Sunday, 13 May 2012

Hougang can get best of both worlds: DPM Teo

Teo Chee Hean says residents can vote PAP and be served by WP
By Ho Ai Li, The Straits Times, 12 May 2012

BEIJING: Hougang residents can get the 'best of both worlds' if they vote in the People's Action Party (PAP), suggested Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, as they will get two MPs for the price of one.

Turning an argument much touted by the opposition against it, he said they would be served by both the PAP's man and Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang, Hougang's former MP of 20 years.

For years, opposition politicians have urged residents to vote them in, saying they would get 'two MPs', as the PAP's candidates usually stayed on in the constituencies as grassroots advisers.

Now, Mr Teo was saying that Hougang's 23,368 voters can do the same when they go to the polls on May 26.

'In a sense, they can have the best of both worlds too,' he said in an interview with the Singapore media at the end of a five-day visit here.

'They can have a good MP with integrity and commitment to serve them, and I am sure Mr Low... will continue to be associated with Hougang whether or not Workers' Party is there.'

Besides, he added, Hougang residents are also free to vote for any candidate because they no longer have an obligation to Mr Low, who is already in Parliament.

He noted that Mr Low, who was Hougang's MP from 1991 to last year, returned to the ward to mingle with residents even after handing it over to Mr Yaw Shin Leong.

Said Mr Teo: 'In fact, it's an interesting situation. In a sense, voters in Hougang have shown their loyalty to him (Mr Low) and discharged their responsibilities to him by voting in the person he has entrusted Hougang to, but this person has now left.'

On Thursday, a day after the Writ of Election was issued, the two parties introduced their candidates - PAP's Mr Desmond Choo and WP's Mr Png Eng Huat.

The quick turn of events prompted Hougang resident Vellama Marie Muthu to withdraw a bid to get the courts to order the Prime Minister to hold a by-election within three months.

Yesterday, her lawyer M. Ravi wrote to the Attorney-General's Chambers to withdraw the application, citing 'dramatic developments of the last 48 hours'.

In his interview, Mr Teo also stressed that the by-election was a local contest - a point made by DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Thursday.

'It's a by-election, it's not a national election, it's not a general election,' he said. 'Of course, national issues will enter into the minds of voters when they vote. But essentially what it comes down to when you vote, you will vote for the person who will be there for you.'

Last year's general election had seen the WP campaigning on the need for opposition voices in the legislature. But Mr Teo said this did not matter at this poll.

'Mr Low is already in Parliament. The WP has already got... five MPs and several NCMPs. So the question of whether there's opposition in Parliament is also not at stake,' he said. WP has two Non-Constituency MPs in the House.

Mr Teo also drew a distinction between this by-election and that in 1992, when then PM Goh Chok Tong called for a re-contest of Marine Parade GRC to bring new blood into Government.

'The last by-election that we had was an unusual by-election because it was in the PM's ward. Of course there was also an emphasis on national issues, because the PM's seat was at stake,' said Mr Teo, who was himself inducted into politics during the 1992 polls. 'In this case, the Government is not at stake.'

Asked if he would help Mr Choo, Mr Teo, who is the anchor minister for the neighbouring Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, replied: 'If Desmond feels it's useful for me to go, I'm more than happy to go there and show my support for him.'

He added that both wards could work together to serve residents if Mr Choo is elected. 'Whether or not he will be voted in, I think he's really the underdog,' said Mr Teo. 'Hougang residents have always had the penchant for voting in underdogs too. Who knows?'

Hougang voters want lower-cost upgrading
Wish list also includes new wet market and elder-friendly facilities
By Andrea Ong, Tessa Wong, Teo Wan Gek & Matthias Chew, The Straits Times, 12 May 2012

AS CANDIDATES for the by-election in Hougang set out plans to improve voters' lives, residents have indicated the local issues closest to their hearts.

These are: better amenities like a new wet market, more elder-friendly facilities and upgrading at a lower cost to them.

The candidates had also raised the issues on Thursday when their parties introduced them - Mr Desmond Choo from the People's Action Party (PAP) and Mr Png Eng Huat from the Workers' Party (WP).

But residents interviewed by The Straits Times yesterday took it in their stride that these amenities have been slow to appear in Hougang, an opposition stronghold since 1991.

They felt WP chief Low Thia Khiang, who was their MP for 20 years, did his best despite not receiving funds given to PAP constituencies. 'Even though there's not many amenities or upgrading, I understand, because Mr Low had no power to do large-scale upgrading for us,' said car washer Richard Aw, 58.

Still, a significant number among the 50 residents interviewed are hopeful of change. Whether it will come with a WP or PAP MP will depend on who has the ability to deliver.

'Who will I support? I only support my stomach - whoever can help me the most, I will vote for him,' said a 50-year-old shopkeeper who wanted to be known only as Mr Peck, one of many interviewed who were loath to give their full names, discomfited by the spotlight on their political preferences.

The residents' needs are not lost on both candidates, who told The Straits Times yesterday they have concrete plans to tackle them.

Better amenities for the elderly

AS HOUGANG is an ageing estate, many elderly residents hope more can be done to make their lives easier.

Topping the wish list of many is a wet market. The demolition in 2008 of a market-cum-hawker centre in Hougang Avenue 3 still rankles with many, particularly the poor and the elderly who live in the rental block cluster next to where it stood. They lament about having to travel to Lorong Ah Soo or Kovan for fresh produce. Said Madam Zhou, 70: 'It's very inconvenient. We're old, it's difficult for us to travel long distances.'

To make matters worse, a FairPrice outlet in Hougang community centre closed down last year. Yes Supermarket replaced it but residents say its selection of produce is not as wide.

Mr Choo has promised to lobby for a new market, in his capacity as the constituency's grassroots adviser.

This has cheered some, though more sceptical residents dismissed it as an election gimmick. 'Now they say they want to build it again. Then why tear it down in the first place? It's easy to talk, I'll believe it when I see it,' said a 70-year-old retiree who gave his name as Mr Lee.

Other residents wondered where Mr Choo plans to locate the market as the old site is slated for commercial and residential developments.

Mr Choo said: 'Every time a resident surfaces an issue, we listen, take it seriously and see how we can effectively address it as best we can.'

Mr Png said residents missed the 'cheap and good' food at the old market. He hopes the Government will at least reinstate the food centre.

Residents also hope to see additional bus services and more sheltered walkways and drop-off points. Mr Choo said he has pointed out the need to the Land Transport Authority (LTA), while Mr Png said he would 'work with the community and town council' to put up a proposal to the LTA.

Retiree Yeo C.L., 72, wants more tables and benches at void decks for older residents to meet as well as more ramps and slopes instead of kerbs.


UPGRADING has always been a thorny issue in opposition wards, which were placed at the end of the queue for lift upgrading. But now that lift upgrading has arrived in Hougang, some residents hope it can be done faster and cheaper. They argue it is unfair for them to have to pay for it as they were made to wait so long.

Madam Lim Choo Ling's family is struggling to pay its share estimated to be $2,700. Said Madam Lim, 61: 'We have gone for 30 years without a lift. Now that the Government is correcting its mistake, it should pay for the whole sum. It's quite substantial for small families like ours.'

More than just local issues

BUT for many residents, such local issues are the icing on the cake and not the deciding factor when they go to the polls.

Many said they value their MP's personal touch the most. 'I just want my MP to talk to me and find out what problems I have,' said grocer Tay Swee Tee, 52.

They praised Mr Low, their former MP, who responded swiftly to their complaints and was often seen in the estate.

The by-election is taking place against a backdrop of national issues, such as the rising cost of living and influx of foreigners. Like many, retired cleaner Goh Lee Hua, 72, wants an MP who can raise these issues, especially the cost of living - an issue that both Mr Choo and Mr Png have pledged to address.

Others, particularly younger voters and those living in private estates, want a strong opposition presence in Parliament. 'WP is doing a good job, so no reason to switch. We need an opposition voice,' said freelance writer D. Tan, 28.

Party loyalties also play a role in their vote, with die-hard supporters in both camps expressing unwavering support.

But at least seven of the 50 interviewed appeared to be swing voters, uncertain whether to continue supporting the WP following the sudden exit of Mr Yaw Shin Leong. Mr Yaw was expelled by the WP for refusing to account for his alleged extramarital affairs.

Retired hawker Madam Tan, 63, who voted for the WP in last May's polls is now undecided. She likes the looks of Mr Png, who visited her over the weekend.

'If Mr Png is as good as Mr Low, of course I will vote for him, but how can I know if he is as good?' she asked. 'I want to see which candidate has the heart for the people and will treat us well.'

But undergraduate Zephan Seow, 23, said: 'People voted for Yaw not because of him but for the party, so WP will be strong here.'

Hougang resident withdraws by-election order bid
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 12 May 2012

A HOUGANG resident is withdrawing her bid to get the courts to order the Prime Minister to hold a by-election within three months, citing 'dramatic developments of the last 48 hours'.

Madam Vellama Marie Muthu, 42, had on March 2 filed an application to get the court to declare that the Prime Minister does not have 'unfettered discretion' in deciding whether and when to call a by-election, and to issue a mandatory order for him to do so within three months or a 'reasonable time'.

On Wednesday, a Writ of Election was issued for a by-election to be held in Hougang, with Polling Day set on May 26.

In a letter to the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) yesterday, her lawyer M. Ravi said that 'as the factual objective of her litigation has now been achieved timeously, she is prepared to withdraw her application'.

Madam Vellama, a part-time cleaner, is also 'prepared to forgo the legal objective of obtaining a judicial clarification of the law regarding the mandatory obligation to call a by-election'.

This was 'in the interests of avoiding protracted litigation', he said. 'That matter must await clarification at a future date should it ever arise again.'

When contacted last night, a spokesman for the AGC said it had received the letter, and that the Attorney-General would respond to it 'in due course'.

The AGC noted that Mr Ravi's latest proposal was 'diametrically opposed to the position he took just two days ago'.

On Wednesday, Mr Ravi had said he would make 'appropriate submissions in court'.

The case, which is pending in court, had seen a series of toing-and-froing after the AGC sought to strike out Madam Vellama's bid, but failed. A High Court judge granted leave for the case to be heard in open court, but the AGC appealed against this. Madam Vellama then applied to strike out the appeal.

Both this application and the AGC's appeal were scheduled to be heard on May 16 - the same day as Nomination Day for the by-election.

Said the AGC: 'These proceedings are ill-conceived to begin with, and if they are continued, Madam Vellama risks being penalised in costs.'

While the withdrawal of the bid will mean the case will not proceed, constitutional lawyers contacted last night said they were disappointed with the latest development.

They said they were hoping to see the court clarify its position on two issues: Whether the PM had the discretion to call a by-election or leave a seat vacant until the next general election; and whether any rules indicated how soon a by-election should be called during a term of Parliament.

Said Singapore Management University assistant law professor Jack Lee: 'On matters of the Constitution, the court is the ultimate interpreter. Unless you hear the court's view, you would never know the right legal position, though the Government may say otherwise.'

National University of Singapore law professor Thio Li-Ann, who specialises in constitutional law, felt that litigation had been used to 'force a political objective'.

But she too was interested in the long-term implications of a judicial clarification on the matter. She said: 'Even if it is not a 'live issue', to have guidance indicating the considerations in subsequent cases is useful to litigators and any observers of the law.'

She added: 'I wished it had been seen through. It's like someone promising to bring your favourite rock group in and cancelling it at the last moment.'

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