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ST - The PAP's Aljunied Dilemma

ST - The PAP's Aljunied Dilemma

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Published by: bryan_ti on Dec 20, 2011
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12/23/2011

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 [buy a copy of ST today]
 The PAP's Aljunied dilemma
 By Rachael ChangPublished on Dec 20, 2011THIS year, the word Aljunied entered intoSingapore political lore, replacing the near-miss of Cheng San with reality, and joiningother constituencies in the annals of history.These include Anson, Hougang and - evidencethat the political winds blow both ways -Potong Pasir, which is now back in the handsof the People's Action Party (PAP).For the next five years at least, Aljunied GRC - the first to be won by an oppositionparty - 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 PAPmust confront an unsettling question - what next?Over the past few months, the PAP has made a number of significant moves inAljunied GRC. Former party chairman Lim Boon Heng, who retired from politicsbefore the May General Election, has become their 'military adviser' there, and isrecruiting activists to join a taskforce.Party sources told The Straits Times that senior Aljunied activists, one from each ofthe five wards, will also be appointed 'local coordinators' to run the PAP's branchesthere in the absence of elected MPs.At the same time, new grassroots advisers - likely to be current MPs of neighbouringwards - 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 fromAljunied in the wake of its May defeat. Within a week of the election, the three seniorcandidates of the five-man team - former foreign minister George Yeo, formersecond minister for transport and finance Lim Hwee Hua and former senior ministerof 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 aftera defeat'.Aljunied activists have since spoken of an urgent need for leadership among therank and file in the GRC, rudderless in the face of a myriad of challenges. Theserange from the logistical - run-ins with the Workers' Party's (WP) town council overthe use of estate facilities - to the existential - a cloud of rejection and resentmentover their lot as scapegoats in a national swing towards the opposition.Mr Lim's unexpected appearance in Aljunied is notable not only for any politicalmileage the former labour chief may clock but also for the signal it sends to theseembattled ground troops.Someone of his stature - a former PAP chairman who is widely liked and respectedwithin the party - is there to convey a message to these stalwarts: We have notforgotten you.
But it is unlikely that he will re-enter politics to lead the PAP's challenge in thenext 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 backAljunied GRC. His days at political centre stage predate the younger voters the rulingparty needs to win over.In fact, who to field in Aljunied at the next general election is a Catch-22 situation forthe ruling party.
A standard PAP GRC team - comprising at least one minister, one or two otheroffice-bearers and established backbenchers - would show that the rulingparty is sincere about the task.But it then runs the risk of losing even more top political talent: Mr Yeo'sreputation as one of the region's finest diplomats or Mrs Lim's status as thehighest- ranking woman in the Government gave few WP-leaning Aljuniedvoters pause.A 'suicide squad' of unknowns would be the less risky strategy. But voters areunlikely to reward such indifference.
 
 Then there is the uncomfortable reality that many of the party's brightest young starswill privately squirm - even if they do not say so publicly - over what would likely be acareer-ending deployment.As Mr Zainul wrote in PAP magazine Petir in September, many will shy away frombeing 'possible future sacrificial lambs' in Aljunied, now that it has become abellwether 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 appliedto the WP and its 'A' team that includes secretary- general Low Thia Khiang,chairman Sylvia Lim and 'celebrity' Chen Show Mao - politicians who nowenjoy a great deal of goodwill and national prominence.
They also seem determined not to squander any of this by running the town councilwithout any mishap thus far and being very present on the ground.All underdogs attract a natural sympathy and the reality is that residents will forgivequite 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 notimpossible - five years is a long time in politics - its most realistic strategy may beCold War-style containment.Popularised by former American diplomat George Kennan, containment meant theUnited States did not try to invade the then Soviet Union or roll back its presence inEastern 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 theJoo Chiat single seat, not Aljunied. These two PAP constituencies may be at risk offalling to the WP in the next polls. WP candidates who contested there this year didcreditably, and they will be in Parliament for the next five years as Non-ConstituencyMPs.Containment means keeping tabs on the WP's outreach and countering the inroadsthey make. It may even mean taking popular politicians like National DevelopmentMinister Khaw Boon Wan or Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnamaway from safe terrain in the north and west to anchor these battlegrounds - andmaking these moves months or years before the next election.

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