Veteran politician shares his secret to winning tough fights
They have been called the PAP's 'secret weapons'. One is veteran politician Charles Chong, who seems to specialise in winning tough fights. The other is newbie Cheryl Chan, who was fielded in a new SMC. In this first part, TAN TAM MEI (firstname.lastname@example.org) finds out how Mr Chong won against the odds
Just days after the general election, a queue snaked round at the foot of Block 124A, Rivervale Drive.
The residents were 30 minutes early for Punggol East MP Charles Chong's first Meet-the-People Session (MPS), which was scheduled to start at 8pm.
Inside, Mr Chong, 62, could be heard telling the People's Action Party (PAP) branch activists to "quickly usher people in so they can get out of the haze, it's quite bad".
The former MP of Joo Chiat SMC, which was absorbed into Marine Parade GRC, is on his seventh term in Parliament, after regaining Punggol East from the Workers' Party (WP).
He won with 51.76 per cent of the vote, a slim margin, but nonetheless "satisfying" as PAP's secretary-general Lee Hsien Loong put it.
Mr Chong, an outspoken veteran politician, is not a new face in the area. He used to be a Pasir Ris-Punggol MP.
"Coming back here has been a smooth transition because it's familiar territory. It's great to be back," he told The New Paper.
"What was heartwarming was residents coming up to me and saying, 'Don't you recognise me? I saw you some time ago.'
"Others also said, 'When I last saw you, I was a 10-year-old student. You opened my school and I'm now 25 years old.' That made me feel a bit senior."
Many residents at the MPS were meeting Mr Chong for the first time, but they said they have heard good things about him.
BIG & TALL
Housewife Tan Cheng Whay, 59, who was seeking help applying for a new flat, said: "He looks like a good man, always smiling. And he is big and tall, so I feel he can protect people.
"I've been trying to apply for a smaller flat for almost nine months now.
"Mr Chong said he would try to help. I feel like there's hope now."
By the end of the MPS, Mr Chong had handled 41 cases.
Asked what he thought of being called PM Lee's secret weapon, he said: "Whatever it is, I wish he'd find another secret weapon because it's kind of stressful being one."
How he did it
WALK THE GROUND
Mr Charles Chong's history as a Pasir Ris-Punggol MP meant he was not entirely new to the area.
He said: "Here was slightly better for me because I had walked the ground before, but there would still be many people who don't know me yet.
"And for those who already know me, I'd better quickly get reacquainted with them.
"There's no secret formula. It's basically going out, meeting people and convincing them that you have a better programme."
Mr Chong added that his track record also meant that he did not need to start from scratch and he did not feel like he was "parachuted" into the ward.
He said it was a pity that former WP incumbent Lee Li Lian did not have much time to walk the ground because she was only elected in a by-election in 2013. If she had been in Punggol East longer, "she would have benefitted more from the incumbent seat", added Mr Chong.
DON'T WAIT FOR ELECTIONS TO ACT
Even before he was announced as the PAP candidate for Punggol East SMC, Mr Chong had organised several unofficial Meet-the-People Sessions (MPS).
He did this after discovering pressing needs on the ground while helping to distribute rations to lower-income families earlier this year.
"I noticed that some of the problems couldn't wait until after the elections," he said.
"Those with financial assistance said, 'Look, Singapore Power intends to cut my utilities. If we wait until after elections, we will probably be living in darkness for a few days.' So these were the sort of urgent situations.
"So whether it's within the rules or not, I thought that we should just go ahead and start MPS.
"Things can't come to a standstill just because there are elections."
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Having been in several close fights in different seats, Mr Chong has proven that he is not a one-hit wonder.
He won Punggol East SMC by 1,156 votes. His win in Joo Chiat SMC in 2011 was even tighter, by a mere 388 votes. In 1991, he was part of the PAP team that won Eunos GRC by 4,160 votes.
Mr Chong said that in such close contests, one should always expect the unexpected.
He had never intended to be in politics for so long and continued only because every "successive prime minister always had some good reason" for him to stay.
He said: "The average life span of a backbencher is three terms, so I'm about four terms past shelf life."
What keeps Mr Chong coming back is the feeling of satisfaction when his efforts in helping residents pay off.
He said: " If you don't believe that what you're doing is useful, it can be very miserable. But when you get some policy changed or some exceptions made to existing policies, which benefits your residents, it makes it worthwhile."
When asked if winning tough battles was his forte, he said in jest: "Better not say that lest I end up in Hougang. "
DON'T BE A 'YES MAN'
Mr Chong has shown residents that he isn't just a "yes man" or an MP who will "fall in line".
Between 2003 and 2006, the then-Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP headed a campaign to get Buangkok MRT station opened. It resulted in a police investigation and one of his grassroots leaders got a stern warning over eight cut-outs of white elephants placed outside the station in 2005.
Recalling the incident, Mr Chong grinned and said that it helped him bond with the grassroots leaders and residents and many old residents still remember it fondly.
He said: "We came under external pressure. We had to go to the police station and make a statement. But it united everybody.
"After that, we were all one united people because we had a common objective.
"As far as I'm concerned, the interests of my residents take precedence over party affiliation because they voted me in, so the residents know they have an MP who will fight for them."
'They took the soft approach'
They were "unfancied, understated and unassuming" candidates.
This is one of the reasons Ms Cheryl Chan and Mr Charles Chong were able to win their seats in the general election, said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan.
"There was no swashbuckling and they didn't go in with guns blazing," he said.
"They took the soft approach in the hot seats and this assured the voters."
Mr Chong and Ms Chan did not concentrate on fierce rallies, he said, but focused on getting down to the ground.
Their knowledge and experience of the respective areas - Ms Chan was a long-time grassroots volunteer in Fengshan and Mr Chong previously served as a Pasir Ris-Punggol MP - were also assets.
Prof Tan said Mr Chong's experience in tough fights such as for the seats in Joo Chiat and Eunos showed that he was someone who was "able to take the heat" in hot wards.
"I don't think the PAP consciously fielded Charles in hot wards to pick fights.
"But he is a candidate who won't crack under pressure."
HOW A NEWBIE TOOK FENGSHAN
Get The New Paper on your phone with the free TNP app. Download from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store now