Insight: In the hot seat – Previewing the key constituency races

  • The PAP’s majority isn’t at risk, but several of their seats could feature close races.
  • The Workers’ Party could be at risk in Hougang and Aljunied because of the retirement of incumbents, but may benefit from a vote for their “legacy”.
  • The PAP is on the defensive in the East Coast, West Coast and Sengkang GRCs.
  • The opposition parties have possible targets in Bukit Panjang SMC and Marine Parade GRC, although neither have been top-tier contests so far. Potong Pasir could also be on the watchlist.

Singapore’s General Election is as much a national election as it is a battle for 31 individual parliamentary constituencies.

While it’s hard to countenance a situation where the PAP loses its majority, if the campaign hullabaloo amounts to anything, it could see its majority reduced. Conversely, it’s possible that the PAP makes gains at the expense of the Workers’ Party.

We’ve analysed every race and narrowed the list to six key seats. The PAP’s performance in them will be critical to how they view their (likely) mandate for the next five years.

A PAP Crisis Surge? The WP Battlegrounds

Both seats currently represented by the Workers’ Party are in play in this election. Hougang SMC promises to be an interesting contest. The battle is being fought between the WP’s Dennis Tan against the PAP’s Lee Hong Chuang. Historically, Hougang has been a WP stronghold. Until 2011, it was represented by WP supremo Low Thia Khiang. 

In the watershed election of 2011, the WP’s Yaw Shin Leong replaced Low, who resigned his seat to contest Aljunied GRC. Yaw subsequently faced several ethical questions that prompted his resignation and a by-election in 2012. The WP retained the seat with Png Eng Huat winning an impressive 62% of the vote.

Since then, times haven’t been as smooth for the WP. In 2015, Png Eng Huat retained his seat, but with 57% of the vote there was a substantial 5% swing against him. Just prior to this election, Png announced his retirement. This means that the advantage of incumbency disappears. If in fact there is a strong surge to the PAP in this COVID-19 election, the PAP could be within striking distance of upsetting the WP in their bastion.

However, one must be careful about reading too much into Png’s incumbency edge. In 2015, the election was dominated by the backdrop of Lee Kuan Yew’s death, and the PAP surged to a huge landslide, yet still fell a long way short of taking Hougang. To gain this seat, the PAP would need to put on an extra 7% of the vote, which even in a crisis election is something of a reach. Additionally, the WP’s candidate Dennis Tan has worked closely with the local party and has a strong local presence. The race could be closer than last time, but for the PAP, taking Hougang would be reaching for the stars.

Meanwhile, a pivotal contest is being fought just south of Hougang in the five-member Aljunied GRC. The contest pits a WP team led by stalwarts Pritam Singh and Sylvia Lim against a fresh team of PAP recruits led by Victor Lye. 

For the WP, Aljunied is a battle for survival; if they lose this seat, then they will return to their pre-2011 position. A full decade of political growth would be wiped out. They have reason to be worried; they won the seat with just 50.9% of the vote. The PAP would need a swing of just over 0.9% to take the seat; a fairly easy task. 

The retirement of WP leader Low Thia Khiang makes this race tougher to read. On one hand, his leadership has been crucial in moulding the WP into something of a political force. Now that he’s gone, voters may just switch to the PAP. On the other hand, he’s had a huge impact on local politics, and voters will be keen to retain his legacy by keeping the WP in. It really could go either way.

Aljunied is also special because the local town council is controlled by the WP. It has faced massive controversy after the WP was held liable for accounting failures that could have cost millions of dollars. While the case is still being prosecuted, it complicates the race. Look one way and voters may not trust the WP for its handling of the matter. Look the other and voters call it a political stunt by the PAP to win back the seat, and stay loyal to the WP.

If the WP fails to retain Aljunied, it would seriously call into question the current leadership of the party. What voters think remains to be seen, but it would be an incredible result if the PAP takes the seat.

East and West

If the WP holds onto both of its seats-still an if-they will be trying for gains in other parts of the country. East Coast GRC will be its top target. The PAP team currently helmed by Deputy PM Heng Swee Keat could face a closer race than desired against the WP. This is because the seat has always tended to be more favourable territory to the opposition than other seats. A Straits Times analysis of census data in 2015 showed that it’s split down the middle between HDB and private home residents. The latter has been more pro-opposition in recent years.

The WP has put up a strong fight here, fielding among others the feisty Nicole Seah as prospective parliamentary candidates. While it’s fair to say that she can divide opinion, she has been working the ground to solidify the WP’s position. The WP threat was enough for the PAP to field its biggest player barring PM Lee Hsien Loong in this race to shore up their support; they appear determined to prevent possible WP inroads.

The constituency has undergone substantial redistricting, with the whole of Fengshan being added to the rest of the East Coast seat. By our calculation, on the new boundaries the seat voted 59.9% for the PAP, 40.1% for the WP. If the PAP can push beyond the psychologically significant 60% mark, it will be a good result. It would also be a boost for Deputy PM Heng, who can come home boasting about bolstering PAP support in the region. It would improve his standing within the PAP as it shows he’s a vote-winner.

If the PAP doesn’t do as well, especially if they fall below 55%, then there would be serious questions about placing a future Deputy PM in a close-run seat. It would also be a complete recovery for the WP from their 2015 rout and place them in pole position to advance further in the seat in the next election. It would also mean that the WP team would likely be the new NCMPs.

On the other side of the country, there is a fierce contest going on for the West Coast GRC. The PAP team led by Communications Minister S. Iswaran is trying to fend off a stiff challenge from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP).

On paper, West Coast GRC is safe PAP territory. The West and North have been comfortably held by PAP ministers, with some constituencies voting almost 75% for the PAP. West Coast is no exception; in the 2015 election, the PAP scored a resounding 78.6% of the vote in the constituency, making it one of the safest seats in the country.

However, this time the PAP faces a different kind of challenge. While the PSP is a new party, its leading face Tan Cheng Bock-affectionately known as TCB-is a long-standing politician who used to represent the Ayer Rajah area (now absorbed into the West Coast). Indeed, in 2001 he scored a whopping 88% of the vote and his opponent lost his deposit. To the constituency’s older voters, he’s a familiar face, albeit one who turned his back on the PAP in favour of change.

Since the 2001 election, TCB has not lay dormant. In the 2011 Presidential Election, he came within grasp of the Presidency because of a strong showing in the western parts of Singapore. People know him well and he’s reputed for principles.

That being said, the PAP still has plenty to bank on. Their line-up includes two ministers, and large parts of the seat have been developed in the last few years. Plenty of credit will be given to the PAP for the pace of growth in the area, and many new voters may not be as familiar with TCB or the PSP and so may stick with the PAP. Furthermore, the task ahead of the PSP is huge; they will need to more than double their share of the vote to barely eke out a win here.

While everybody expects a huge swing to the PSP and a significant drop in the PAP’s vote share; it’s still very unclear whether the PSP can actually win the seat because of the scale of the effort in front of them. Nevertheless, it promises to be a high-profile battle that the PAP will be watching closely.

Northwards Bound

In 2015, the North East was a happy hunting ground for the PAP. They picked up Punggol East from the WP, the seat lost in a 2013 by-election, and massively strengthened their majority in Potong Pasir. Since then, the area has been rapidly gentrifying. The southern and eastern middle classes, outpriced by the property market and seeking some calm, have moved into condominiums in the area. Artisanal cafes and bubble tea shops have followed them, turning the once aging working-class area into a world of young professionals with small families. As an area with significant economic and population growth, it will be vital for the opposition to demonstrate its strength here.

Which allows me to segue into a discussion about one of the most talked-about races here, Sengkang GRC. The battle pits the PAP team led by NTUC Secretary General Ng Chee Meng against the Workers’ Party slate headed by He Ting Ru. The seat has attracted plenty of attention as it’s being contested by the WP’s Jamus Lim, who made a name for himself with his strong showing at the Channel 5 inter-party discussion. Also on the WP ticket is Raeesah Khan, whose controversial comments on social media have attracted enormous media attention.

The WP starts off with something of an electoral mountain to climb. While it’s a new constituency, it includes some very pro-PAP parts of Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC (72.9% PAP in 2015). However, it also includes the more competitive Sengkang West (62.1% PAP in 2015) and the battleground Punggol East (51.8% PAP in 2015). The WP didn’t contest Pasir Ris-Punggol in 2015, and so probably would do better there than the rather weaker SDA. The race could be closer than one might expect, but the WP would need a swing larger than any in previous general elections, upwards of 15%, to take this seat.

The PAP hasn’t taken this race lightly, and has made a particularly strong point about Raeesah Khan’s controversies. The controversy may yet damage the WP’s chances here, but it doesn’t mean they won’t make inroads into the seat. With a strong slate of candidates overall and a generally decent campaign, they could eat into some of the PAP vote share here. It’s unlikely to flip, but if the WP achieves over 40% of the vote here, it means that they’re doing serious business with PAP seats in the Northeast. 

Also on the Watchlist

There are a couple of other seats that are on our radar but that may not prove to be particularly interesting. 

Marine Parade GRC saw a closer-than-expected race in 2011 and in 2015, the PAP slate led by Speaker Tan Chuan Jin scored 64% of the vote, some 6% lower than the PAP’s nationwide vote share. The WP team here has been working the ground, but it’s still unclear whether they’re giving the PAP a run for their money, regardless of how much the Speaker runs from door to door.

A handful of SMCs could also see interesting contests. The newly created SMCs in Kebun Baru and Marymount are safe PAP territory, but we don’t have much information from previous elections about how strongly the opposition does here because they are new constituencies. Watch for a strong opposition vote share; anything higher than 35% in this usually heavy PAP region could signal a shift to the opposition. 

Bukit Batok SMC is another seat to look at. While the PAP did strongly here in 2015; at a 2016 by-election the PAP’s Murali Pillai scored 61% of the vote. If SDP supremo Chee Soon Juan can consolidate and build on his 39% from the 2016 by-election, the result could be closer than expected.

The battle for the Bukit Panjang SMC is fierce, with the PAP’s Liang Eng Hwa facing the SDP’s Paul Tambyah. The latter has faced criticism and even a POFMA for remarks about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, Tambyah has been working the ground for quite some time, and his vocal opposition to the government’s position could make the contest closer than previously expected.

Potong Pasir will be an important barometer for Singapore People’s Party (SPP) performance. It used to be the stronghold of Chiam See Tong, but following his 2011 switch to Bishan-Toa Payoh, it swung to the PAP by the thinnest of margins. In the 2015 election, the PAP’s Sitoh Yih Pin won the seat handily with 66% of the vote. The SPP’s Jose Raymond is looking to oust the PAP. If he can build on the SPP’s weak performance in the 2015 election, then it could mean a return to Potong Pasir’s status as a key battleground seat. If not, it marks the end of an era of opposition presence there.

And lastly, the newly created Punggol West SMC has an interesting race between the PAP’s Sun Xueling and WP’s Tan Chen Chen. The WP candidate has been working the ground, and there has been some speculation that the result could be closer than one anticipates. As this has been created as a new seat, it’s very difficult to tell whether it’s a toss-up like Punggol East or whether it’s solid PAP territory. Watch for the WP vote share; if they score over 40% here, it could signify big inroads by the WP.

Hold your Horses

Quite a lot of you will be salivating at the prospect of an exciting election with multiple seats on the line. However, it’s worth pointing out that while many seats are on watch, it’s impossible to determine how each seat will eventually pan out. In the end, there may not be much net change.

But that doesn’t mean this list is a waste of time. The margins of victory will be important to watch. If the PAP holds onto all of their seats but with reduced margins, they become competitive in the next election. Conversely, if the opposition were to go backwards, it could mean they need a fundamental re-think of their strategy.

Nobody here is in the business of trying to preempt the final outcome. The final line-up will be in the hands of the voting public. Nevertheless, it’s always worth keeping our pulse on the battleground seats.

— Priyankar Kandarpa

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