Thursday, 10 January 2013

Punggol East by-election on 26 Jan

Punggol East goes to the polls on Jan 26
Move blindsided some opposition members, even though they have called for early polls
By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 10 Jan 2013

PUNGGOL EAST may have threatened to become a defining feature of this year's political agenda but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong moved swiftly yesterday to call a by-election in a bid to clear that out of his busy in-tray.

Confirmation of the snap poll came at 4pm with the release of a notice that President Tony Tan Keng Yam had issued a writ setting Polling Day on Jan 26.

PM Lee explained his decision in a brief statement shortly after: "We have a busy national agenda this year. The White Paper on Population will soon be debated in Parliament.

"Budget 2013 is around the corner. The Our Singapore Conversation is translating the views of citizens into programmes to improve our lives. Sustaining economic growth and raising workers' incomes is a continuing preoccupation, especially in a weak global economy.

"I have decided to hold a by-election in Punggol East to give the residents their own MP in Parliament, before we focus back on these national issues. So today I advised the President to issue the Writ of Election," said PM Lee.

As it is, the release of the White Paper, originally scheduled for early to mid-January appears to have been moved to create an 18-day hole in the political calendar to squeeze a by-election into.

From the time the writ was issued yesterday, there is the mandated five clear working days till Nomination Day on Jan 16. From there, it is a further nine days of campaigning and one Cooling-Off Day before Punggol East voters head to the ballot box.

In all, polls will be held a little under two months since the stunning resignation of then Speaker Michael Palmer left the residents of Punggol East without parliamentary representation.

The swift move blindsided some members of the opposition, even if many of them have been calling for prompt polls.

As of last night, the different opposition players who have staked a claim were digging their feet in. The Workers' Party, the Singapore Democratic Party, the Reform Party and former Singapore People's Party candidate Benjamin Pwee all either confirmed they were going ahead or said they are strongly considering it.

The consensus among political watchers is also that this is an election with a lot at stake for the People's Action Party. Defeat at the polls this time around is not just the loss of a seat, but might be seen as a sign of lingering unhappiness over some of its policies.

But the ward is not Hougang and the PAP would have learnt from its experience in the opposition stronghold. For one thing, its presence is stronger on the ground. PM Lee stressed that his first priority after Mr Palmer resigned was to make sure residents were taken care of. Thus neighbouring MPs were asked to take over and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean took a personal interest in the welfare of residents.

The snap polls are also seen as giving it an edge, even if the party's likely candidate, colorectal surgeon Koh Poh Koon made his first appearance only on Tuesday.

"The advantage is that it won't give the opposition time to really consolidate themselves there," said opposition veteran Wong Wee Nam.

In hindsight, observers say there had been clues that an election might be sooner rather than later. Over the weekend, it emerged that the PAP had already asked for lists of polling and counting agents. Plywood for election posters was also bought.

On Tuesday night, PM Lee also moved to take off the burner a boiling dispute over a controversial contract between PAP town councils and the party-owned Action Information Management.

He announced that the Ministry of National Development would review the transaction as well as the "fundamental nature of town councils".

Yet it remains to be seen if this will be an election fought on national or local issues. Said Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Alex Yam: "Whether or not it will be a local or national election, at the end of day that is for voters to decide."

Why now and who does it benefit?
PM likely took note from Hougang, that voters prefer it earlier: Analysts
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 10 Jan 2013

WITH several crucial national issues yet to be discussed, the Prime Minister's decision to call a by-election within six weeks of the seat being vacated took some political analysts by surprise yesterday.

But they said it showed Mr Lee Hsien Loong had very likely taken note, from the Hougang experience last year, that voters preferred an election earlier rather than later.

Also, it demonstrated that he wanted to deal with it swiftly and turn his attention in the coming months to the urgent national issues that await direction.

Said Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Gillian Koh: "The PAP is the incumbent (at Punggol East), and the by-election was really precipitated by the standing down of a People's Action Party MP, so calling one now is to show how resolute they are in wanting to deal with the issue.

"It is good that they called it sooner than later."

The PM can call a by-election at his discretion, and Hougang residents waited three months for it.

As in previous polls, Mr Lee gave no clue of his plans, apart from saying he was thinking about it seriously.

But yesterday he explained his unexpected move.

Pointing to a "busy national agenda" that included seeking a consensus on the key population issue and the ongoing national conversation, he said the by-election would give Punggol East residents their own MP in Parliament, "before we focus back on these national issues".

But these issues were what led many, including former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong, to expect a later by-election, "after we got through the serious issues".

"PM has now decided to do it the other way round," he added.

But the PM's decision was also seen by some analysts as a tactical move in response to the strong opposition interest in the ward.

Besides the Workers' Party which contested it in the 2011 General Election, four others are eyeing the constituency with about 33,000 voters.

Said opposition veteran Wong Wee Nam: "The longer you wait, the longer you are giving the opposition the opportunity to gain a foothold and build up their presence there."

Focus may shift from local to national concerns
By Jessica Cheam, The Straits Times, 10 Jan 2013

WHILE opposition parties may want the by-election to be a limited referendum on the People's Action Party's performance since the General Election in 2011, the ruling party looks set to try its utmost to keep the focus on local issues.

On the ground
- Michael Palmer
His abrupt exit as MP for Punggol East after confessing to an extramarital affair is unlikely to hurt the PAP in the by-election, say political observers and MPs.

This is because voters can draw a line between Mr Palmer's work as an MP, which many of them have said he did well, and his personal indiscretion.

Veteran PAP MP Charles Chong pointed to last year's by-election in Hougang and observed that former Workers' Party MP Yaw Shin Leong's fall from grace hardly dented support for the opposition party.
- Rivervale Plaza
It is one of only two shopping hubs in the single-seat ward and some residents were unhappy about the delay in its upgrading. Work was due to be completed in May last year, but the contractor engaged by the Housing Board went bust.
Works have now resumed and North East District Mayor Teo Ser Luck has said they will be done by June.

Other matters on residents' wish list include more childcare facilities, wider roads and more bus services as more people move into the ward, more hawker centres and a cinema.

National concerns
- Transparency, accountability and the Aim saga
Opposition parties are set to take aim at a controversial sale of town council software to a PAP-owned company, Action Information Management (Aim).

However, on Tuesday night, less than 24 hours before the issue of the Writ of Election for Punggol East, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong moved to defuse public unhappiness over the issue.

He announced a government review of the Aim transaction and of town councils.

Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng said it was to be expected that opposition parties contesting the by-election would raise issues of transparency and accountability, in the light of the Aim saga.

"This is expected," he said.

"But I'm not sure whether residents of Punggol East will regard these issues as important to them when voting... Ultimately they want an MP to work for their interests."
- GE 2011 issues that linger
These include immigration, foreign worker inflows and their impact on public transport, high property prices and costs of living.
Singapore Management University law lecturer Eugene Tan expects these hot topics to resurface as some remain unresolved, he said. "National issues tend to have greater traction (in elections), especially with the opposition parties, as it gives them an opportunity to raise questions."

The opposition is likely to cite these problems as evidence that voters need to elect more opposition members, to keep the Government in check and responsive to the needs and concerns of citizens, Mr Tan added.

Mr Baey agreed that to a certain extent, the by-election could become a barometer of public sentiment on these national issues.

"After GE 2011, people expected the Government to make changes. The outcome of the by-election could reflect whether voters are happy with the moves taken, and the speed in which they have been implemented."

However, opposition veteran Wong Wee Nam disagreed that the election will be a referendum on the PAP's performance.

"This election is important because it will test the maturity of the electorate. They will look closely and learn how to vote for their own interests, whichever party meets their values, ideology."

Punggol East's caretaker MP Teo Ser Luck, who is also a Minister of State and an MP for neighbouring Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, said it was "still early days" to map out the key issues of the campaign.

In his view, "residents should choose someone who will serve them well and put them in first place. Someone who not only can be their representative but also be dedicated to the constituency."

Number of candidates matters
By Jessica Cheam And Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 10 Jan 2013

WILL it be a multi-cornered fight in Punggol East that hands a victory to the People's Action Party on a silver platter? Or will it come down to the wire in a straight fight between Singapore's two biggest political parties? Political observers told The Straits Times yesterday that the number of candidates could significantly influence the outcome of the by-election.

Scenario 1: No multi-cornered fight

As many as five parties and an independent candidate have declared a keenness to throw their hats in the ring.

Besides the People's Action Party (PAP), they are the Workers' Party (WP), Reform Party, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) and former Singapore People's Party member Benjamin Pwee.

But political commentator and Singapore Management University (SMU) law lecturer Eugene Tan foresees a straight fight come Nomination Day."Over the next few days, we'll see a fair bit of posturing. The opposition parties are alive to the fact that a multi-cornered fight will hand victory to the PAP. And many of them will stand to lose their election deposits," he said. Losers who fail to get 12.5 per cent of votes cast forfeit their $14,500 deposits.

Mr Tan expects them to extract concessions from each other in carving out territory for the next general election, in return for pulling out and leaving just one standing to fight the PAP.

Scenario 2: Probable three-cornered fight

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamed believes a three-cornered fight is very likely, with each party taking a different stance.

"SDP will posture as an alternative opposition. And WP being the incumbent opposition party, may play a more localised strategy," he said. "They always say a straight fight is better for the opposition. So a three-cornered fight may favour the PAP. But at the same time, voters are savvy and understand what they want in a candidate," he added.

Veteran MP Charles Chong, of single-seat Joo Chiat, however, sees a two-horse race even in a three-cornered fight. "I suspect that residents will vote for candidates from viable parties, which will make it a two-horse race."

Pointing to the 2011 General Election, he said votes in Punggol East went mainly to two parties, with the "outsider party" losing his deposit. He was referring to Mr Desmond Lim of the SDA.

Scenario 3: A close fight between equals

As the candidates look to be relatively unknown faces to the voters, observers say it will be hard to predict the victor. They do not rule out a close fight similar to that in the presidential election when President Tony Tan Keng Yam won by a very slim 0.35 percentage point against former PAP backbencher Tan Cheng Bock.

Opposition veteran Wong Wee Nam argues that unlike last year's by-election in Hougang, which has a long history as a WP ward, Punggol East residents will be "free to vote". "So probably the profile of candidates is more important," he said.

But SMU's Mr Tan feels the PAP has the edge as it is the incumbent with well-oiled machinery. The opposition would not have enough time to work the ground, he added."I wouldn't be surprised if the PAP won, but with a smaller winning margin."

But how will the opposition parties play their cards?

Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Gillian Koh said the SDP "would like to get a return on what it sees as its vision and hard work in putting together alternative policies on housing, health care and education".

The WP, on the other hand, would contest in areas that are "contiguous to its 'heartland'".

She added: "It would be interesting to see what the others would like to offer Punggol East residents. Residents will not have an easy time scrutinising all these plans, personalities and parties."

Snap polls a sign of change in PAP's approach?
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 10 Jan 2013

THE decision to go for snap polls in Punggol East took many by surprise when news broke at 4pm yesterday and spread rapidly.

One interpretation of why Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong decided on a Jan 26 date for Polling Day - instead of in March or April after the Budget as expected - is that he was responding to the increased pressure and expectations of voters.

So is a new, responsive People's Action Party (PAP) going to be a characteristic of the so- called "new normal" in the political landscape ushered in by the ground-breaking May 2011 General Election?

Answer: Yes, there is a change, but it means less than it appears.

It is true that by Jan 26, the Punggol East seat would have been vacant for a scant 45 days, after PAP MP and Speaker Michael Palmer resigned on Dec 12 in a shock press conference admitting to an extramarital affair.

That compares with three months and 11 days when Hougang was left vacant last year, after incumbent MP Yaw Shin Leong was sacked on Feb 15 by his Workers' Party (WP) for not accounting to party leaders over alleged extramarital affairs. The WP won back the seat on May 26.

It is a measure of how far and fast the political mood has changed in a year, that in 2012, the big question was whether, not when, the Prime Minister would hold a by-election.

In 2013, many people expected him to hold one, especially since the Punggol East seat was vacated by the PAP MP's own wrongdoing. Leaving it vacant would have added insult to injury to voters.

The change is all the more remarkable given the PAP's track record of not holding by-elections, unless it was for its own planned succession.

In 1981, the Anson incumbent MP became President and vacated the seat. A by-election was held within 18 days, when the PAP lost to the WP. In 1992, the PAP held a by-election in Marine Parade GRC within 18 days of the incumbents resigning, in order to field a new candidate, Mr Teo Chee Hean, who is now Deputy Prime Minister.

In all the other five times since 1981 when seats became vacant after death or other reasons, the PAP left them unfilled till the next General Election. Longest period of vacancy: 34 months.

Singapore law does not make by-elections mandatory when a seat is vacated, leaving it to the Prime Minister's discretion. An ongoing constitutional challenge before the courts argues that this discretion is not an unfettered one.

So why did the PM go for a poll this time? What does the snap polls decision mean? Will there always be a by-election when a seat is vacated in future? Has the PAP changed?

The short answer: Yes, the PAP - or whatever party is in power - is likely to hold by-elections when a single seat is vacated henceforth. Even if one member vacates a Group Representation Constituency, pressure and expectations to hold a by-election to elect a new team will be intense, given the recent precedents that have now been set.

Since May 2011, there have been one GE, one presidential election and now two by-elections.

Singaporeans have been empowered at the ballot box after years of no by-elections or walkovers. The Internet and social media now amplify political demands. Growing activism of opposition parties and their ability to draw better candidates give voters credible alternatives.

So it is true that the calculus on whether by-elections should be held has altered, probably irrevocably. Every month the PAP drags its feet on a by-election in future will cost its candidate.

But does the decision to go for snap polls suggest PAP leaders have decided to be more responsive to the moods of the people?

It would be tempting for political liberals to think the PAP has bought into the rhetoric of giving Singapore voters more political space, of respecting them more as voters, and of deciding on an early poll because that is good for democracy, and the right thing to do.

PM Lee did explain his decision thus: "I have decided to hold a by-election in Punggol East to give the residents their own MP in Parliament" before focusing on national issues.

But a snap poll is also tactically a good strategy for the PAP this time.

It flat-foots the notoriously fractious opposition and gives them less time to hammer out an agreement to avoid a multi- cornered fight, let alone strategise and campaign. Four opposition groups have indicated interest.

Second, early polls allow the PAP to focus on its agenda this year: A White Paper on population issues; an ongoing national conversation on ideals and values for the country; steering the economy.

A snap poll also makes sense, before the ground is soured further by contentious debate on immigration and foreigner issues and before a possible public transport fare hike when a review of fares is complete.

Already, controversies are aswirl: ongoing corruption cases involving senior public officials and sex scandals; unhappiness over subsidised executive condominium apartments getting more luxurious; and PAP town councils setting up a company to buy over computer software which is then leased back to the councils.

A by-election from this point of view is something of a distraction: get over and done with it, and then focus on the "real" work of making policies and governing.

That is consistent with a longstanding PAP view: to privilege policy over politics; and to see the political process as being secondary to policy outcomes.

At its core, that remains the PAP's belief: focus on getting the policies right, deliver the goods, and the votes will follow.

But, ultimately, voters will have to decide whether they still back this approach, or prefer the change that political liberals yearn for, where the process is as important as the outcome.

The results of the coming by-election, of course, will not settle this question. But much will be read into how the political winds are shifting when the ballots cast by Punggol East residents are counted on Jan 26.

Younger, more middle-class demographic
Town well-planned but transport and facilities issues remain
By Elgin Toh And Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 10 Jan 2013

THE transformation of Punggol East into a bustling town of 33,281 voters with a slightly younger and considerably more middle-class demographic began in the late 1990s.

The Punggol 21 plan, unveiled by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1996, envisioned a more compact estate than the traditional model but one complete with modern amenities and served by a LRT system.

In seven years, more than 100 blocks of flats were built in a relatively small area, bound by Tampines Expressway, Sengkang East Drive, Sengkang East Avenue and Punggol Road.

Out-of-towners moved into their spanking new apartments, breathing new life into the ward.

The result is a Punggol East that is younger than the rest of the country, although not as young as more newly built parts of Punggol that fall outside the single-seat constituency.

Just 24 per cent of residents are older than 50, compared to 29 per cent nationwide.

The constituency is also relatively well-off, with no three- room flats and 60 per cent of its residents living in five-room flats, executive flats or private housing.

While some residents express sandwiched class sentiments, the Meet-The-People sessions see relatively few requests from the needy.

Being a young town can, however be a bane. While residents appreciate that the town is generally well-planned, the authorities continue to grapple with infrastructural issues as they tweak bus and train services and search for the right ratio of facilities to residents.

"The bus services are very limited, and there aren't enough bus stops around," said resident James Tan, 58, who bought a bicycle to move around more easily.

On this front, former MP Michael Palmer can claim some credit, say grassroots volunteers, for working with government agencies to solve some issues.

Access to child-care services has improved. In recent months, at least one new facility was opened and another had its expansion plans approved.

The LRT system was upgraded from one-car to two-car trains, benefiting residents boarding from one of the three LRT stops in the ward.

Mr Palmer was also among MPs who pressed the Land Transport Authority to step up enforcement of illegal car modifications, after getting feedback from residents on noise pollution, prompting a nationwide crackdown.

But Punggol East did not prevail in one fight. The Straits Times understands it failed to persuade the Government to site a new hawker centre in the ward.

Instead, two will be built in nearby Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.

A new coffee shop was recently opened, but some residents still have to walk 20 minutes to reach the nearest eating place.

"I hope for more affordable eating facilities. There's no hawker centre and the food court in (nearby) Rivervale Mall is expensive," said out-of-work Yeo Wee Lee, 53.

On the other hand, residents living just across the road from a Hindu temple say the music and chanting, which starts at 7am, is an unwanted wake-up call.

In 2007, Mr Palmer worked out an uneasy compromise, with services starting later and instruments modified to reduce the volume. Residents were also asked to be more understanding.

But complaints continue to be made from time to time. "I have neighbours with children who are very bothered and cannot concentrate on their studies," said Madam A. L. Soh, 61, who lives in the block closest to the temple.

As its teething problems persist, the town is changing slowly with the completion of a new block of rental flats.

Stalled upgrading work at Rivervale Plaza is also in the process of being worked out.

But as the political drama unfolds in the next two weeks, residents' overriding concern is that their town is improved.

"I will support the candidate who can work and make it better," said cabby Lee Teck Than, 57.

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