Saturday 19 May 2012

Hougang By-election: On The Campaign Trail, Day 3

One plays up his youthfulness, the other his 50 years of age
Choo says he will be youthful voice, Png says life experience an asset
By Rachel Chang, Andrea Ong and Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 19 May 2012

THE two men contesting in Hougang tried to play to their strengths on the campaign trail yesterday, with the younger one emphasising his youthful voice and the older one, his life experience.

The People's Action Party's (PAP's) Mr Desmond Choo, 34, said he would speak up for young voters if elected, and called on them to 'step up and say, 'we want a change''.

He told reporters that younger residents asked him to inject new life into the neighbourhood, saying that the ward, which has been in the hands of the Workers' Party's (WP) since 1991, had 'not changed much'.

Mr Choo also said he has plans to start a policy forum for young people in Hougang.

'Hougang's future lies with its young people,' he said. 'Residents say to me, 'You are young, you understand their sentiments. So you can build with them Hougang's future for the next 20 years'.'

The WP's Mr Png Eng Huat, meanwhile, capitalised on his 50 years of age. The semi-retiree told media that his life experience would be a boon in Parliament, as he could bring his expertise to discussions on arts, entertainment, transport and education.

Mr Png, whose daughter will be sitting the PSLE next year, said he plans to champion having fewer high-stakes examinations like the PSLE.

'I know what they are going through,' he said.

Yesterday, he continued to enjoy the support of his party's big guns on the campaign trail.

At a lunchtime walkabout, he was flanked by WP MPs Low Thia Khiang, Sylvia Lim and Chen Show Mao, as well as Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong.

In contrast, Mr Choo stuck to his strategy of being his 'own man' and running his own campaign. No PAP MPs have joined him on his walkabouts so far.

Mr Png, however, dismissed the suggestion that he was riding on the coat-tails of his more prominent WP colleagues.

'Hougang is very important to the WP, that's why so many of the WP team is here to help,' he said. 'The PAP is a big party. They have 81 MPs, you know... The WP is defending Hougang, so the whole machinery is behind us.'

Party chief Mr Low, meanwhile, took a dig at Mr Choo's decision to go it alone.

He said: 'I wonder if he's trying to show that he's an independent? Is he nominated by the PAP? To me, it's only right for the party to support our candidate.'

Yesterday's campaign trail sprung a surprise development, when former WP MP Yaw Shin Leong issued his first public statement since being expelled by his party. In it, Mr Yaw apologised to Hougang residents for the inconvenience he had caused them and urged them to support the WP.

The WP responded saying only that Mr Yaw was no longer a member of the party, and that it remained focused on supporting its candidate for the by-election.

When Mr Choo was asked if he thought voters would heed Mr Yaw's call, he also stuck to the line that he has been taking on the issue.

'The Yaw Shin Leong incident is a closed chapter,' he said, adding that voters would just look at who had always been serving and could continue to serve them in Hougang.

Fight over margins
Can the PAP gain an edge at a time when the WP's stronghold in Hougang seems at its most vulnerable?
By Leonard Lim, Andrea Ong, Teo Wan Gek and Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 19 May 2012

HOUGANG resident Hwang Ying Fang is the archetypal swing voter.

In the last 20 years living in the ward, she has voted for both the Workers' Party (WP) and People's Action Party (PAP).

In the upcoming by-election, the retiree is still sussing out the WP's Png Eng Huat and the PAP's Desmond Choo.

'I'll decide once I hear the candidates and what they stand for,' says the 73-year-old.

Recent talk of a rift within the WP, however, is shaping up to be a factor for her and other undecided voters.

Just 24 hours before Nomination Day on Wednesday, WP leaders were caught off-guard when they learnt from news reports that party veteran Poh Lee Guan had applied for, and been issued, a political donation certificate - a pre-requisite for contesting.

Dr Poh is no Johnny-come- lately to Hougang. He was once vice-chairman of the WP's Hougang Constituency Committee. He attended recent Meet-the- People Sessions.

His advance election paperwork provided a last-minute twist to what had been building up as a straight fight between Mr Png, 50, and Mr Choo, 34.

In the end, Dr Poh stayed away from the Nomination Centre. He claimed his stunt, seen as a protest at being passed over as a candidate, was a helpful act to be an 'unofficial back-up'.

Party chief Low Thia Khiang rapped him for not informing the WP leadership beforehand.

Dr Poh's stunt came just days after one of his running mates in Nee Soon GRC last year, Mr Sajeev Kamalasanan, resigned after he was not made a party cadre. He became the fourth WP candidate to depart since the general election, when WP's historic victory in Aljunied Group Representation Constituency earned it five more seats in Parliament.

The others who left are: former Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong, whose expulsion for failing to explain rumours of alleged extramarital affairs triggered the by-election; Mr Mohamed Fazli Talip; and veteran Eric Tan, who left because he was not made a Non-Constituency MP.

After the close of nominations on Wednesday, Mr Low, besieged by a flurry of media questions, vehemently denied any notion of a rift or rupture within the WP.

But will Hougang voters believe the WP leader as the hustings heat up ahead of Polling Day next Saturday?

IT manager Ryan Chin, 35, was among the residents Insight spoke to in wide-ranging interviews who say they are now weighing their choice more carefully.

'The talk of disunity has affected me, and my confidence level in the WP has dropped,' he declares.

Like many, he was impressed this time last year when the WP retained Hougang with its biggest winning margin in two decades, and secured its place in the annals of local political history by becoming the first opposition party to win a GRC. The WP then was lauded as the standard bearer for discipline and unity - a rarity in Singapore's notoriously fractured opposition scene.

But some of the shine on the party brand seems to have worn off and the shadow of Mr Yaw, who is said to have skipped town, will cost the WP votes, say some Hougang residents.

Taxi driver Raymond Soo, 52, says: 'If he did something wrong, he should account for it. But he fled instead.'

Yesterday, Mr Yaw issued a statement by e-mail apologising for the inconvenience caused to Hougang voters, but urging them to stay with the party.

The question now is whether this will appease voters like Mr Soo enough to prevent the PAP's Mr Choo from making inroads at a time when WP's stronghold in Hougang seems to be at its most vulnerable. To borrow an analogy that the PAP used in the 2001 GE, is the 'chiku' that is Hougang ripe for the picking?

Retiree B.K. Wong, 80, a staunch PAP supporter who has lived in Hougang since 1983, believes this by-election is the 'best chance' for the ruling party to break the WP stranglehold.

Low Thia Khiang factor

BUT such a calculation may be underestimating the real source of WP's power in Hougang: the man whom Hougang uncles and aunties call 'Ah Low'.

Retiree Ronald Ang, 65, says: 'The WP can put any candidate in and still get votes as people trust Low Thia Khiang.'

Mr Low, the ward's MP from 1991 to last year, has been spotted walking around the estate alone and with Mr Png, who was put in charge of the WP's grassroots arm in Hougang after Mr Yaw's expulsion in February. The pugnacious opposition leader tugs at heartstrings when he describes his visits to Hougang as hui niang jia (Mandarin for returning to his parents' home).

The single-seat constituency, created in 1988, has been his political perch since he beat the PAP's Tang Guan Seng in 1991. He held it through three more elections - in 1997, 2001 and 2006 - before making what he described as 'the most difficult decision of his life' to leave for Aljunied GRC last year.

His successor, Mr Yaw, retained the seat by a whopping 30 percentage point margin, higher than any of Mr Low's victories.

Even after the upheavals from Mr Yaw and Dr Poh's actions, residents' loyalty to Mr Low appears undiminished. Technician Anthony Tan, 56, puts it in perspective: 'It's about the 20 years, not just what happened in the past year.'

Hougang voters, especially the older folk who were resettled, liken their ward to the prodigal son of Singapore politics.

Temple clerk Simon Lui, 64, explains the way many of these folk think of how the PAP treats them: 'We are like a child who's been cast aside.

'After a while, the child realises he doesn't need his father.'

Mr Low, he adds, appeals to many Hougang voters because he has a similar independent streak.

'And he's Chinese-educated and Teochew, just like most of us here,' Mr Lui adds.

In interviews, Insight could barely find a single voter with a personal criticism of their former MP. Many can recall only touching personal encounters.

Retiree Teo K.L., 71, says Mr Low attended her late husband's wake five years ago. 'He sent a wreath and comforted me. He has the human touch,' she says.

Caring town council

SOME residents worry that this personal touch may disappear if the PAP takes over.

Madam Tan, 63, who declines to give her full name, says Mr Low and the Hougang Town Council were kind to residents who paid their service and conservancy charges late.

'They understood that sometimes we couldn't afford or forgot to pay. When I lived elsewhere, if you're late by one day, you get fined,' says the hawker.

Hougang Town Council's past annual reports state it keeps outstanding service and conservancy debts for more than seven years. A shopkeeper says the town council would sometimes also allow elderly or disabled residents to use the frontage of shops to sell items for pocket money. He wonders if this would be the case if the PAP took over.

Some elderly residents are also attached to their senior citizens' corners - at void decks of several blocks - and wonder if the PAP would clear them out.

And even as PAP wards have gone ahead of Hougang in the upgrading queue, many feel the town council has done a good job in keeping it clean and liveable.

Estate maintenance was thought to have contributed to the fall of Potong Pasir, an opposition ward for 27 years, to the PAP last year. Hougang is nowhere near to being in such a state.

Municipal v ideological

MR LOW is no longer the ward's MP but his legacy looms large.

Hougang residents appear to accept the price they pay for living in an opposition ward. But the man fighting for their votes, Mr Desmond Choo, is promising to do more: He wants to build a wet market in Hougang Avenue 3 so residents do not have to go to neighbouring towns for their fresh produce.

The growing need to do more for the elderly, who make up a significant number of Hougang's 37,000 residents, also makes municipal matters a concern that both candidates are alive to.

Mr Png, a businessman with a background in social work, has a track record of sorts. He helmed programmes for the Hougang Constituency Committee for five years before he was fielded in East Coast GRC as a candidate last year. Mr Png is Hokkien but his wife is Teochew, the dialect of many Hougang residents.

Mr Choo, a deputy director at the National Trades Union Congress, is a Teochew speaker, and has rolled out social assistance programmes such as hearing aids and a mobile traditional Chinese medicine clinic in the 15 months he has been working the ground.

But beyond the municipal gameplans, the two men are going after the vote differently.

Mr Png is not shy about getting support from Mr Low and other party bigwigs, citing the importance of Hougang and how it must be defended at all cost.

Mr Choo has declared he is his 'own man', taking a different tack from Mr Eric Low, who contested there under the PAP banner in the 2001 and 2006 elections and who received the help of then Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong in the 2006 polls.

The PAP promised a $100 million upgrading carrot, warning voters Hougang could end up being a slum if there was no serious effort to upgrade the estate.

Hougang voters were unimpressed. Mr Low won 62.7 per cent of the votes, his best showing since 1991.

Mr Choo has eschewed the help of big names, taking a leaf out of Potong Pasir MP Sitoh Yih Pin's book. Last year, Mr Sitoh's strategy of keeping a low profile going door to door, earning every single vote on his own steam and without PAP bigwigs, finally secured the single-seat constituency for the party.

Mr Choo's boyish looks have made him an 'auntie killer'. But whether the aunties can separate personal like from political loyalty is harder to fathom.

Mr Png is counting on that loyalty to keep alive the Low legacy. The WP is touting Hougang as the political heart of the party. Without it, WP would not have grown to take over neighbouring Aljunied GRC. Mr Png calls it 'a bastion of unwavering courage'.

Will such an appeal override the angst some WP loyalists feel over the party's recent bumps?

Much depends on swing voters like Mrs Hwang.

Over the past 20 years, WP's share of the vote has ranged from 64.8 per cent last year to 52.8 per cent in 1991.

Can Mr Choo cross that chasm of PAP's lowest score of 35.2 per cent last year to its best showing of 47.2 per cent in 1991 and leap some more for a win?

Landscape designer Ong Kuee Fen, 58, a voter, puts it more simply: 'We have voted the way we did for 20 years. Is all that going to change now in a year? PAP would do well to improve on their last score; a win is out of the question.'

A PAP insider is just as realistic: 'Anything higher than our previous score is pretty good.'

If the PAP manages to get a bigger bite of the 'chiku', the 2012 by-election may go down in history as the one that kick-started the momentum to its eventual winning back of Hougang.

A slimmer margin of victory for the WP will invite quiet recrimination. An astute leadership will see such a win as a warning. Even the strongest of bastions need fortification.



THE ward is part of Hougang town. The name Hougang has its roots in the Hokkien and Teochew phrase au kang, or river's end, as the town is located upstream of Sungei Serangoon.

The area was once a large piece of forested land with more than 10 pig farms.

The last of the pig farmers were resettled in Housing Board flats by the mid-1990s.

Many Chinese residents in Hougang speak Teochew, as they came from a Teochew community in Kampong Punggol before being relocated to Hougang.

The ward came into existence in 1988. Since Mr Low Thia Khiang of the Workers' Party (WP) won the ward in 1991, its boundaries have remained largely intact.

Distinctive colours

THE lit signs depicting block numbers are all in bright yellow and red. Similarly, lamp posts and large arrow signs painted in yellow and red stripes mark carpark entrances.

The eye-catching colours mirror the WP flag - a yellow hammer on a red background.

The blocks are also painted bright blue and yellow. Block 316, Hougang Avenue 7, is iconic within the ward because of the huge rainbow emblazoned across it.

In Hougang, but not in it

NOT every location that starts with 'Hougang', such as Hougang MRT, Hougang Mall and Hougang Stadium, lies in the single-seat constituency.

Hougang town is spread across five wards in four different constituencies.

A portion belongs to Hougang SMC, while other parts come under Aljunied, Ang Mo Kio and Pasir Ris-Punggol GRCs.

Hougang MRT and Hougang Mall are, oddly enough, not in the SMC, which has no MRT station or shopping mall of its own. For the record, both these amenities are in Aljunied GRC.

Hougang Stadium is in Ang Mo Kio GRC.

Bastions within the bastion

IT IS thought that there are certain hot spots in Hougang that are more 'blue' than others.

One area is the cluster of flats around Block 310, Hougang Avenue 5, where the weekly WP Meet-the-People Sessions are held.

Just across the road, the coffee shop at Block 322 and the nearby benches are a popular gathering place for elderly residents who tend to be very vocal in their support for the WP.

The political temperature can run high, especially during campaign periods.

When PAP's Mr Desmond Choo visited the coffee shop and row of shops on Sunday, an elderly resident pointedly stood aside, saying: 'Why should I shake his hand? I had lunch with Mr Low yesterday.'

Earlier this week, when a lorry festooned with People's Action Party flags drove past the benches, the group of 'uncles' there glared and booed.

Delicious eats

CRAVING for good duck rice? Residents head to a stall in Block 309, which also has another unit that serves up delicious mutton soup.

A stall in Block 327 sells highly recommended bao, while curry rice lovers head to one in Block 322.

And by the way, the popular Punggol Nasi Lemak and Selegie Soya Bean stalls along Upper Serangoon Road, both of which regularly see queues of more than 20 people on most nights, are within Aljunied GRC's boundaries.

Popular gathering spots

APART from Block 322, the de facto town centre, the benches outside the Town Council office in Block 701, which are surrounded by greenery and water features, are another popular gathering point for elderly folks.


No. of voters: 23,368
- About 80 per cent of Hougang's 37,000 residents live in Housing Board flats. Of these, 33 per cent live in three-room flats, 40 per cent in four-room flats, and 27 per cent in larger flats. 
- There are three condominiums: The Florida, Rio Vista and Evergreen Park. 
- Around 83 per cent of voters are Chinese. The town is predominantly made up of older, working-class citizens. 
- Hougang is bounded by Lim Ah Pin Road in the south-west, Avenue 10 in the north-west and Avenue 7 in the east.

If you talk about upgrading as a local issue, it doesn't really apply to Hougang. Hougang made a 20-year statement on democracy.

If it's a local issue, they would have voted the other way because the PAP used to throw a $100 million upgrading carrot at them in 2006. But they still did not take the bait. So you see the people here know what is the actual issue. I think it's higher than local; it's national. - WP candidate Png Eng Huat, 50, on how Hougang voters vote with the bigger picture in mind

No, no, it's a school week, so cannot 'ponteng' school. - Mr Png on whether his wife, a trainer, and school-going son and daughter will accompany him on the campaign trail, saying they cannot skip classes

As a new chap, I must be open and receptive to veterans' advice... but that doesn't mean that I should lose my own take on things. - PAP candidate Desmond Choo, 34, on his desire to be his own man and not rely on the help of party heavyweights too much in this by-election

While national issues are being aired, does it mean that we do it at the expense of Hougang residents, that they don't deserve the assistance and help until national issues have been sorted out?

I think not. We must have the interests of Hougang residents first and foremost. - Mr Choo, on why local issues are most important in this by-election

Chink in the Workers' Party armour
Cracks started appearing after last year's general election as some party stalwarts felt dislocated
By Lydia Lim. The Straits Times, 19 May 2012

THE messy and contentious aspects of political renewal burst into the open this week as the national spotlight was trained on the Workers' Party (WP) and its bid to retain Hougang.

The man who stirred doubts over WP unity was senior cadre Poh Lee Guan, 50, a former assistant secretary-general who lost his seat in the party's Executive Council in 2010.

Dr Poh, who is the same age as the WP's anointed candidate Png Eng Huat, had been active in Hougang, and might have harboured hopes of being fielded there after three unsuccessful bids in Nee Soon in the 2001, 2006 and 2011 general elections.

News broke on Tuesday that he had applied for and received a political donation certificate - which is a prerequisite for contesting the polls.

Until now, it remains unclear what Dr Poh was trying to achieve in taking that step, before finally deciding on Nomination Day on Wednesday not to stand.

As political watchers well know, quarrels and rivalries within opposition ranks are nothing new. What is new is the WP's newly minted status - post-GE 2011 - as the opposition party to watch.

In the lead-up to and during last May's polls, the WP's efforts to recruit new blood and renew its ranks seemed to be reaping impressive results, with minimal downside.

If there was trouble brewing internally between old-timers and new faces, such strife did not spill out into the open then.

From the outside, the WP looked united and disciplined.

The party's savvy secretary- general Low Thia Khiang and no-nonsense chairman Sylvia Lim ran a tight ship.

Cracks started to appear only shortly after the polls, when the yield of two Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) seats fell short of the number needed to satisfy the party's losing candidates.

The party leadership chose Mr Gerald Giam, 34, over veteran member Eric Tan, 56, to fill the NCMP seat for East Coast GRC. Both men had been members of the GRC team, but Mr Tan had led it.

Since then, the party has lost three other members.

In February, it expelled its former MP for Hougang Yaw Shin Leong for failing to account to the party leadership concerning his alleged extramarital affairs. Two other losing candidates resigned, after not being made party cadres.

For a sense of how quickly the WP has brought in and promoted new blood, consider that of its current seven Members of Parliament, five joined in 2006 or later, including NCMP Yee Jenn Jong, who took the plunge just before last year's polls.

It is not alone in experiencing growing pains.

The recent infusion of talent into opposition ranks - touted as a hallmark of the new normal in politics and a boon for voters - is also a cause of dislocation for party stalwarts.

Those in the National Solidarity Party, for example, have to deal with a new leadership's plans to rebrand and shed its old image as a party of Chinese businessmen.

For old-timers in Mr Chiam See Tong's Singapore People's Party, it has been a year of abrupt arrivals and departures as Cambridge graduate Benjamin Pwee swept in, grabbed a leadership post and then quit, taking five others with him.

But these comings and goings were of far less interest to the public as the parties involved lacked the political heft of the WP. This week's public outing of some of its internal party differences drew a different response altogether.

People's Action Party chairman Khaw Boon Wan promptly took aim at the newly unveiled chink in the WP's armour.

He said: 'Some resign, some get sacked for whatever the reason, some become unhappy with the leadership - it's too complicated for us. We come to politics to serve. So we have a common cause. So you decide what is important for Singaporeans and as a party, we stay united.'

He later added that if a party with such problems were in charge of the country, it would mean that 'every day, some ministers are resigning or being sacked'.

Swiftly refuting what he called 'rumours' spread by those who want to damage the WP, Mr Low declared at a press conference that 'the party has never been split'. It was a 'normal occurrence for a developing party' that some individual members might form different opinions or leave for greener pastures.

'There is no problem in the WP. The WP stands united,' he insisted.

Party renewal is rarely a win-win process. In the 1980s, the PAP endured a public spat between Mr Lee Kuan Yew and former deputy prime minister Toh Chin Chye over the pace of renewal. Not all veteran PAP MPs who were asked to retire to make way for new blood did so willingly.

In his 11 years as WP chief, Mr Low has held the party together in the face of many departures.

Six months after he took over the party reins from Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam in May 2001, the latter and 10 others quit. Mr Low stayed and grew the party to what it is today. Much depends on whether he can do so again.

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