Tuesday 29 May 2012

Hougang By-election: The Day After

WP will work with PAP to better Singapore: Low
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 28 May 2012

A DAY after emerging victorious in the Hougang by-election, the Workers' Party said it wants to move on and work with the People's Action Party to tackle important national issues.

WP chief Low Thia Khiang said he noted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's call to Singaporeans late on Saturday to refocus on longer term issues and 'work together as one people to achieve the best for Singapore'.

Speaking to reporters yesterday morning, Mr Low said: 'The WP will move on from this election and work together with the ruling party for the betterment of Singapore.'

It was the opposition leader's way of explaining why he would not be taking up points raised by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean during the by-election campaign, which Mr Low described on Saturday night as 'character assassinations'.

Mr Teo had questioned Mr Png Eng Huat's differing accounts of whether his name had been in the running when the WP picked a Non-Constituency MP last year.

On Saturday night, after the by-election results were announced, Mr Low and Mr Teo had an exchange through the media. It culminated in Mr Teo saying Mr Low was 'free to take it up further, through legal action'.

Last night, Mr Teo said at a community event that he hoped Mr Low would 'move away from the combative tone that he took during the by-election and work in a constructive way with the Government'.

In another sign the WP chief did not want to 'let the by-election topics continue to trouble us', he said yesterday there would be no witch-hunt to find the party member who had leaked internal documents to the media.

Instead, he highlighted several national issues that the WP would be keeping an eye on.

These include the high cost of living, in particular, the prices of electricity and certificates of entitlement, the productivity drive and its effectiveness in raising pay for low-wage workers, and adjustments to foreign worker inflows and their impact on small and medium-sized enterprises and wages at the bottom.

In Hougang, Mr Low said the WP's priority is to improve the estate for residents as that was one of Mr Png's election promises.

The National Solidarity Party and a group led by former civil servant Benjamin Pwee congratulated the WP on its victory.

Cheers for Png, applause for Choo
WP's MP-elect and PAP candidate tour constituency to thank voters

By Leonard Lim , Teo Wan Gek, The Straits Times, 28 May 2012

CHEERING crowds lined the streets of Hougang yesterday to greet newly elected MP for Hougang Png Eng Huat on his victory tour of the ward.

PAP candidate Desmond Choo, who garnered 37.9 per cent of the votes, also went round in an open-top lorry to thank voters in the by-election.

Some residents waved and smiled at Mr Choo. A few shouted encouragingly 'Try again next time' and 'Don't give up!'

Later in the morning, the PAP lorry crossed paths with the WP lorry carrying party chief Low Thia Khiang, Mr Png and six other Workers' Party (WP) MPs.

Both sides exchanged waves and claps, while encouraging chants of 'Desmond Choo!' rang out from the WP lorry.

However, as the PAP lorry passed the coffee shop at Block 322 in Hougang Avenue 5, where hundreds of WP supporters had gathered on Saturday night to await the election results, the crowd grew hostile.

There were boos at the PAP team and shouts of 'Workers' Party!'. Some residents opened their blue umbrellas emblazoned with the WP's hammer symbol.

Mr Png's three-hour victory tour was a far noisier affair. The air rang with shouts of 'Huat ah', a phrase which means 'prosper' in Hokkien and is a play on Mr Png's name.

Five members of one household showed their support in a more unusual way - they brandished real hammers out of their kitchen window.

Mr Png, 50, is the first non-Teochew to be elected Member of Parliament for Hougang but does not see his lack of fluency in the dialect as a hindrance. He has managed to strike a chord with many of the residents in the predominantly Teochew ward in the past few months, he said.

'Teochew is not an issue, I don't know why people always bring it up. The residents don't really mind. As long as I connect with them in Hokkien or conversational Mandarin, it's okay,' he said. The Hokkien businessman, whose wife is Teochew, is the third WP MP in Hougang since the constituency was created in 1988. The ward's first MP was Mr Tang Guan Seng of the PAP, a Teochew.

Mr Low was Hougang MP from 1991 to last year. His protege Yaw Shin Leong won in last year's general election but was expelled from the party in February for not explaining rumours of his alleged extramarital affairs, which triggered the by-election.

As for Mr Choo, 34, who fought his first election in Hougang last year, he pledged yesterday to continue lobbying for a new wet market to be built in Hougang Avenue 3.

Before the by-election, he had pledged to work to bring back a wet market that had been torn down five years ago to make way for more residential and commercial developments.

Mr Choo said his stand had always been that regardless of the by-election result, he would continue to lobby for the market as 'it's not politically driven'. He also said that the National Development Ministry owes him a reply.

Mr Choo was also asked if, as the grassroots adviser for Hougang, he would support the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang Town Council's nomination of a number of Hougang precincts for the Home Improvement Programme and Neighbourhood Renewal Programme.

He said he would work with Mr Png as long as the estate upgrading projects are 'sound, good, practicable, and most importantly, in the best interest of residents'.

WP won't go on witch hunt: Low
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 28 May 2012

THERE will be no witch hunt to ferret out dissenting voices or the mole that leaked confidential internal documents to the media, Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang said yesterday.

Instead, the opposition politician will leave it to people's conscience, or what he labelled the 'human factor'.

'We want a very open system and I don't want to start any witch hunt,' he told reporters yesterday. 'I always believe that as a human being you have to answer to yourself at the end of the day, unless you don't sleep.

'Before you sleep, you will think, hey, what are you doing.' Mr Low said that his own conscience was clear.

Comparing moles, which in Chinese means 'inner ghosts', to demons, he said: 'Ghosts always lurk around. As long as you are brighter, the ghosts will automatically disappear.'

In the lead-up to the polls, the WP grappled with two incidents that hinted all was not well within its ranks. First, party veteran Poh Lee Guan applied for paperwork to be an election candidate in Hougang without his leaders' knowledge. Then, an anonymous source leaked to the media minutes of a meeting that contradicted Mr Png's comments on the Non-Constituency MP scheme.

Mr Low, the WP secretary-general since 2001 and an MP for 21 years, said he had been in politics long enough to have paid the price for trusting the 'wrong people' in the past. But being distrustful would be counter-productive. 'I do trust people because if you don't trust people how can you work? There's also a risk of being played out, that's life. You play me out, so be it, I'll move on.'

And though four WP candidates who stood in last year's general election have quit the party since, Mr Low said that he did not see the need to mend any divisions.

'We believe in: agree to disagree. That is what a First World society should be, and the Workers' Party practices that.'

Returning to a theme he spoke about in a press conference the day before, Mr Low said he was not against media scrutiny and criticism, though it must be fair and balanced.

On Saturday, he accused the mainstream media of being used as a political tool during the Hougang campaign by the PAP.

Yesterday, he cited a Straits Times photo that had 'got on my nerves' as he felt its use was not justified.

Without mentioning a specific article, he said the WP's response to criticism was 'buried somewhere', while the headline painted a 'certain picture'.

'You can cover a press conference, you can get all the points and then you jumble it somewhere. So the reader reads it, it's all inside, but they don't get the message.'

Sitoh to Desmond: Never say die
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 28 May 2012

SIX years ago, one man fought and lost in a battle reminiscent of the one Mr Desmond Choo of the People's Action Party (PAP) faced last Saturday in Hougang.

Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, Potong Pasir MP, suffered his second defeat at attempting a breakthrough in the opposition stronghold. The only difference: He had been there since 2000, while Mr Choo was sent to Hougang last year.

In the 2001 and 2006 general elections, Mr Sitoh lost to Mr Chiam See Tong by between 44 and 48 per cent of the votes.

'It's not easy. Whether it's Hougang or Potong Pasir, it's like a big tree where all the roots are very deep,' he told The Straits Times yesterday.

'This is about winning the hearts and minds of the people. You've got to penetrate every household, every coffee shop, every corner of the heartland.'

Mr Sitoh took 11 years to win 50.36 per cent of the votes at the polls last year against Mr Chiam's wife Lina. The ward had been Mr Chiam's for 27 years, since 1984.

Yesterday, Mr Sitoh and former PAP MPs Ang Mong Seng and Ong Ah Heng recalled how they brought opposition-held seats back into the PAP fold.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday night said that the PAP will remain present in the ward and he was confident of winning it in future.

The PAP MPs agreed it can be done. But they said a confluence of factors, such as tenacity, hard work and timing, matters.

While his team was known for giving shark's fin soup and abalone porridge to residents, Mr Sitoh learnt that doing good on the quiet spoke louder than words.

'In Potong Pasir, it doesn't mean that when we help people, we have to make a song and dance of it. Over time, people will know you are sincere and, hopefully, you can win their trust.'

He believed in team effort, backed by his 'right-hand man' and campaign manager from the outset, Mr Chua Kian Meng.

'People will ask: 'Where is Ah Chua?' It's not about me, but our whole team.'

Party activists were not the only ones on the ground. 'We had our 'connectors', in the same way Mr Chiam had his: your auntie who taught qigong, the taiji master, the lady who is the heart and soul of the coffee shop, the fishmonger and so on.

'With no party allegiance and no long-term history as activists, these people were able to strip the PAP shell from our plans and present them to the residents.'

While Mr Sitoh was third-time lucky, Mr Ang and Mr Ong won back seats for the PAP in 1997 after just one election. They benefited not only from the national shift back to the ruling party but also from in-fighting in their opponents' camp, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

Both men stressed the need to understand residents' needs and form ties through block parties, family days and outings.

Said Mr Ang, who trounced SDP's Mr Ling How Doong in Bukit Gombak: 'You bond everybody, and they bond with you.'

But Mr Ong, who won Nee Soon Central from SDP's Mr Cheo Chai Chen, felt people's expectations then were also 'not so complicated' and easier to meet.

Above all, Mr Sitoh advocates planning and thinking long term.

Noted for rejecting his party's offer to field him in a GRC, his advice to Mr Choo, whom he has not spoken to, is for the PAP to 'persist, persevere and be tenacious'.

'You must be pah si buay chao.' That is Hokkien for 'never say die'.

What lies ahead for next fight?
By-election holds lessons for PAP and WP for a higher-stakes battle
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 28 May 2012

WELL before the first ballot was cast, punters and pundits alike thought the odds of Mr Desmond Choo winning Hougang were extremely slim.

They were right. On Saturday, Hougang voters stuck to their preferred choice of the Workers' Party and rebuffed Mr Choo of the People's Action Party.

But they did it a tad more gently this time, compared with a year ago at the general election (GE). Mr Choo improved on his previous showing of 35.2 per cent, pulling in 37.9 per cent of the votes this time.

Mr Png Eng Huat will be sworn in as the WP's sixth elected MP.

Beyond restoring parity to Parliament, what signals can be read into the results?

For the WP, the victory must be particularly gratifying, as party chief Low Thia Khiang admitted facing a challenging battle.

Given the circumstances under which the by-election was called, and talk of rifts within the ranks, the party emerged relatively unscathed, with a resounding 62.1 per cent of the votes, down slightly from 64.8 per cent last year.

Many political observers point to the talismanic influence of Mr Low himself, who defended Hougang for 20 years before leaving for Aljunied GRC last year.

The PAP's attacks in the last week galvanised rather than weakened him, said observers, as he fought back vigorously for Mr Png and party.

'He was like a co-candidate,' said Nominated MP Eugene Tan.

'It was Low Thia Khiang and Png versus Desmond Choo.'

In the last rally, such was his overwhelming presence that Mr Low took to the stage - not once, but thrice, speaking in Mandarin, Teochew and English.

Even in victory, he remained fiery, thrashing the PAP for resorting to old-style tactics of 'personal attacks, veiled threats and character assassination'.

During the campaign, the PAP had said that Mr Low's decisions ought to be questioned after he failed with his choice of former MP for Hougang and erstwhile protege Yaw Shin Leong who fled Singapore.

But voters stayed faithful to Mr Low.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin said: 'It was as if Low Thia Khiang was still their MP.'

Mr Tan put it thus: 'Hougang voters seem to have their loyalty to Mr Low first and to the WP second.'

The victory in Hougang preserves Mr Low's unimpeachable position in the party, say observers, and a looming leadership election is unlikely to rattle him.

But while observers like Dr Derek da Cunha believe 'the premium on WP brand name remains intact', others say the recent rumblings should give cause for internal review.

Mr Low said yesterday that he would not be going on a witch-hunt but observers believe the party will reinforce discipline within the ranks.

The recent clutch of transgressions appears tolerable to supporters. So, Mr Yaw proved to be a dud as he fled after refusing to deal with allegations of infidelity. So, party member Poh Lee Guan pulled a stunt by indicating he too wanted to contest in Hougang only to back down later. So, a certain insider calling himself 'Secret Squirrel' leaked party meeting minutes.

For now, voters in Hougang - and probably elsewhere - are prepared to give WP the benefit of the doubt. It has not expended much of the capital it earned after historic wins in the last GE, said Mr Zulkifli.

Still, observers say that if the WP has ambitions to expand its influence in the north-east, from Joo Chiat to East Coast and even Tampines, it will have to do more to keep the flotilla in tight formation.

'To be entrusted with more seats in Parliament, it must show that its own house is in order... The stakes will be higher than before,' said Nanyang Technological University media academic Cherian George.

A Straits Times poll of 400 residents over May 23 and 24, showed that 6 per cent had voted for WP last year, but were undecided this time because the recent incidents had shaken their confidence in the party.

While they did not make the switch, their wavering should give pause.

Mr Low brushed aside the recent troubles of the party as 'isolated cases'. But as former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong said: 'Mr Low needs to set the party on sound footing to go into the next GE as strongly as they did in the last one.

'If these things happened in a national GE, I'm not sure how much damage control he can do.'

While WP will have much to mull over Hougang, for the PAP, the future must be one of continuing to till the ground in the ward. Can it be a Potong Pasir, which fell after a decade of assiduous courting by Mr Sitoh Yih Pin?

But his opponent Chiam See Tong began to lose support because he could not keep up the town's estate maintenance.

Hougang may be ageing but the WP has kept it spruced up and judging by the mandate given last Saturday, it is nowhere on the downward trajectory that Potong Pasir was six years ago.

Mr Tan wonders if it will take something as drastic as Mr Low retiring from politics, or a severe fall from grace to shift Hougang. 'Should the PAP just give up Hougang?' he asked.

The by-election has also raised questions on the PAP's strategy, particularly of gunning after the candidate's so-called integrity when it was based on so little.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean had criticised Mr Png for appearing to change his stance on whether his name was in the running for a Non-Constituency MP post.

Dr Terence Chong, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, wrote on his Facebook page that DPM Teo could have handled the incident more 'deftly'.

'Unfortunately the PAP overplayed it and misread the public's appetite for old-style politics,' he said.

One finding from The Straits Times poll, however, appears to contradict this sentiment.

The survey of 400 voters showed that Mr Choo narrowed the gap, as his share went up from 31 per cent to 38 per cent between last Wednesday and Thursday.

Were some voters beginning to have doubts about WP and could a longer campaign have helped Mr Choo do better?

The point is now moot but Mr Tan said the PAP must address the issue of perceived fair play between the PAP and opposition.

'No matter how good they run the campaign, how strong the candidate is, this sense of unfairness that some voters feel will just work against them.'

Which party will heed the lessons from this campaign is a question that the next general election will answer. Unless, there is another by-election.

Desmond Choo back to work in Hougang
After by-election defeat, he continues meeting residents, laying out plans
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 29 May 2012

TWO days after losing the by-election, People's Action Party candidate Desmond Choo was back in Hougang, meeting residents and laying out plans to improve the ward.

His immediate plans include a new round of fund-raising for his welfare schemes, including one that provides transport subsidies for needy students.

He also plans to expand his team of 10 to 15 active volunteers and develop programmes for young people, such as a forum for them to discuss policies.

'I was quite inspired... as I was going around, the youth were saying they want to contribute more, to understand policies,' he told reporters last night at the Hougang Community Club, where he met residents.

Asked about cooperating with newly elected Workers' Party MP Png Eng Huat on estate upgrading, Mr Choo said: 'The door remains open.'

On Polling Day last Saturday, the two men met and agreed to support each other's programmes for the residents' benefit. They also agreed to meet for coffee after the by-election was over.

As the grassroots adviser for Hougang, Mr Choo's support is needed for the Home Improvement Programme and Neighbourhood Renewal Programme that Mr Png is seeking for some precincts.

Mr Choo said: 'Any project, as long as it benefits the residents, is in their best interest, is sound, is practicable... I am more than willing to support.'

He added of Mr Png: 'I will also need support from him for some of the programmes that we run, especially places which require town council support.'

Mr Png has also said he will look into estate improvements, such as reroofing and repair and redecoration works.

Last night, more than 40 people sought help at one of Mr Choo's regular Monday coffee sessions.

Some had visited before, like cleaner Jasmani Amin, 59, who was following up on his case involving financial matters concerning his new flat in Yishun.

Others, like mail processing operator Mary Chua, 46, had just met Mr Choo last week while he was on the campaign trail.

Mrs Adeline Ong, 43, a clerk, came to thank him for getting her 14-year-old son back into school after he was suspended.

She sought his help last month, even though she lived in Aljunied GRC. 'I find Mr Choo very friendly,' she said.

One elderly woman presented Mr Choo with a jar of bird's nest soup. 'You have lost weight. Remember to drink the soup first thing in the morning,' she reminded him, before hurrying off.

Both Mr Choo and Mr Png had pounded the campaign trail non-stop for nine days, as they went all out to visit as many Hougang residents as they could.

In the end, Mr Png won with 62.1 per cent of the votes, while Mr Choo received 37.9 per cent.

Mr Choo said that while he felt disappointed over the loss, he was encouraged by the well-wishes and news that residents were being helped.

'These are small things that keep us going. It shows that we are making a real difference to people's lives,' he said.

He added that he was glad to see his volunteers out in full force again. 'Everybody was charged up, energised, ready to work. That is the spirit that I want.

'Our long-term goal is to serve. A by-election or a general election should not distract us.'

No political intentions: Rotary Club
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 29 May 2012

THE Rotary Club of Singapore is going ahead with a plan to help retrofit old toilets in Hougang, but dismissed suggestions that it was linked to political intentions.

The club had raised eyebrows last week when it said it would raise $100,000 to support a scheme by People's Action Party candidate Desmond Choo.

The announcement, which came during the Hougang by-election campaign, prompted some to question its timing.

But the club's president Kumar Tapan Rao told The Straits Times yesterday: 'The Rotary Club is not making any donation to any political party. We are raising funds for a project to help the elderly in Singapore.'

All of the $100,000 will go towards the cost of upgrading squat toilets to sitting ones, he said.

Mr Choo has raised enough funds to cover 30 homes, and the $100,000 will cover 50 more.

On Sunday, former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock had in a Facebook post commented on the club's move, saying that the cause was 'noble' but 'the reason and timing for the donation is misplaced'.

'Giving money to a politician for a good cause during a political election campaign is venturing into the political arena,' he noted.

The chairman of the Foundation of Rotary Clubs, Mr David Tong, has clarified that its constitution bans members from taking part in any political activity in the name of their clubs. There are 22 Rotary Clubs in Singapore, each one operating autonomously.

Yesterday, Mr Tapan Rao said the political dimension had not crossed his mind. He had not even met Mr Choo before, he added. 'At the end of the day, if we can get a new toilet for one old lady, I am honoured and gratified.'

As for Mr Choo, when asked if the funds should have gone to the MP instead, he replied that they should go to any good programme, 'whether it is run by an MP or somebody else or a resident'. He said: 'As long as it is a good programme that people can believe in, that benefits people, then the funding should go to them to run it.'

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