Thursday 31 May 2012

Hougang By-election: Analysis & Reactions

Fallout from the Hougang showdown
Editorial, The Straits Times, 29 May 2012

THE Hougang by-election outcome was hardly ever in doubt. So talismanic has been the local presence of Workers' Party (WP) leader Low Thia Khiang over 21 years that, predictably, the party relied heavily on him at the stump. Indeed, some voters, when asked about their choice, said simply that they had voted for Mr Low. The WP's strong win was foremost an affirmation of the loyalty Hougang voters have long showed Mr Low.

This may be the party's greatest strength, but is also a weakness. For all its brand recognition, observers and rivals alike have wondered whether the party's reputation for cohesion and discipline ran deep. Recent events, from the expulsion of its former Hougang man Yaw Shin Leong, which precipitated the by-election, as well as several recent resignations of party members, to the surprise emergence on the eve of Nomination Day of WP veteran Poh Lee Guan as a possible alternative candidate, and the leaking of internal party memos which raised questions over whether its candidate Png Eng Huat had been upfront about the process which led to him not having been put up for an NCMP seat, added to the doubts.

Naturally, these drew media attention. These developments were no fabrications by the media, but emanated from within the party. Nor were reports and commentaries on them found only in the mainstream media. Far more damaging material swirled about on the Internet ahead of Polling Day, which the mainstream media mostly chose not to pick up, as it was unsubstantiated and possibly defamatory. Mr Low's charges that the mainstream media was used as a 'political tool' by the ruling People's Action Party were therefore unwarranted and unfounded. His post-election outburst, scripted and delivered live on national television, seemed designed for political effect, firing a salvo at his political opponents, with the media caught in the crossfire. That is lamentable, not least since anyone who claims to promote the idea of a First World democracy should take care to uphold its institutions, including the media.

Mr Low's pledge, the morning after, of his party's support for the Prime Minister's call to refocus energies on the difficult choices the nation will face in a fast-changing world was more becoming. The non-partisan gesture is welcome as Singapore has to deal with formidable issues - like population, immigration, housing, transport, economic upgrading and a widening income gap. Progress has been made on some national issues, but much work lies ahead. After the heat of the hustings, voters will welcome the pledge from political players on all sides to 'move on', and turn to the more urgent business of addressing their pressing concerns.

Both sides will need to raise their game
by Eugene K B Tan, TODAY, 29 May 2012

Now that the Hougang by-election is over, the Workers' Party (WP) and the People's Action Party (PAP) will conduct their post-mortems.

Among the key questions would be how they campaigned and how they can deal with the issues that the hustings threw up.

For the WP, how can it keep Hougang in its fold and grow the famed "Hougang Spirit"?

How can it be less reliant on its charismatic leader Low Thia Khiang?

For the PAP, how can it make significant gains and be more competitive in Hougang?


The PAP was not expected to win in Hougang, a WP stronghold since 1991.

The WP victory last Saturday, despite a nearly 3-percentage-point drop in support when compared with the May 2011 General Election (GE), is nonetheless a continuing and strong endorsement of the WP.

The WP's national-issues approach as well as its "Towards a First World Parliament" battle cry resonated well with the voters.

The WP read the ground sentiments well and connected with the desire among Singaporeans for a more open, competitive and vibrant political system.

Ironically, this aspiration is tied to the ruling party's emphasis on good governance. Coupled with a nascent growing political consciousness, Singaporeans have internalised that good governance requires more than just performance legitimacy.

A one-party dominant system, while facilitating effective and decisive government, is also perceived to be inherently fragile since the likelihood of a systemic collapse is greater should the dominant party become inept, corrupt or insensitive.

As the WP's political stock rises, it will also have to deal with the reality that there will be political ambitions and dreams to attend to within its own ranks. These "growing pains" are inevitable, and internal contestation and dissent will have to be managed.


With six elected Members of Parliament (MPs) and two Non-Constituency MPs, the WP must endeavour to make the best use of the parliamentary platform to showcase what it stands for and demonstrate how it can grow beyond being a check and balance.

As such, it is not enough to merely ask pointed questions of the Government. Increasingly, it should move motions in Parliament and demonstrate its ability to dissect government policies.

More than that, it needs to demonstrate that it can also propose viable policy alternatives.

This is a tall order, notwithstanding that it does not have the backup of a bureaucracy. But the WP cannot have its cake and eat it.

The great value proposition in providing alternative ideas is that it demonstrates that the realm of policy options is not confined to, and should not be defined solely by, one party's world view. It will also engender healthy debate and result in more robust policymaking and implementation.


The WP would also have to demonstrate that it does not seek special treatment and condone in what I call banal acts of lawlessness.

For instance, the WP did not end its by-election rallies on time and overran by 10-15 minutes.

It would be extremely challenging for the police to intervene to ensure that the rules governing the issue of the rally permits are observed.

Further, in launching a stinging attack on the mainstream media for being a "political tool" of the PAP's election campaign, the WP did not adequately substantiate its case.

Not only was this an attempt to capitalise on the by-election victory to make political points, the WP was also effectively asking the media for nothing but favourable coverage of its party and its candidates.

As the WP feels hard-done enough to promptly raise these matters after the election results were announced on Saturday, the WP should follow through and raise these and other important issues in Parliament.

Given that Mr Low has urged Singaporeans to develop a "First World Society", his party must demonstrate that it treats Singaporeans in similar fashion. And voters must demand from the WP the very same standards it requires of the PAP.


For the PAP, it needs to radically relook its approach to Hougang.

In particular, the PAP government needs to address the deeply-felt sense of unfairness in some of its policies, such as estate upgrading and the electoral system.

The upgrading incentive, in its various guises ranging from being an explicit electoral threat to carrot to a subtle promise of change, has not worked at all.

Instead, it offends the sense of fairness and equity, and this has worked to the detriment of the PAP.

Similarly, there is also the need to rethink the current policy of not appointing Opposition MPs as the advisers to the grassroots organisations (GROs) of their constituencies.

The justifications proffered by the People's Association are unpersuasive, and undermine the good work done by the GROs.

As it stands, the GROs' adviser in an Opposition ward needs to endorse the upgrading plans prepared by the Opposition town council.

The current arrangement results in the PAP being accused of punishing Opposition wards through denying them estate rejuvenation.

Let the Opposition MPs be fully in charge. They will then be held responsible and will have to measure up to voters' expectations.


Where the electoral system is concerned, a source of unhappiness relates to how electoral boundaries are drawn. The electoral boundaries are often redrawn without adequate explanation.

A maturing electorate will not accept such acts of fait accompli.

The "new normal" has become a powerful meme in local political discourse. But it must result in the PAP and the Opposition alike raising their game, resulting in better policymaking, a more engaged and committed citizenry and enhanced social cohesion.

What the PAP and the Opposition do between now and the next GE will provide a firmer indication of the direction and substance of political change in Singapore.

The next GE, which will have to be held by January 2017, might well be the real watershed election.

The Low Thia Khiang Effect
by Alicia Wong, TODAY, 27 May 2012

As one 52-year-old Hougang resident put it, summing up the sentiment behind the Workers' Party's win last night: "Low Thia Khiang takes care of us very well. As long as he's around, the trunk is there. Upgrading or not, it makes no difference to us anymore. We've adapted to life here already."

It was what many saw as an unsurprising end to the by-election, with the party's Mr Png Eng Huat securing the Hougang Single-Member Constituency with 62.09 per cent of the valid vote.

The WP's two-decade track record in Hougang - which has been an Opposition stronghold since 1991 with Mr Low, WP's secretary-general, at its helm - made it a tough challenge for the People's Action Party's Desmond Choo from the get go.

As resident Johnny Tan, 45, told Today: "I have always been loyal ... The records have proven that they can take care of us, so why change?"


But what was more significant, in analysts' eyes, was the margin of the WP's win.

Mr Choo's feat in having chipped away at the WP's share of the votes, and increasing his own by 2.71 percentage points from the 35.2 per cent he managed in last year's General Election, was evidence that the PAP also "won" in some small ways, some observers felt.

Dr Lam Peng Er believes the "key reason" was a shift in the ground sentiment.

"I sense that the mood of the crowd was quite different compared to a year ago," said the senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute, who attended rallies during both last year's GE and the by-election. "The palpable anger which I felt in GE2011 was significantly diffused."

Dr Lam pointed to measures the Government had taken since the GE, such as reducing ministerial salaries, ramping up the construction of flats and giving more attention to public transport. "Singaporeans know there are outstanding issues, but some things will take time to work out. At least the PAP put in some effort to mitigate, address some of this unhappiness," he said.

Clearly, however, national issues still weighed on the minds of voters.

Without revealing the party they voted for, many of the 30 residents that Today spoke to last night said the issues that factored into their vote included the rising cost of living, healthcare, exorbitant housing prices and issues of democracy.


Other observers pointed to the inroads made by Mr Choo over the last year.

They felt that residents have gotten to know him better, and the fact that he stayed on to doggedly work the Hougang ground after his 2011 loss earned people's belief in him.

"Youth is on his side," added NUS Associate Professor Bilveer Singh, who suspects his support came mostly from younger residents. "If he remains in the next two to three elections, he may make a difference."

Next to Mr Png, Mr Choo came across as more cosmopolitan. But he has also learnt how to pitch the heartland message. "The PAP has added a new chapter in its playbook by allowing Desmond Choo to go with quite a different message - not the bread and butter issues ... but how he talked about his care for the residents, his commitment to the residents and how he is really trying to connect on an emotional level," said senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies Dr Gillian Koh.


Two observers, in fact, were surprised that the PAP had not done better.

Nominated Member of Parliament Eugene KB Tan said: "One would have thought that the PAP made very little headway despite having a good campaign and fairly strong candidate in Desmond Choo."

The assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University said he had expected the PAP to perform better, given that the "WP didn't have a good campaign at all" and there were "unnecessary distractions", such as Dr Poh Lee Guan's almost-entry into the by-election and Mr Yaw (Shin Leong)'s apology to Hougang.

Some feel the WP's performance contributed to the dip in its vote-share, from the 64.8 per cent that former MP for Hougang Mr Yaw received before being expelled from the party amid allegations of infidelity.

Former NMP Siew Kum Hong said he "expected a bigger swing toward the PAP". The WP had been "a little disappointing" in this by-election, and the issues that arose, such as the leaked CEC minutes, were "damaging" to the party's campaign, he noted.

"They didn't control the agenda as well as in the GE. They seemed to let the PAP dictate the agenda more," said Mr Siew, pointing to how Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean's attack on the WP over the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament issue kept the WP from focusing on its own agenda.

Conversely, while other observers felt Mr Teo's comments did not have a significant impact on the PAP's showing, Mr Siew believes some voters may have been "put off" by such "negative campaigning". Hougang resident Brandon Tan, 26, an accountant, said he "didn't really like the campaigning style" of the challenger's party and the use of what he called "low blows".

But all in all, watchers agree that both Mr Png and Mr Choo ran clean campaigns.


Analysts were divided on whether issues such as upgrading and the "by-election effect" swung votes in either party's favour. Asst Prof Tan said residents may have voted for the WP as a show of protest against the "unfair treatment" they have been subject to over the years, for instance, being among the last wards to be upgraded.

But Dr Koh said: "We've heard some residents saying they would really like to see rebuilding programmes ... with Desmond Choo saying in his campaign that's what he would provide, it would have been attractive to some of the voters."

Dr Koh also reckoned that the by-election could have swung votes to the PAP, as residents would be already assured of the WP's presence in Parliament.


All said and done, however, as Asst Prof Tan noted: "The results showed that voters were, in the end, prepared to go with the WP's track record in Hougang over the last 20 years, and to keep faith."

"This idea of a First World Parliament seems to deeply resonate with the voters in Hougang," he added. To continue voting for the Opposition and not "caving in to carrots" was something that would strike residents as "a badge of honour", he said. They could also act "out of loyalty" to WP's Mr Low.

Resident Fat Leong, 44, said: "Mr Low has always been a capable man. He's honest, and he's never pushed us to vote for him, instead he laid the issues out, and told us to make our own decisions. I will always believe in him. We don't fall for the usual promises of upgrading anymore."

Analysts pointed to how the WP has managed to intimately intertwine the Hougang spirit with the party.

Describing the constituency as a "cosy community", Dr Lam said: "The WP in the past 21 years has conflated the Hougang spirit with the WP. The PAP can send anyone there, will it make any difference? I don't think so."


While it will continue to be an uphill task for the PAP to win over the Hougang voters, the WP will also have its work cut out. Mr Siew said the party will have to improve its performance in Parliament, while addressing issues raised during the by-election, such as its party discipline.

Said Dr Lam: "They have to manage the town council very well, make sense in Parliament and must not appear to be disjointed. They have to, imagewise at least, show to Singaporeans they are running a tight ship."

It is a "very valid and important question" whether support for WP would be as strong if Mr Low were not around, said a resident Ms Chua.

"It really depends on how the party performs. The new blood came in only last year. If they are as sincere, genuine and committed to serve us, Hougang will continue to support the WP. But if there are no worthy candidates, we are all thinking people, we may change our votes," said the 26-year-old healthcare worker.

Result shows power shift possible if...
by Bilveer Singh, TODAY, 27 May 2012

The Workers' Party's victory in the Hougang by-election was no surprise. Even the People's Action Party's leaders conceded their underdog status and that they faced an uphill task.

Eventually, the WP retained the seat with a reduced majority. What was behind the figures?

Most voters rejected calls to give Hougang a "fresh start" because they believed in the innate strengths of the WP and what it has symbolised in national politics. Compared to the PAP, the WP had entered the polls with more at stake, having effectively lost one parliamentary seat through Mr Yaw Shin Leong's expulsion.

The by-election presented opportunities for the PAP to raise questions about the WP's internal workings and about the party's future viability.

But in the end, the WP's victory was a function of its 21-year stranglehold on the largely working class ward; Hougang voters' affinity for the WP; and the ward's symbolic importance as a bastion of Opposition. These are the main factors that explain the PAP's inability to dislodge the WP.

Mr Png Eng Huat, the WP candidate, was a known entity to voters, having been involved in various welfare projects since 2006. The clincher nonetheless was Mr Low Thia Khiang - the ward being practically synonymous with him, making it difficult for anyone to alter the status quo.

The dip in the WP's share of the vote and the rise in support for the PAP is insignificant in the larger picture of national politics.

Even so, the fact that the WP's support fell by more than 2 percentage points signals voters' unhappiness on a number of issues. Mr Yaw's personal indiscretions, the doubts cast on Mr Png's integrity and, more importantly, the PAP's promise of estate improvements, were factors that chipped away at the WP's support.

The strong PAP campaign led by party heavyweights also helped Mr Desmond Choo improve on his 2011 General Election showing.

The final tally spoke loudly for the status quo in Hougang and residents' confidence in the WP. But voters were also, very gently, signalling something: That the WP must get its act together and do much more for discerning voters.

While the "Hougang Spirit" is undented, the demands on the WP have also increased.

Here is where Mr Choo's improved showing is equally significant. A power shift can take place if the WP continues to bungle. Also Mr Choo's performance partly reflects his success in reaching out to younger voters, an area in which Mr Png would need to do much more.

The by-election results signal to both parties that the ward can indeed be up for grabs if either party is able to win the hearts and minds of voters as well as come up with effective programmes to serve them. We will only know in the next General Election.
Dr Bilveer Singh is a political scientist from the National University of Singapore.

A night of high emotion 
by Teo Xuanwei, TODAY, 27 May 2012

Two hours before voting closed, there was no empty table in sight at the coffeeshop at Block 322, Hougang Avenue 5. At several tables, men in their 40s and 50s were chatting animatedly over beer about the by-election in their ward.

"An lah! Bao ynia eh lah!" said one in Hokkien, which loosely translates to: "Nothing to worry about, victory is assured."

By about 8.30pm, the coffeeshop - located opposite the block where the Workers' Party holds its Meet-the-People Sessions in Hougang - was abuzz with hundreds of WP supporters carrying blue umbrellas, flags and placards.

Beer was flowing, and to the drumbeats of Trumpet Man (picture right), a familiar sight at each of the WP rallies, chants of "Workers' Party", "Huat ah", and "Low Thia Khiang" and whistling rang out incessantly in the carnival-like atmosphere.

Just some 200m away, at a grass patch outside the People's Action Party's Hougang branch headquarters, the mood was markedly different.

Watching a large screen broadcasting the by-election news coverage, there was a sense that the supporters were trying to keep their spirits up. One of them, Madam Safiah Omar, 55, said: "We are hoping for a miracle, although chances of him winning are slim. Hopefully, the percentage margin is smaller this time around."

Another, Mr P Thiam, 50, added: "I think that (the by-election is held) at the wrong time. The people are not happy with issues such as the MRT breaking down and rising prices, so they are taking the chance to voice their unhappiness."

As the minutes nearing the announcement of the results ticked by, the mood became strained, and someone in the PAP branch was heard saying: "Don't be disappointed later ..."

At the Block 322 coffeeshop, more and more edged forward towards the television screens airing the Channel NewsAsia coverage of the by-election; cheers and boos greeting whichever party was on-screen.

There was excitement, not nerves, in the air, even before rumours began spreading that the WP's Png Eng Huat was leading Mr Desmond Choo by some 5,000 votes.

And as soon as Returning Officer Yam Ah Mee took the mike at 10.30pm, the place erupted, culminating in a thunderous roar when Mr Png was declared winner with 62.09 per cent of the votes.

Asked how he felt about the victory, WP supporter Heng Hiak Ann said: "It's been over 20 years already, we weren't expecting any other result. There's a very strong kampung spirit here that you can't see anywhere else."

A resident of 26 years, who wanted to be known only as Ms Chua, said: "The carrot and stick approach really doesn't work with us. Hougang is special."

Another long-time resident, Mr Hu Enwei, added: "The People's Action Party only talks about upgrading, but it's not what us Hougang residents really want. It's about having national policies that truly benefit all Singaporeans, I've decided a long time ago."

PAP supporter, executive secretary Sharon Hong, 54, said: "It's inevitable, although I was hopeful that Desmond Choo would win. It was time for some change because I have not seen much improvement in the estate for a long time."

WP chief Low Thia Khiang's work in the ward he held from 1991 to 2011 seems to be the overriding factor Hougang voters have snubbed the PAP's overtures.

Said Ms Phan S L, 39: "Mr Low Thia Khiang is definitely a big factor. He's very efficient and dedicated to serving residents here. His contributions are here for all to see."

Added a resident who only wanted to be known as Ms Chua, 26: "Despite having limited funding, he always tries all ways to help us. He's also very sincere and genuine, always attending wakes." Another resident just said: "The WP has been around for so long already, and they have done well, we have feelings for them."

What's next for PAP and WP
REGARDLESS of the Workers' Party's (WP) perceived shortcomings in its handling of the Yaw Shin Leong affair and projecting itself as a united party, the voters of Hougang have once again given it a convincing mandate ('WP wins 62.1%'; Sunday).

Will its ability to garner the mandate for the sixth time since 1991 be interpreted as a sign of overwhelming support for the party, or of continued resentment towards the People's Action Party's (PAP) policies in Hougang?

Is the electorate sending a signal that Hougang will remain an opposition ward as long as the PAP views it as such?

Will the continued mandate in favour of the WP bring about a paradigm shift in the way the PAP treats Hougang?

Will the WP focus on building up its image so as to grow as a credible opposition party?

I am sure these questions and more are being addressed by the respective parties.

Exercising political tolerance and extending developmental projects to Hougang will go a long way towards enhancing the PAP's image not only nationally, but also internationally.

While the WP is striving to become a strong opposition in Singapore, the PAP should focus on becoming a strong opposition in Hougang.

This can be achieved only through proactively building an inclusive society, by initiating developmental projects including, but not limited to, estate upgrading in Hougang.

The greatest reward may not be winning back the ward, but the impression the PAP is going to create in the hearts and minds of people here and abroad.

Judging by the inclusive approach the Government has been taking after last year's General Election, I believe the PAP will apply the same approach to Hougang.

The series of events leading up to the by-election should be an eye-opener to the WP. It has much to do to ramp up its organisational abilities.

The WP has already proven its potential to become a strong opposition, and it can improve only through disciplined people, disciplined thought and disciplined action.

Yes, I would like to see both the PAP and opposition move from good to great, so as to sustain and further the growth achieved by our pioneers.
Althaf Hussain
ST Forum, 30 May 2012

Don't dismiss poll results
DEPUTY Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the results of the Hougang by-election are not a reflection of Singaporeans' sentiments towards the People's Action Party Government ('Hougang sentiment is 'special''; Sunday).

As an Hougang resident who cast his vote in the by-election, I am extremely disturbed by the comments.

Hougang voters may form only a small proportion of the Singapore electorate, but that does not mean our political views do not carry any weight.

We share the same concerns as any typical Singaporean voter on national issues such as the high cost of living, income inequality and overcrowding arising from excessive foreign immigration. Government policies, good or bad, affect all Singaporeans, including Hougang residents.

No doubt, the huge difference between the percentage of votes garnered by the Workers' Party (WP) and PAP candidates may be due in part to the popularity of WP leader Low Thia Khiang, but the result itself does accurately reflect the average Singaporean's dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.

It would be foolhardy for the PAP Government to dismiss the Hougang by-election results and attribute the loss to the fallacy that 'Hougang is special'. There are lessons to be drawn.
Andrew Hong
ST Forum, 30 May 2012

Give credit where it's due
MANY People's Action Party (PAP) detractors claimed that its younger MPs entered Parliament by riding on the coat-tails of ministers. I agree with this.

Similarly, there is no doubt that Mr Yaw Shin Leong and Mr Png Eng Huat were ushered into Parliament riding on the coat-tails of Mr Low Thia Khiang.

So the accusation of 'smooth rides' into Parliament is no longer unique to the PAP.

In every general election or by-election, I would look at both national and local issues. One cannot divorce the two because they are intertwined, and I think many Singaporeans adopt this view.

So the PAP's strategy of attempting to 'localise' the Hougang by-election did not work.

After last year's polls, the PAP finally began to take remedial steps to correct some serious missteps over the past years that led to problems such as rising HDB flat prices, the surge of foreign workers and so on. But not all of these problems could be resolved.

I credit the PAP for transforming Singapore from a slum to the First World city-state it is today. It has done much good for Singapore and I hope it will continue to do so.

Opposition supporters ought to give it due credit and not cry foul about everything it does.

All political parties should be given fair and equal scrutiny.
Tan Say Yin (Miss)
ST Forum, 30 May 2012

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