All eyes on Marine Parade GRC

Some 74,000 Marine Parade GRC residents go to the polls today. Who are these voters deciding the outcome of this “high-stakes” by-election? What is life like for them and what are their concerns? WARREN FERNANDEZ reports.

FROM his three-room flat on the 15th floor of Block 65 in Marine Drive, Mr H. Rosli has a commanding view of East Coast Park and the Straits of Singapore.

Most evenings, he returns home to the sight of hundreds of ships sitting serenely out at sea.

“Not many people are so lucky to have such a good view. Very peaceful,” says the 30-year old technician who has lived with his parents in the block since it was built in 1975.

But over the past nine nights, the common corridor outside his flat has been turned into ring-side seats for the political rallies held in the run-up to the Marine Parade by-election today.

At one rally, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told residents that the nine blocks surrounding the rally site would resemble condominium blocks once the HDB had completed refurbishing them by mid-1995.

Smiling at the mention of the HDB upgrading project, Mr Rosli says: “Yes, the upgrading is good. We want it.”

But, he adds, there will be other things on his mind when he goes into the polling booth today.

What are these? What concerns are likely to weigh on the 73,986 voters in Marine Parade GRC as they decide which party to mark their “X” against?

Indeed, who are these voters deciding the outcome of a by-election which has taken on a significance beyond that of any other?

To find out, Insight spoke with about 90 residents from different parts of the group representation constituency last week.

The GRC, whose shape resembles a high-heeled boot on its side, was created for the 1988 General Election by stitching together the Marine Parade, Joo Chiat and Geylang Serai wards.

For the 1991 General Election, MacPherson was added to the GRC. It forms the toe-cap of the boot.

During the last two general elections, the PAP team in Marine Parade GRC was opposed by the Singapore Justice Party.

In 1988, the PAP won 73.8 per cent of the valid votes, while last year, it gained 77.2 per cent of the votes, making it the biggest GRC win for the PAP on both occasions.Grassroots leaders describe the electorate in the GRC as an aging one. Many of the residents are from the country’s “founding generation”. They remember well the hard times of the past and the value of stability, they say.

According to the 1990 census, about 19,680 of the 127,300 residents – roughly 16 per cent – in the GRC are 55 years and above.

This is above the national average of about 12 per cent. The figure is also in stark contrast to that for Sembawang or Tampines GRCs, where less than 10 per cent of the residents are above 55 years.

The number of Chinese in MacPherson (88 per cent), Geylang Serai (80 per cent) and Joo Chiat (85 per cent) is also above the national average of 77 per cent.

It is this group of older Chinese Singaporeans that candidates have tried to reach out to through the use of dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese at election rallies. Their speeches have been warmly received.

Residents in the GRC come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds as evidenced by the array of housing types found in the GRC.

Each area thus has its own concerns and needs, say residents and grassroots leaders.

MARINE PARADE ————-

The 56 HDB blocks in Marine Parade were built in the early 1970s on land reclaimed from the sea.

In 1976, the Marine Parade ward was created. Mr Goh Chok Tong has been the ward’s MP ever since.

Many of the early residents were resettled from the Kampong Ubi and Geylang areas. As a result, about one in four of the residents in the area are Malays.

Most of the families here are middle income ones, living in their own three- to five- room flats. There are also five rental blocks.

Many have lived in the area for over 10 years and watched their property values rise over the years.

One of them is fireman Abdul Jalal, 50, who paid about $13,500 in 1975 for his three-room flat in Block 66, Marine Drive.

Today, the flat is worth about $70,000 on the resale market. The figure is expected to rise to more than $90,000 after the block is refurbished.

He says: “This place is okay, facilities are good. But if the Government can upgrade to make it look like Bishan, that would be very nice.”

Many of the 30 Marine Parade residents interviewed agree. While most describe their estate as “nice” and “convenient”, some add that there is a “1970s-feel” to it.

The town council has embarked on upgrading projects to repaint blocks, improve playgrounds and carparks and landscape
common areas.

But the talk of the town is the HDB’s upgrading project in Marine Drive, which will become the first area in Singapore to be upgraded as part of the Government’s $15-billion programme to upgrade older HDB estates over the next 15 to 20 years.

GEYLANG SERAI ————-

Wedged between MacPherson housing estate and the sprawling residential areas and low-rise shops of Joo Chiat is Geylang Serai.

Contrary to common perception, this is not a predominantly Malay area. About 80 per cent of the 36,800 residents here are Chinese, while Malays and Indians make up 13.4 per cent and 4 per cent respectively.

Very much a middle-class area, the majority of residents here own three- and four-room flats, most of which were built about 15 years ago.

In addition, about one in three of the residents live in private properties around the Haig Road and Geylang Road areas.

Many say they are happy with the estates’ facilities, which include a swimming pool, a library and two community centres.

There are also two MRT stations – Paya Lebar and Aljunied. The MRT line runs parallel to Sims Avenue, which cuts through the heart of the estate.

Some, however, add that they would like more recreational facilities like playgrounds and football fields.

There are plans to transform Geylang Serai into a sub-regional centre with more commercial, residential and recreational facilities by the year 2000.

MACPHERSON ———-

Lying in the north of the GRC, MacPherson is bounded by Paya Lebar Road and Circuit Road.

It is one of the oldest estates in Singapore. About 20 per cent of the residents here are over 55 years old, compared to the national average of 12 per cent.

Most of the 42 blocks were built in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Slightly less than half, or 47 per cent, are three-room flats owned by the residents, while about one-third are rented.

Not surprisingly, many of the residents’ concerns centre on matters such as health care costs and facilities for senior citizens.

Residents say they want more facilities for older folk to meet as most of the blocks do not have void decks.

Others want better bus services following the changes arising from the integration of the bus network with MRT services.

Last month, a new service, Number 63, which plies between MacPherson and Jalan Bukit Merah, was introduced.

Plans have been unveiled to turn MacPherson into a model estate for senior citizens by the year 2000.

Facilities will be made more user-friendly by, for example, replacing steps with ramps. Shady pavilions where residents can meet will also be built.

Already in place are community schemes to encourage old folk to keep an eye on one another and for younger residents to care for the elderly.

JOO CHIAT ———

Forming the heart of the GRC, Joo Chiat covers an area about four times the size of Marine Parade town.

There are no HDB flats here. Instead, Joo Chiat’s 35,777 residents live mainly in semi-detached, terrace houses, bungalowsand private apartments.

In addition, there are 551 two-storey pre-war shophouses scattered throughout the area.

Indeed, walking down narrow Joo Chiat Road is somewhat like taking a stroll back to the 1950s and 1960s. Crowds of elderly men gather in old-styled “kopi-tiam” over games of checkers. The political chess played by parties in the by-election seems far from their minds.

Grassroots leaders maintain that although local issues are few, congestion in the area is a perennial concern.

Says one shop owner: “People park anywhere they like. They are always honking. Very noisy and crowded, especially weekends. So the customers don’t come.”

There are plans to build more carparks in the area and turn some of the major roads like the two-lane Joo Chiat road, into one-way streets. That will come in 1994 after parallel roads are widened.

Residents also express some dissatisfaction with the withdrawal of several bus services from the area.

In response, grassroots leaders point out that a new service, M4, was launched recently, with bus schedules displayed at bus-stops for their convenience.

The change of MP for the ward in the last two elections was raised by some residents. In the 1988 general election, Mr Choo Wee Khiang replaced Mr Yeo Ghim Seng as the ward’s MP. Mr Lim Chee Onn, who took over from him last year, has stepped down to make way for former Navy chief Teo Chee Hean.

The PAP, however, has argued that despite the changes, its grassroots network has remained in place throughout.

By-election or general election?

But for all the disparate concerns, most of those interviewed agree that national issues would weigh heavily on their minds as well when they enter the ballot booths today.

They cite issues related to the costs of living such as certificates of entitlement, education and health care. Not surprisingly, it is these issues that opposition candidates have been plugging at their rallies.

At the local level, the opposition has maintained that it will be able to run the town council as effectively as the PAP.

Its plans to build covered link ways, playgrounds and barbecue pits bear a striking resemblance to those of the ruling party.

In recent days too, the by-election has taken on the dimensions of a general election. The PAP has argued that a loss for the ruling party will spell the end of the Goh Chok Tong Government, while a significant fall in its share of the votes would seriously undercut the authority of the Prime Minister.

Having listened to the arguments from all sides, the voters of Marine Parade GRC will choose between the four contesting parties today. By midnight or so, Singaporeans will know their verdict.

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