times that senior Aljunied activists, one from each of the five wards, will also be appointed 'local coordinators' to run the PAP's branches there in the absence of elected MPs.

At the same time, new grassroots advisers - likely to be current MPs of neighbouring wards - will be asked to lead the People's Association volunteers there.

These moves need to be seen in the context of the PAP's seeming withdrawal from Aljunied in the wake of its May defeat. Within a week of the election, the three senior candidates of the five-man team - former foreign minister George Yeo, former second minister for transport and finance Lim Hwee Hua and former senior minister of state for foreign affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed - said they were leaving politics.

That amounted to, as one PAP MP lamented, 'the generals deserting the troops after a defeat'.

Aljunied activists have since spoken of an urgent need for leadership among the rank and file in the GRC, rudderless in the face of a myriad of challenges. These range from the logistical - run-ins with the Workers' Party's (WP) town council over the use of estate facilities - to the existential - a cloud of rejection and resentment over their lot as scapegoats in a national swing towards the opposition.

Mr Lim's unexpected appearance in Aljunied is notable not only for any political mileage the former labour chief may clock but also for the signal it sends to these embattled ground troops.

Someone of his stature - a former PAP chairman who is widely liked and respected within the party - is there to convey a message to these stalwarts: We have not forgotten you.

But it is unlikely that he will re-enter politics to lead the PAP's challenge in the next election, due by 2016. For one thing, he will be pushing 70 then.

Mr Lim, part of the vanguard of an older PAP, is also not the candidate to win back Aljunied GRC. His days at political centre stage predate the younger voters the ruling party needs to win over.

In fact, who to field in Aljunied at the next general election is a Catch-22 situation for the ruling party.

A standard PAP GRC team - comprising at least one minister, one or two other office-bearers and established backbenchers - would show that the ruling party is sincere about the task.

But it then runs the risk of losing even more top political talent: Mr Yeo's reputation as one of the region's finest diplomats or Mrs Lim's status as the highest- ranking woman in the Government gave few WP-leaning Aljunied voters pause.

A 'suicide squad' of unknowns would be the less risky strategy. But voters are unlikely to reward such indifference.

Then there is the uncomfortable reality that many of the party's brightest young stars will privately squirm - even if they do not say so publicly - over what would likely be a career-ending deployment.

As Mr Zainul wrote in PAP magazine Petir in September, many will shy away from being 'possible future sacrificial lambs' in Aljunied, now that it has become a bellwether for unhappiness with the Government.

There are voters' asymmetric expectations to contend with as well. The PAP thinks it unfair, and it probably is, but different standards are applied to the WP and its 'A' team that includes secretary- general Low Thia Khiang, chairman Sylvia Lim and 'celebrity' Chen Show Mao - politicians who now enjoy a great deal of goodwill and national prominence.

They also seem determined not to squander any of this by running the town council without any mishap thus far and being very present on the ground.

All underdogs attract a natural sympathy and the reality is that residents will forgive quite a bit of - and give credit perhaps a bit too much to - the WP.

Where does that leave the PAP? While winning back Aljunied in 2016 is not impossible - five years is a long time in politics - its most realistic strategy may be Cold War-style containment.

Popularised by former American diplomat George Kennan, containment meant the United States did not try to invade the then Soviet Union or roll back its presence in Eastern Europe but fought any expansion of communism beyond the Iron Curtain.

Such a strategy would see the PAP pouring resources into East Coast GRC and the Joo Chiat single seat, not Aljunied. These two PAP constituencies may be at risk of falling to the WP in the next polls. WP candidates who contested there this year did creditably, and they will be in Parliament for the next five years as Non-Constituency MPs.

Containment means keeping tabs on the WP's outreach and countering the inroads they make. It may even mean taking popular politicians like National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan or Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam away from safe terrain in the north and west to anchor these battlegrounds - and making these moves months or years before the next election.

It will mean the PAP resigning itself to Aljunied staying with the WP for some time to come. Some among its rank and file will be unhappy, but there are as many who do not see the point in throwing good money after bad.

It will not come easy to a party used to dominance, but picking its battles may be the PAP's best solution to its Aljunied dilemma.

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