Wednesday 23 May 2012

Hougang By-election: On The Campaign Trail, Day 7

WP faces allegations of dishonesty
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 23 May 2012

THE Workers' Party (WP) found itself in a spot yesterday as it sought to deflect questions of honesty over Mr Png Eng Huat's candidacy for a Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) post.

After a dramatic 24 hours sparked by a leaked memo showing he was in the running for the post contrary to earlier indications, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the episode raised questions on whether the WP was being 'honest and upfront' with Hougang voters.

Party chief Low Thia Khiang refuted the allegations of dishonesty, and called the leak a 'weak attempt' to discredit the party.

The controversy began on Monday night, when an anonymous source e-mailed minutes of a WP central executive council (CEC) meeting to the media that contradicted Mr Png's comments hours earlier on the NCMP post.

Mr Png told Channel NewsAsia he 'took his name out of the ballot' for the NCMP post as he objected to the scheme. He told The Straits Times the same evening that he did not want to be considered for the job.

But the minutes of the May 12, 2011 meeting showed that Mr Png was put up for the post and he received one vote in a secret ballot. The WP CEC chose Mr Gerald Giam, with seven votes.

Both were in the WP East Coast GRC team, one of the best losing teams in the last general election, that was eligible for one NCMP seat.

Mr Png, the WP's candidate in the Hougang by-election, yesterday morning apologised at least thrice at an intense half-hour meeting with reporters.

'When I used the word ballot, for me at the time... it's a voting process,' he said. 'To clarify, my name was on the ballot paper itself that night when we (went) for the NCMP selection meeting.'

He insisted he had informed Mr Low and colleagues from his East Coast GRC team he was not interested in the NCMP seat.

Mr Low backed up Mr Png in a rally last night, and held up to the crowd a paper with all the five East Coast GRC candidates' names, the ballot that he himself had prepared for the CEC.

And while he knew Mr Png's stance, Mr Low said 'personal preference had to be set aside' as the decision lay solely with the CEC.

Going on the offensive, Mr Low called the leaking of the minutes a 'calculated move' to 'sabotage' Mr Png.

Mr Png's comments on the NCMP scheme came in response to DPM Teo who, in a PAP rally on Sunday, said that the WP was asking voters to elect a man it did not see fit to send to Parliament.

Last night, Mr Teo said it was not clear if WP was putting forward its best man for Hougang or if it was levelling with voters.

Mr Png put down the incident to 'something which we all learn in politics... the words we use'.

This is obviously a calculated move made at this point of time to intentionally damage the Workers' Party and sabotage the Workers' Party candidate in Hougang.
- WP chief Low Thia Khiang

They deserve the best man and it's not clear that the WP has been putting their best man. And they have not been upfront or honest to voters, and I think they should do that.
- DPM Teo Chee Hean

The People's Action Party and the Workers' Party crossed swords last night over the issue of whether Png Eng Huat had been upfront about his role as a possible Non-Constituency Member of Parliament. This is what the key players had to say.

'WP hasn't been upfront or honest'
 Contradictory explanations offered by Png, says DPM Teo
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 23 May 2012

THE Workers' Party (WP) has not been upfront or honest to voters about whether their Hougang candidate, Mr Png Eng Huat, was bypassed for a Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) spot, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday.

Following up on a charge he first made at a People's Action Party (PAP) rally on Sunday, Mr Teo again questioned if the WP had put their best man forward in this by-election.

On Sunday, he said that the WP was asking Hougang voters to elect a man they themselves did not see fit to send to Parliament as one of the 'best losers' after last year's general election. Mr Gerald Giam, Mr Png's teammate in the WP's East Coast GRC slate, took the NCMP seat instead.

On Monday, Mr Png said he had taken himself out of the running as he objected to the NCMP scheme. However, leaked minutes from a meeting of the WP's central executive council last May showed that Mr Png had been on the shortlist for the post and received one vote during the secret ballot. Mr Giam received seven.

Yesterday, Mr Png told reporters the names of all five East Coast GRC candidates were on the ballot paper, but he made clear to party members beforehand he did not want the seat. He apologised for the confusion.

Last night, DPM Teo said during a visit to Hougang: 'The events of the last two days gives me pause. It raises two issues: one of honesty and being upfront to voters of Hougang. We shouldn't take them for granted.

'They deserve the best man and it's not clear that the WP has been putting their best man. And they have not been upfront or honest to voters, and I think they should do that.'

Mr Teo added that what Mr Png said on Monday contradicted what he said yesterday.

'Either he was telling the truth yesterday or telling the truth today. I think I will give him a fair chance to clarify matters tonight,' he said, referring to the WP rally last night.

DPM Teo also emphasised that Mr Choo, 34, was the PAP's 'best man', and has demonstrated his sincerity, hard work and honesty.

He made the argument that Hougang voters showed their loyalty to WP chief Low Thia Khiang last May by voting for his former protege Yaw Shin Leong. But this by-election 'is an opportunity to put in a new man and have a new beginning for Hougang'.

Mr Yaw was expelled from the WP in February for refusing to account for personal indiscretions.

Separately, Mr Teo also decried negative campaigning online. One netizen, for example, charged that Mr Choo offered to buy his grandmother a 'gift' if she voted for him. These 'wild accusations' from those purporting to be WP supporters have saddened him, said Mr Teo.

Executive council decides on NCMP
Low hits back at attempts to 'sabotage' Png and defends candidate
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 23 May 2012

WORKERS' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang last night hit back at what he said were attempts to 'sabotage' its Hougang candidate, as he defended Mr Png Eng Huat's explanation of how the party selected its Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs).

Even though Mr Png had made clear that he was against the NCMP scheme, Mr Low had still included him, along with the other four members of the losing East Coast GRC team, in the secret ballot for the post after last year's general election.

'Personal preferences had to be set aside,' the party chief said at the rally, waving a document that he said was the ballot paper.

'Whether a candidate wanted personally to be an NCMP or not, the decision is not his. It would be the collective decision of the CEC (central executive council).

'This is how I believe a collective leadership should function in a political party.'

Mr Low also backed Mr Png's clarification of his earlier comments that he had taken his name out of the ballot for the NCMP post. Mr Png, he said, 'was not referring to the ballot paper, but the ballot as in the voting process and the running of the NCMP position'.

'Mr Png Eng Huat had told me before and after the General Election that he was strongly against the NCMP scheme and did not want to be considered for the NCMP position,' said Mr Low.

Their clarifications came after minutes of a CEC meeting e-mailed to the media by an anonymous source showed Mr Png getting one vote in the ballot.

Mr Gerald Giam - who took the post - got seven votes, while Mr Eric Tan, who wanted it and later resigned over the issue, got five.

Mr Low confirmed that the document was genuine, but added: 'I do not want to speculate how the anonymous source obtained the minutes.

'However, this is obviously a calculated move made at this point of time to intentionally damage the Workers' Party and sabotage the Workers' Party candidate in Hougang. But this is a weak attempt at discrediting the Workers' Party.'

Mr Low also invited the public to scrutinise the minutes.

'It shows that the Workers' Party functions in a fair and transparent manner, where decisions are made collectively. It also dispels rumours that the CEC is all made up of 'yes' men and women, or fully controlled by Low Thia Khiang.'

Only Mr Tan decided to resign, Mr Low pointed out, while the other CEC members stayed.

Said the WP chief: 'This shows that the Workers' Party, as a credible party, can embrace different opinions while working together as a team moving forward.'

'I meant voting process, not voting slip'
He apologises at least thrice to voters for ambiguous choice of words
By Andrea Ong and Cheryl Ong, The Straits Times, 23 May 2012

THE Workers' Party (WP) candidate for Hougang yesterday apologised for causing 'confusion' over whether his name had been on the ballot when the party's executive council voted on their choice for Non-Constituency MP (NCMP).

Mr Png Eng Huat's apology came a day after he gave two differing replies to the media on why he had not been selected to be an NCMP after last year's polls.

The latest twist added a touch of the unpredictable to what has been a relatively restrained campaign, though observers said the incident reflected more on the WP's internal cohesion than on the by-election.

Yesterday, Mr Png said that according to party procedure, the names of all five on the East Coast GRC team - including himself - were on the ballot slip for the NCMP post when the central executive council (CEC) held a secret vote last May.

However, he had already made clear to his teammates and several CEC members that he did not want to be considered as he is personally against the NCMP scheme, said Mr Png, reiterating one of his statements on Monday.

He gave the clarification because he had said in a Channel NewsAsia interview on Monday: 'I actually took my name out of the ballot for the NCMP post.'

But late on Monday, an anonymous source leaked to the media minutes of last May's CEC meeting which showed Mr Png's name was on the ballot paper for the secret vote. The source accused the WP of lacking 'integrity and honesty' as 'nowhere in this meeting did Png Eng Huat indicate to the CEC to remove his name from the ballot'.

Speaking to reporters after a walkabout yesterday, Mr Png said sorry at least thrice to voters for not being clear when speaking on the issue.

He explained that when he spoke about the 'ballot', he meant the voting process and not the voting slip. 'I think the choice of word used may be a bit ambiguous...I apologise if there's some confusion,' he said.

Mr Png said there 'was no opportunity' at that CEC meeting to restate his objection to NCMP posts, which are given to 'best losers' from the opposition.

However, his stance was known to others in the CEC, and through his rally speeches and letter to The Straits Times Forum, in which he criticised the NCMP scheme.

He declined to speculate on how the minutes had been leaked but confirmed some of the details.

These include that Mr Eric Tan received five votes, and Mr Giam - who eventually took up the NCMP seat - got seven votes.

Mr Png received one vote but said yesterday he had 'definitely' not voted for himself.

'My stand is clear. I would not want to get any vote,' he said.

Mr Png later told The Straits Times he could have handled the matter better and would learn from the experience about 'the words we use'. Asked if voters might feel he was less than forthcoming, he said his intentions on the NCMP scheme had been clear from day one and 'I do not hide anything'.

On whether the incident would become a campaign issue, he said: 'If the words are not clear, I will definitely make them clearer, I will apologise... But of course it's up to (the PAP) to spin it. Integrity wise, I have no issue.'

Observers contacted yesterday said Hougang voters would probably not be overly concerned by the incident. The bigger question lies in whether there is growing discord within the party and even in its leadership.

Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong noted: 'Things have gone to a point where the discipline that won them (Aljunied) GRC is slipping away.'

But Singapore Management University associate professor Bridget Welsh said it was part of the challenges a party faces as it copes with growing internal competition and differences. The best defence is 'a more open and transparent candidate selection process that allows for more differences to be accommodated', she said.

The NCMP controversy: How it unfolded

Sunday: At a PAP rally, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean asks if Mr Png Eng Huat was the Workers' Party's (WP) best man for Hougang.

He notes that the WP had picked Mr Gerald Giam over him as a Non-Constituency MP last year.

Monday: Mr Png tells Channel NewsAsia that he took his name out of the ballot for the NCMP post. Later, he issues a press statement explaining his stand against the NCMP scheme.

Later in the night, an anonymous source e-mails the media minutes of a WP central executive council meeting last May.

It appears to show Mr Png getting one vote in a secret ballot for the NCMP post.

Yesterday: After a morning walkabout, Mr Png explains that he had removed himself from the selection process for the NCMP post and not from the actual vote, and apologises for the confusion.

At dinner time, DPM Teo raises questions over WP's honesty, and soon after, at a rally, WP chief Low Thia Khiang explains exactly what had happened at the WP vote.

Choo focuses on voters, not rival
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 23 May 2012

THE issue of whether Workers' Party candidate Png Eng Huat was bypassed for a Non-Constituency MP seat is 'something for the WP to deal with', said People's Action Party candidate Desmond Choo yesterday.

Sticking to a strategy of letting his PAP superiors take the lead in criticising his opponent, Mr Choo would say only that 'I'm very focused on my own campaign'.

Asked if he felt that the confusion over the NCMP spot may swing votes his way in the Hougang by-election, he said that 'for me, it's just about making sure that we finish strong, that we deliver the message we have believed in all along, and make sure that voters understand me as a person, and make that decision between Mr Png and myself'.

Mr Choo, whose campaign has prioritised getting face time with as many Hougang voters as possible, said he 'doesn't really care' about negative rumours swirling online about his candidacy.

While emphasising that any attacks on his and the PAP's integrity is a serious matter, he struck a sanguine note: 'The Internet is just like that.'

Mr Choo has run an unexpectedly low-key campaign, turning down requests for media interviews so as to spend as much time as possible going door-to-door in Hougang.

In a glimpse of his thinking, he told reporters yesterday that being sincere and genuine with residents 'is sometimes more important than key policy messages'.

The PAP camp is expected to hold only one more rally on the last day of campaigning - one fewer than the WP in total.

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