Monday 21 May 2012

Hougang By-election: On The Campaign Trail, Day 5

WP 'chose not to send Png to Parliament'
He was passed over for NCMP spot after last year's election: DPM Teo
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 21 May 2012

THE Workers' Party (WP) is asking Hougang voters to elect a candidate that the party itself did not see fit to send to Parliament last year, charged Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean last night.

In a fiery keynote speech at the People's Action Party's (PAP) first rally of the Hougang by-election, Mr Teo noted that Mr Png Eng Huat, the WP's candidate, was bypassed for a Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) spot after the General Election last year.

The place, given to the 'best losers' in the GE, was taken by his teammate in the WP's East Coast GRC slate, Mr Gerald Giam.

'If he was their best member, why didn't they choose him?' asked Mr Teo. 'Voters have the right to ask why the WP did not send Mr Png to Parliament, but now want the voters of Hougang to send him to Parliament. Is it possible that they are taking your support for granted?'

That the WP has not done right by the ward, which they now insist is special to the party, was a line that PAP speakers at the rally in Hougang stadium last night sought to drive home.
Besides Mr Teo, prominent MP Denise Phua and former MP Peh Chin Hua also spoke.

Mr Teo noted that both WP chief Low Thia Khiang and his former protege Yaw Shin Leong have left Hougang. But Mr Desmond Choo, the PAP candidate, stayed despite electoral defeat.

Mr Low is now an MP for Aljunied GRC. Mr Yaw was elected, but expelled from the party in February for refusing to account for alleged extramarital affairs. His expulsion triggered this by-election.

'One year ago, you gave Mr Yaw and the WP the chance to serve you. But Mr Yaw wasted that chance,' said Mr Teo.

'Desmond did not leave you. He stood beside you. Give Desmond a chance to serve you, and show what he can do for you.'

Mr Teo and Ms Phua also assailed the WP MPs for an underwhelming performance in Parliament over the past year.

'What are the solutions that the WP MPs have brought up in Parliament in the last one year that can stand the test of time?' asked Ms Phua. She asserted that she and other independent-minded PAP MPs do a better job of checking the Government.

In answer to the WP's charge that the PAP Government does not want the by-election to be about national issues, Mr Teo emphasised the Government is aware of the 'stresses and strains' Singaporeans are feeling.

Hence, in the past year, it has tightened the inflow of foreign workers, increased the assistance to low-income Singaporeans, and ramped up building of flats and public transport infrastructure.

'This is not just talk, but real, concrete things that we are doing to make life better for Singaporeans,' he said.

As the only weekend of the nine-day campaign period drew to a close, there was no let-up in the door-to-door outreach.

Both candidates seemed to switch strategies: Mr Png went around with just helpers yesterday. Hitherto, the WP MPs have flanked him.

In contrast, Mr Choo - who went it alone all of last week - enjoyed the support of at least six PAP MPs this weekend, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

WP 'changing tunes and taking Hougang voters for granted'
By Rachel Chang, 21 May 2012

PEOPLE'S Action Party speakers fired multiple shots at the Workers' Party (WP) last night, noting that the party had changed its tune on several key issues.

This chopping and changing showed that the party was taking Hougang voters for granted, they charged.

In their speeches, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, MP Denise Phua and former MP Peh Chin Hua raised example after example to make their point and urged the ward's residents to think carefully when voting.

Mr Teo urged residents to scrutinise what WP chief Low Thia Khiang was 'selling' in this by-election. He reminded them of how Mr Low had pitched his successor Yaw Shin Leong at the last election, and how the party had responded after Mr Yaw skipped town following his expulsion.

WP's leaders did not act bravely as they claimed, he said. When news of Mr Yaw's personal indiscretions broke, they remained 'totally silent at a time when the public was asking questions'.

He noted that just four days before Mr Yaw was expelled, WP leaders attended a Chinese New Year dinner in Hougang and were seen toasting Mr Yaw - probably shouting 'Huat ah!' he quipped, in reference to the signature cheer for the WP's current candidate Png Eng Huat.

Now, continued Mr Teo, WP was asking voters to back their new candidate, 'as if nothing has happened'. 'Is it possible they are taking your support for granted?' he asked.

He also lambasted the WP's actions in Parliament, and accused its MPs of changing their positions on issues like foreign labour.

The WP had criticised the rapid influx of foreign workers at election rallies last year, but argued in Parliament for less tightening of foreign labour in certain sectors, he noted.

Mr Teo also added that WP MPs had voted to pass the Government's Budget this year, but were now criticising it.

'Are they changing their tune again?' he asked. 'Doing the twist? Playing their guitars and singing songs that will give them the most appeal to their audience? Are they speaking honestly for the good of Singaporeans?'

Ms Phua and Mr Peh accused the WP of not walking the talk. The opposition party's MPs had promised much, but had not done much in Hougang nor come up with any workable policy proposals or ideas for the country, they said.

'Talk is cheap. The WP says its mission is to check, to scold, to slap someone else when they don't do their job. Where are they when the job has to be done?' said Ms Phua, an MP in Moulmein-Kallang GRC.

Mr Peh said the WP had not done enough to improve the ward it held for 20 years.

Last year, Mr Low encouraged you to vote for a younger man - who has the energy and can serve you a long time. But now, he has twisted and changed his tune. He says that having a young man is not so good. He says old ginger is hotter, and offers you Mr Png... Which of Mr Low's arguments should you believe?
- Mr Teo, noting how the WP has changed its pitch since last year, when it fielded Mr Yaw Shin Leong

'Voters free to pick best man'
WP already has 5 MPs, democracy is being free to choose: Denise Phua
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 21 May 2012

HOUGANG residents need no longer fear that voting in a People's Action Party (PAP) candidate will affect the number of opposition voices in Parliament, said PAP MP Denise Phua yesterday.

PAP MPs are also independent-minded and can speak 'boldly and without fear'.

Residents should thus vote for the best candidate and not be 'imprisoned by the past', she said in a speech attacking the Workers' Party's (WP) claim that Hougang, which has remained in opposition hands for 21 years, is a cradle of democracy in Singapore.

There are already five opposition MPs and three opposition non-constituency MPs in Parliament after the general election last year, she noted.

'After the election, many Hougang residents were very fearful that there would be no more opposition members in Parliament in case Mr Low (Thia Khiang) and his team did not win Aljunied GRC,' she said.

'They were afraid, so I know some cast their votes for Mr Yaw (Shin Leong) of WP in Hougang. But today, residents of Hougang, you have no fear now - there are so many of them in Parliament.'

Ms Phua also said PAP MPs are independent-minded and often have more diverse views than their WP counterparts.

'Some of us, we are labelled 'more Opposition than the Opposition'. We express our views independently, boldly, without fear.'

She cited herself as one PAP MP who speaks her mind.

She has criticised the Government's 'many helping hands' approach to providing social services, and also spoken out against casinos.

'When I agreed to join PAP in 2006, some of my friends predicted this: 'Denise, you will be a one-term MP.' They said I would not survive because I don't toe the line,' she said.

'Seven years later and I am still standing here in white.'

She argued that democracy does not mean voting for the WP - it is about 'having a freedom of choice of political parties and candidates'.

'This is what we are having today in Hougang. There is democracy here. Any MP who is sincere, puts in hard work like Desmond (Choo), stands a really good chance to influence Government policy, and to make a difference to residents.'

Her words echoed those of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who said on Saturday that real democracy is not about voting blindly, but about 'thinking carefully and choosing each time for the party and the candidate who can serve you the best'.

Parties keep up outreach
By TOH YONG CHUAN, The Straits Times, 21 May 2012

THE midpoint of the campaign for the Hougang by-election yesterday saw both sides appearing to switch tacks in their approach.

A day after holding its first rally, the Workers' Party (WP) appeared to ease up on its campaigning, with Mr Png Eng Huat making his rounds in Hougang with a much smaller team than in past days.

The opposition candidate was accompanied by just a small group of helpers as he went around coffee shops and Housing Board flats, starting at 8am.

Missing were the party bigwigs, including WP chief Low Thia Khiang and the other Aljunied GRC MPs who had been flanking him on his rounds since the start of the campaign.

But Mr Png said he was continuing on as usual. Asked about how his campaign to keep the single-seat ward within WP's fold was going, he replied: 'The feel every day is about the same. It isn't warmer or colder... it's been normal.'

On Saturday, both the WP and People's Action Party (PAP) had thrown their biggest guns into the fray, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong making a personal appearance in the ward.

The PAP kept up the momentum yesterday, in stark contrast to the first three days of hustings, when its candidate Desmond Choo went about the ward on his own.

MPs Baey Yam Keng, Denise Phua, Halimah Yacob and Zainal Sapari were spotted on the campaign trail and doing house visits on their own. All said they had volunteered to support Mr Choo.

'There was no directive from the top, I came to help my fellow unionist as a friend,' said Mr Zainal, a labour MP. Mr Choo is a full-time official in the National Trades Union Congress.

Support also came from Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who told reporters at a community event in Tampines that he was impressed by Mr Choo's 'can-do attitude' to serve residents. Last night, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean also spoke at a rally in Hougang, urging voters to give Mr Choo a chance to serve them.

While Mr Choo's campaign team kept mum on details of the MPs' house visits, The Straits Times learnt that the four MPs were helping to cover flats that Mr Choo might not be able to reach during the campaign period.

Ms Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) was seen talking to residents at a void deck in the morning, while Madam Halimah (Jurong GRC) and Mr Zainal (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) were spotted handing out fliers at coffee shops later.

Mr Baey (Tampines GRC) said he covered close to 200 homes, where most residents appeared to be 'looking at national issues' rather than local matters. A handful, he added, said they felt that they had been penalised for backing the WP previously and left out of national programmes such as lift upgrading.

On his assessment of Mr Choo's chances, Mr Baey said there 'might be more support than what we expected, but I'm not sure whether it would be enough for PAP to win the by-election'.

When Mr Png was asked how he felt seeing PAP MPs out in force to support his rival, he simply replied: 'That is his strategy.'

Desmond Choo on why he stayed on despite GE defeat
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 21 May 2012

AFTER losing badly in the General Election last year, said Mr Desmond Choo, he felt down.

But the day after the election, an elderly woman came up to him, grabbed his hand, and reminded him that things could change if he worked hard. Because of her, Mr Choo said last night, he decided to stay on serving in Hougang.

'This old lady came to me, grabbed my hand, and said: 'Ah Choo, don't be upset, you are still young, a good person. Work hard, it can change, and we will support you',' he recalled in Teochew.

'She was crying and I also teared. I won't leave Hougang because of you. Because of you I will work hard.'

It was a point he has been stressing throughout his campaign, and is also reflected in his manifesto, 'Always here for you'.

At last night's rally, Mr Choo promised to keep pushing for schemes and facilities to help Hougang's residents. The ward, he added, was a 'source of passion for him', so he could not walk away after he lost to the Workers' Party's Mr Yaw Shin Leong.

'It is not easy to stand up in front of a whole nation and take a defeat. And I think I must have been the worst-performing candidate at that time. I lost badly,' he said. 'I found it hard to get back up. But I knew that I had to get over my disappointment...because you are my family. I just cannot leave you guys behind.'

The speakers at last night's rally also reminded listeners of Mr Choo's loyalty to the ward.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean compared it to the WP's actions, noting that Mr Low Thia Khiang left Hougang to stand in Aljunied GRC after holding the ward for 20 years, while his successor Mr Yaw also left.

The minister also countered the WP's attempt to play up the experience of its older candidate, Mr Png Eng Huat, who is 50. Mr Choo's youth, argued Mr Teo, was not a weakness.

In fact, at 34 years old, he was about the same age as Mr Low, 'who was 35 years old when he became (Hougang) MP', he noted.

'Is that too young?' he asked.

'Last year, Mr Low encouraged you to vote for a younger man, who has the energy and can serve you a long time. But now, he has twisted and changed his tune. He says that having a young man is not so good. He says old ginger is hotter, and offers you Mr Png... Which of Mr Low's arguments should you believe?'

Maintaining transparency
By Peh Shing Huei, The Straits Times, 21 May 2012

AMID Singapore's first by-election in two decades, a sideshow has been played out some distance from the battleground of Hougang.

At the corner of bustling Prinsep lanes, sandwiched between Selegie Road and Bencoolen Street, sits the Elections Department (ELD), which has been caught up in controversy in recent days.

After the department revealed last Tuesday that Workers' Party (WP) veteran Poh Lee Guan had obtained a political donations certificate, a prerequisite to stand for election, the opposition member expressed surprise.

The information was released before Nomination Day last Wednesday, leading to much speculation that Dr Poh was a renegade candidate with intentions to spoil a straight fight between his party's Mr Png Eng Huat and the ruling People's Action Party's Mr Desmond Choo.

It turned out to be a false alarm. The private school lecturer, who has contested in three general elections since 2001, did not contest and said he thought collecting the forms would be a 'quiet' thing.

It was 'the first time' the department has publicly released the names, he added.

The ELD seems to agree that this was unprecedented. It clarified last Thursday that it had issued the names in response to media queries.

'There were no similar queries in previous elections,' added a department spokesman.

The reply may go some way towards addressing concerns that the ELD's statement last Tuesday had an ulterior motive of sabotaging the WP.

The news was certainly damaging to the opposition party. By revealing to the public that it had a lone wolf who had acted independently of party leadership, the ELD statement had, unwittingly or otherwise, revealed a lack of discipline and unity within the WP.

That it should come on the back of the expulsion of Mr Yaw Shin Leong and the other resignations from the WP since last year's General Election also adds to the negative image of the party.

PAP chairman Khaw Boon Wan had said on Nomination Day that the perceived disunity within the WP was worrying.

'If within the party, you cannot remain united, can you imagine if you're in power? How do you run a country?' he asked.

Given the expected thrust and parry of an electoral bout, the ELD should take extra caution to ensure it is not seen as an interested party, excuse the pun, particularly one which is aiding the ruling PAP.

Such views have long circled among some quarters in Singapore, not helped by the fact that the ELD is a department under the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).

Calls for the department to be transformed into an independent elections commission have echoed for many years.

More recently, it was raised in the book Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, launched last year.

In response to Straits Times journalists' questions to Mr Lee on opening up the political system, the former prime minister asked the Cabinet ministers for their views and they issued a joint statement which was carried in the bestseller.

It read: 'The test of our election system is not whether there is an independent elections commission, but whether voting is honestly administered and whether it produces governments which enjoy legitimacy and govern the country well.'

In such a context, it is incumbent on the ELD to ensure that despite being housed under the PMO, it is not partial, and not seen to be partial, to the PAP.

After clarifying that in this instance, its statement on the names was a response to media queries, it is critical that the department maintains such openness and transparency in future polls. It has set a welcome precedent.

It would be in line with what the ELD hopes to achieve too.

Its core values listed on the department's website include 'willing to share', 'open communications' and 'work with impartiality'.

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