~ By Benjamin Cheah ~
“Hougang is not for sale!” Mr Png Eng Huat declared. In his maiden rally of the Hougang by-election, this is the battle cry of the Workers’ Party (WP) as it kicks off its campaign for Hougang in earnest.
The rally focused on a central narrative: the residents of Hougang voting for the Workers’ Party, in spite of threats and promises from the People’s Action Party. “For the past 20 years, Hougang voters have been zapped by lightning,” Party Chairman Ms Sylvia Lim said. After consistently returning a WP candidate to Parliament in past elections, the government has reduced public transport routes in Hougang and gave opposition-held wards the least priority for flat upgrading schemes. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has also promised Hougang a hundred million-dollar flat upgrading program should voters send a PAP candidate to Parliament. In spite of this, she said, the voters of Hougang stood firm and continued to vote in the Workers’ Party. She thanked the voters for continuing to vote for the opposition,saying “we’ve only just begun” and “the best is yet to come”.
Supporting this narrative was a hailstorm of criticism aimed at the PAP’s policies. “Many problems faced by Hougang residents are national issues,” Member of Parliament (MP) Mr Chen Show Mao said, mentioning the income gap, job prospects and cost of living. Speaker after speaker followed this theme, pointing their fingers at the PAP.
Party veteran Mr Lim Ee Ping argued that achieving better work-life balance is a better solution to the falling birth rate than increasing the number of immigrants. Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Yee Jenn Jong criticised the number of scholarships awarded to foreign students, arguing that many of them do not achieve high academic standards and do not contribute to Singapore, and questioning the policy’s effectiveness. MP Mr Pritam Singh launched a scathing review of corrupt PAP politicians, such as Choo Wee Khiang and Teh Cheang Wan, saying that the people “cannot rely on the PAP to set the standards of politics.” “We will put things right, no matter what the cost!” Mr Singh added.
NCMP Mr Gerald Giam criticised the recent MRT breakdowns, stating that the government imported a large number of foreigners without upgrading the infrastructure to match the increased capacity. Mr Giam said that the WP has voiced the people’s concerns, and the WP needs more MPs in Parliament to better represent the people’s wishes.
Mr Png continued the narrative, saying the PAP “does not know anything about building an inclusive society” and “one thing you should never do is threaten voters”. Mr Png pointed out that Anson constituency, once held by the opposition, had disappeared, and Potong Pasir might suffer the same fate. He said Hougang must never forget this fact, and the children of Hougang must never forget that their parents had sacrificed much for their country. He argued that the PAP “threatened” democracy, and urged the crowd to “keep our fragile democracy alive”. Adding that Singapore has “a long way to go towards a First World Parliament”, he asked voters to vote WP for a First World Parliament.
Inevitably, the speakers drew comparisons between Mr Png and his PAP rival, Mr Desmond Choo. Speakers were initially content to highlight Mr Png’s positive traits. They spoke about his dedication to his family and community, his technical know-how, and his familiarity with the workings of Parliament thanks to his background as Mr Low’s Legislative Assistant. Mr Giam emphasised that he is a “good man” who has the ability to “analyze policies that affect the lives of the people”.
During his closing speech, Mr Low drew comparisons between Mr Png and his PAP counterpart, Mr Desmond Choo. Focusing on Mr Png’s affiliations, Mr Low questioned Mr Choo’s previous assertions that he can be an independent voice, saying that Mr Choo could not be truly independent unless he ran as an independent candidate. Mr Low also implied that Mr Choo’s candidacy was irrelevant. Mr Choo is a grassroots advisor and a unionist, Mr Low said, so Mr Choo would need to fulfil his election promises anyway.
The shadow of the Yaw Shin Leong scandal briefly emerged during the rally. Mr Singh’s remark on making things right might have been a veiled reference to the party expelling Mr Yaw, which triggered the by-election. Mr Low said that the WP had to show “political courage” by sacking Mr Yaw. Just as briefly, all mentions of Mr Yaw disappeared. It appeared to be an attempt to address the still-ongoing concerns about the incident, but the
rally was clearly focused on promoting the party and Mr Png.
The most striking observation throughout the rally was the reaction of the crowd. About 8,000 people turned out during the rally, but they were significantly quieter than rally-goers during the 2012 general elections. Despite multiple attempts to rally the crowd, most notably by Mr Giam during his speech, much of the audience failed to respond to the speakers. Much of the cheering seemed to have come from WP supporters and volunteers near the front; the back ranks of the crowd were noticeably quiet. The crowd only came to life when Ms Lim and Mr Low took the stage -- and during certain pointed remarks aimed at the PAP. Even Mr Low had to encourage the crowd to cheer for Mr Png when it was his turn to speak, and even that
did not result in much greater enthusiasm.
The crowd reaction, coupled with the WP’s focus on national issues, suggests that the WP is banking on its brand name for this by-election. Mr Choo arguably has greater ground experience and visibility than Mr Png, first by being the PAP’s Hougang candidate during the general election and later by serving as the grassroots advisor. Mr Png’s reception indicates that he has won the support of relatively few people who are not already WP supporters.
While the speakers did take time to paint Mr Png in a positive light, the primary purpose of the rally was to criticise the PAP and further promote the WP concept of a First World Parliament and the general notion of democracy in Singapore.
This may be the only logical approach for the WP. Mr Png cannot hope to close the gap in exposure and experience with Mr Choo during the hustings. The party has to use its brand to counter Mr Choo’s personality, and to play the underdog opposition card as much as it can. If the crowd reaction is any gauge, the contest for Hougang is too close to call at this stage. One thing seems to be sure, though: the WP needs to fight hard to come anywhere close to the heights of popularity it achieved during GE2011.
This article is published by The Online Citizen, 20 Maxwell Road, #09-17 Maxwell House, Singapore 069113.