SINGAPORE – Masked candidates, party secrets and a big reveal that precedes a vigorous electoral tussle in the East Coast GRC.

This played out at the St Anthony’s Canossian Primary School nomination centre, nestled on the leafy edge of the supersized Bedok housing estate.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat arrived separately from his GRC comrades Dr Maliki Osman, Ms Jessica Tan, Ms Cheryl Chan and new face Mr Tan Kiat How.

Though there had been excited whispers recently that the People’s Action Party anchor there may turn out to be Mr Heng, this was confirmed only on Nomination Day on Tuesday (June 30).

He had moved over from neighbouring Tampines GRC to lead the team in a contest against the Workers’ Party slate of Mr Dylan Ng, Mr Kenneth Foo, Mr Terence Tan, Mr Shariff Kassim and Ms Nicole Seah.

The primary school, painted in white and blue, seemed like a silent visual metaphor of the battle royale ahead in the GRC, between the white-clad People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party in its signature blue.

But the heat of the hustings – and the zest of supporters who had livened up previous Nomination Days – was largely absent. In a first-time pandemic election for Singapore, the entourages of the candidates were decidedly smaller.

Missing were the party umbrellas and paraphernalia, the call-and-response of politicians and the party faithful as the candidates made their speeches and their supporters cheered.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused total disruption, and the rules of Nomination Day had been adjusted for safe distancing and the smooth filing of papers between 11am and noon.

The school was among nine nomination centres islandwide. Nomination papers were also filed here by candidates eyeing Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, Punggol West single seat and Sengkang GRC.

In post-nomination speeches, each slate of candidates appeared in a row. It was mask off, short speech, then mask back on for each speaker. After each group made their points, the microphone was disinfected.

Mr Heng alluded to the “profound uncertainty” triggered by the pandemic, saying: “The People’s Action Party has a plan to enable us to overcome this crisis, has a plan to emerge stronger from this.”

When it was the turn of the Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC team, led by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, they appeared in matching white masks accented with blue and red stripes. In unison, they clasped their hands in a gesture that has replaced the pre-pandemic handshake.

While the PAP teams were a picture of the unity and planning often regarded as the party’s forte, there was a whiff of campaign colour in some opposition corners.

Ms Seah, who burst onto the scene in 2011 as a National Solidarity Party candidate before her hiatus in the 2015 polls, said with ardour: “We will always offer all of you a vote of fairness and balance.”

Earlier, looking across at the school, retiree Ding Heng Chuan, 69, paused after his morning run. A resident of over 30 years in Bedok, he reflected on the “toned down” Nomination Day and campaigning.

While his Fengshan constituency has returned to the East Coast GRC this time, and the pandemic means he has no opposition rallies to head to, he revels in his vista of “the four corners of Singapore” from atop his point block. He can see planes landing at the airport and Indonesia on the horizon.

The pandemic might have changed the nature of the election, and his ward has shape-shifted, but elements of his world are unchanged in this serene zone of the east that is also a battleground.

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