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The Hougang Divide

By Ghui -

Recent events have given Singaporeans an opportunity to make up for lost time in the exercise of their democratic rights. From having virtually no opportunities to head to the polling station, Singaporeans now find themselves in the throes of election fever for the third time in less than eighteen months.

On 26 May 2012, Hougang residents will get the chance to elect a new MP, their old one having served less than a year before being sacked for his alleged extramarital affairs. This by-election is like no other we have ever had. Then again, much of what we have now achieved has been unprecedented.

Encouraged by a resurgence of political awareness, Singaporeans from all walks of life have arisen to reassert their rights.  Most notable was Vallama Marie Muthu who mounted a David-versus-Goliath challenge by filing an application to the High Court to order the Prime Minister to call a by-election in Hougang, and to declare that the Prime Minister does not have "unfettered discretion" in deciding whether or when to call by-elections. (here)

Somewhere between Vallama’s efforts, Workers’ Party insistence and the government correctly judging the shifting ground sentiment towards fair play, the much clamoured for by-election has now been called.

As the debate heats up, the battle lines have increasingly been drawn between the “regional issues” side and the “national interests” camp.

To those in the “regional issues” group, the Hougang election is simply a local election. To them, Hougang voters should not be distracted by national concerns. As veteran MP Mr Charles Chong has said: “I won't say national issues have been resolved, but many issues have been discussed. So this by-election is not emotional. It will be much more local, rather than national.” (here).

To those who advocate that the upcoming election concerns the nation at large, or the “national interests” group, the Hougang by-election cannot be simply dismissed as “local”. Proponents of this view argue that since Singapore is so tiny, it would be artificial to differentiate “local” concerns with “national” ones.

Others have reasoned that since elections are so few and far between in Singapore’s history, every election would be in the collective interest of all Singaporeans. Besides, don’t national matters affect Hougang residents too? (here)

National vs Local

Neither the Workers’ Party (WP) nor the People’s Action Party (PAP) has issued official statements in relation to this. All we have thus far are hints from individual members of these parties as to what the parties involved might feel.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has said: “This by-election is a local election and that it is about who is the best representative for Hougang residents, who can best help them solve their problems on the ground”. WP chief, Low Thia Kiang has, on the other hand, indicated that it is not a clear-cut distinction between where local matters start and where national agenda ends. (here)

Reading between the lines, it would seem to appear that while the PAP considers the Hougang by-election merely “local”, its opponent, the WP, regard the same as both localised and collective.

An MP’s role

It is easy to get caught up in popular sentiment and react to issues emotionally in light of what can be construed as a politically tumultuous year for Singaporeans. Perhaps then, instead of focusing on whether a by-election concerns the country at large or is limited just to Hougang residents, we should go back to basics and clarify the role of a Member of Parliament.

While MPs are responsible for speaking up for their respective constituencies, let’s not forget that elected MPs also form Parliament. In our system of government, the government is collectively and individually responsible to Parliament. If the government does not have the support of the majority of MPs in Parliament, either along party lines or by coalition, it will have to step down. Parliament’s main functions are manifold and include taking decisions in relation to law‐making and financial control. (here)

Theoretically therefore, an MP plays a dual role of not just acting as a representative for his constituency but also as an advocate for larger national interests as well.

Consequently, it would be simplistic to pigeonhole the Hougang by-election as either “national” or “local” for in truth it is both. This has nothing to do with what the parties currently in the Hougang contest tell us, but with the dual nature of what MPs are supposed to be – local care-takers of their constituencies, and at the same time a representative of their constituents for the national agenda, in the formation of government and policy-making.

Perhaps the results of the by-election would not change things for now. Either way, the PAP would still hold the majority of seats in Parliament. But if we were to think that way, then in truth, nothing would ever change. As Confucius once said, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.  So if Singaporeans are sincerely clamouring for government accountability, then every vote will literally count!

Of course, it is not for non-Hougang residents to tell Hougang’s voters how they should vote. But at the end of the day, while the vote itself may be local, its repercussions will inevitably be national in nature.

Accountability

As already discussed, MPs represent not just their constituencies but are essential to the formation of government itself.

The results of the ballot box are the surest way of ensuring accountability and whether we like it or not, the outcome of this by-election will either affirm or reject.

The party that claims eventual victory can be assured that it has done a good job and be spurred on to do even better. The party who is defeated can then learn from its mistakes and do a better job next time.

Good governance requires accountability at all levels and a by-election is as good a time as any to reinforce that mantra.

Can Hougang residents really neatly divide between local accountability and national accountability? Then again, why should they?

Indeed, Hougang voters have the unique privilege, warranted or not, to clearly vote for an MP according to what an MP should be voted for. This by-election can be seen as setting the benchmark for how voters should always evaluate their candidates – can they deliver on the ground, and at the same time contribute to the bigger national picture? This should be the key question that Hougang voters need to ask of both Desmond Choo and Png Eng Huat.

The YAWn Saga

By now, Yaw Shin Leong is a household name. In less than a year, he has gone from victorious underdog to pariah in one fell swoop. As his colleagues fought for accountability from the government, his ill-advised liaisons provided fodder for the idiom “pot calling the kettle black”. The media went into a frenzied overdrive and the mud slinging began.

The details of Yaw’s private life became gossip for public consumption as the PAP seized its golden opportunity to undermine the WP’s procedure for candidate selection. Never mind that Yaw had to date been a good MP. (here) Accountability was the catchphrase of the day and in his refusal to come clean to the public about the private details of his life, he became the first victim of the accountability he preached.

I did not agree with Yaw’s sacking but at the end of the day, I respected the WP’s ability to gauge public sentiment. By dismissing Yaw, they publicly proved their commitment to accountability. Something, which to date, the PAP has been perceived as unable to do.

Does the PAP really want to set an example for character assassination? Will its own candidates stand up to the rigorous standards it is claiming that the WP does not possess? It is a dangerous game to play in our present day of social media and every dog has its day.

The PAP continues to use Yaw’s indiscretions to discredit the WP but in all honesty, this trump card is fast becoming stale. The more they assert Yaw’s infidelities, the more voters are reminded of the WP’s firm stance in accountability.

Closing the Conundrum

Bearing in mind the nationwide furore that erupted over Yaw’s extramarital scandals, which in turn triggered the necessity for this by-election, can we really hand to heart call this by-election purely “local”?

Given Vallama Marie Muthu’s courageous actions, which captured the public’s, imagination and the number of articles that have been written about whether or not such by-election is required by law, is it really accurate to limit this election to an “Hougang only issue”?

As a result of the events that have set the “to call or not to call a by-election” wheels in motion, the entire nation is now invested in the process. Singapore is keenly watching how both parties react and perform. After all, the current scenario is singularly exceptional in our political history and will set a precedent for the future.

The vote may belong just to Hougang but the entire country has an interest in its outcome.

This article is published by The Online Citizen, 20 Maxwell Road, #09-17 Maxwell House, Singapore 069113.