Heng Swee Keat’s move to East Coast GRC scrambles the calculus for WP

This article is more than 12 months old

News analysis

In 2011, all eyes were on the Workers' Party (WP) on Nomination Day.

Up until then, the party had not disclosed its full slate for Aljunied GRC, and it was only on the day itself, when then party chief Low Thia Khiang hopped onto a bus with the Aljunied team, that it became clear he would be the one leading the charge there.

Yesterday, a similar scenario played out in East Coast GRC.

This time it was the People's Action Party to keep everyone guessing. With half an hour left for candidates to file their papers, the ruling party's last candidate for the constituency was nowhere to be seen.

Then, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's car entered St Anthony's Canossian Primary School, the nomination centre for the constituency, providing a surprise answer to one of the day's biggest questions.

Mr Heng's inclusion appeared to have been made at the last minute - his name was written into the nomination form and not printed like the rest of his team's.

Taking the designated leader of the Government's next generation of leaders out of his own constituency and into one of the most hotly contested GRCs at the last election was not on anyone's radar, and the move has repercussions for the WP beyond this election.

Ever since the WP brought Aljunied into its fold in 2011, it had always seen East Coast as its natural second GRC.

That it is right next to Aljunied GRC provides logistical advantages. East Coast has yielded the WP's best result in a GRC outside of Aljunied in the last three elections.

But with the PAP moving its prime minister-designate there, that scrambles the calculus.

If the PAP is to retain East Coast GRC, the WP will have to decide how seriously it wants to challenge what is likely to be the ward of the sitting prime minister.

The party has in the past been careful about presenting itself as a party that wants to unseat the Government. However, if it is then to send its team B elsewhere, it would be sacrificing years of work establishing itself in East Coast GRC.

When asked, WP chief Pritam Singh said yesterday that Mr Heng's candidacy is "an important signal that they take our challenge in East Coast very seriously".

He added: "I would say we take their challenge equally seriously and that's why we've put together a strong slate of candidates in the East Coast team."

Yet, it is undeniable that while the party's East Coast candidates are no slouches, they just do not have the profile of their predecessors.

Having to push ahead with renewal, perhaps partly by choice and partly forced by circumstances, does tie the party's hands, and announcing its Aljunied slate early may be a signal to voters that it is serious about its home turf.

For now, the most talked about WP team is it is Sengkang slate, comprising corporate counsel He Ting Ru, 37, economist Jamus Lim, 44, equity research analyst Louis Chua, 33, and social activist Raeesah Khan, 26. Some have even called this the party's Team B this election.

Only Ms He has been a candidate and all the rest are new faces.

Perhaps knowing that the PAP will defend East Coast strongly, the party had already made a gamble to find another GRC to sink its roots.