It seems that the 5-member ward of Tampines GRC will be a key ‘battleground’ ward in the upcoming elections. One reason is that as early as 2009, NSP secretary-general Goh Meng Seng was hammering the anchor minister, Mah Bow Tan, for his ‘failed’ HDB policies. This is part of their minister-specific strategy, in which they will zoom in on ministers and their policies, besides raising municipal and national issues.
The assumption of the strategy is that 1) S’poreans link their GRC to the anchor minister (they don’t care about the rest of the MPs), and 2) they identity the minister by the portfolio which he is holding, 3) if policies e.g. housing fails, that means the minister-in-charge is at fault, 4) so the minister with his team should be voted out. I’d believe that govt policies are not made by specific ministers, but crafted by consensus in the Cabinet with the Prime Minister setting the direction and holding the veto on issues. Hence the minister of transport can object to policy-making regarding housing etc. This is because ministers can and are rotated anyway; and some also hold dual portfolios. To be in the Cabinet means they should be able to handle everything, by virtue of their leadership or EQ etc. Furthermore, in a parliamentary system (and perhaps others too), the Cabinet is bounded as a collective leadership, so even if some ministers personally disagree with the policies, ALL of them have to stand united in public.
So if one policy fails, by right the whole govt should change, and not just the minister-in-charge. The govt can simply replace the minister and continue its policy. Hence I don’t really understand NSP’s minister-specific strategy of whacking the minister just because he’s in charge of housing. But then again, Mah Bow Tan has been the minister for national development for a VERY long time, such that housing issues are easily linked to him. According to the S’pore Cabinet Office website, he’s ranked No. 8 out of 21, so if he’s voted out, that would be a symbolic hit on the PAP.
If everything goes accordingly, Goh Meng Seng and his best candidates will be fielded in Tampines to take on Mah Bow Tan and his team. On the top of the table will be housing, housing and housing. Again, this leads us to the question of what voters are looking for. Are they voting for the party to form the govt or a group of candidates to take care of their municipal needs? Are they concerned about national policy-making and its intricacies, or do they put their confidence in people whom they can relate to, trusting they would act in their best interests? It’s likely to be a combination of everything. Whether Goh can use his minister-specific strategy effectively depends on how correctly he reads voters’ moods in Tampines.
Results of Tampines GRC since 1988:
1988: PAP vs. NSP (61 to 39 percent)
1991: PAP vs. NSP (59.48 to 40.52 percent)
2001: PAP vs. NSP-SDA (73.34 to 26.66 percent)
2006: PAP vs. NSP-SDA (68.51 to 31.49 percent)
As you can see, the PAP has won Tampines consistently, with margins between 19 to 47 percent. One reason is that Tampines has an above-average percentage of Malays, and as a community, they have thrown their support behind the PAP. However, the NSP inaugurated its Malay Bureau last year to attract potential Malay candidates, and if they don’t disappoint, a candidate who can allow the Malays to relate to him or her will be fielded, so that the team can draw more votes. But it might not be a vote-winner, of course.
Since NSP has attacked Mah Bow Tan since 2009 and probably done several walkabouts in Tampines, that means they are entering the elections with greater expectations to do well. Furthermore, if Mah Bow Tan is voted out, the NSP could claim their minister-specific strategy works, and the PAP probably will have to change its HDB policies (for good or ill, no one knows). But in any case, a win for the NSP is likely to be marginal, given that this is a GRC, and that Mah Bow Tan has been in politics and a minister for more than two decades. If the NSP loses, it should ideally lose marginally too i.e. garnering more than 40 percent of the votes to have one of its candidates qualify as a NCMP. A worse defeat means that their minister-specific strategy is not working or simply because S’poreans agree with the housing policies, and think they are fine.
For the reasons above, Tampines GRC is likely to be a battleground GRC, because the NSP has set the stakes high by assaulting a minister’s policies, and indirectly, the entire PAP. The WP didn’t fight like this in Aljunied by accusing George Yeo of mismanaging foreign affairs, and they probably won’t. That brings us back to the list of priorities which voters have, and if Goh Meng Seng can interpret them correctly during the campaigning period (probably 9 days) to sway most of them.
Lastly…the PAP might just shift Mah Bow Tan out of Tampines, if they feel they have a chance of losing at all 🙂 So no more minister-specific strategy huh.