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Half time report of the Hougang by-elections

~ By Howard Lee ~

Five days of hustings have passed and I am acutely aware that I have missed out on bringing news from the ground. I thought I would at least do the decent keyboard critic thing and pen down my thoughts on how I feel the campaigning is going so far.

Judging by media coverage, particularly on the rallies over the weekend, I will just summarise upfront and say that both the Workers' Party (WP) and the People's Action Party (PAP), for different reasons, have much work to do in justifying why Hougang residents should vote for their respective candidates, Png Eng Huat and Desmond Choo.

WP - an all too familiar war cry

The fact that the WP rally ended with Png asking residents to "Wote WP, towards a First World Parliament" should have raised some eyebrows. Granted the rally cry is barely a year old and WP still has a long way to go before its dream of an evenly represented Parliament can be realised.

But they have to realise that asking for one more candidate in Parliament is a long stretch from that vision; the euphoria of the GE2011, where voters could have been galvanised by the possibility of an alternative to the PAP, would not likely have the same traction this year.

Instead, what the WP lacks now is the will to clearly demonstrate that their presence in Parliament has indeed made an impact to government policies. This is not a difficult task, as the WP has been well-represented in Parliament the past year. If the WP wants to convince Hougang voters that their vote for Png really counts, it needs to demonstrate that it has played an active part in shaping government policies in the past year, even if the results were just minor tweaks .

Everyone, including the PAP, knows how to ask for more representation, but what has that representation led to? How would one more MP count towards that? Admonishing the opponent for its failed policies is par for the course in elections and actually, a fairly decent thing to do if we want to focus on the larger issues, which is clearly the WP’s strategy. But what positive policies have you contributed to that discussion? WP can surely point voters to their website full of Parliament speeches, but the best evidence is often demonstrated rather than inferred.

Indeed, it is evident that Png has a firebrand style that will gain him attention in Parliament and, with the right set of facts, could be a formidable speaker to voice the concerns of the people. It is also clear that he has the full backing of his Party. An independent party is a lot more powerful than an independent individual and Png is staying close to the WP doctrine, which makes sense. But after the general elections, has this doctrine evolved, or maybe even changed for the worse? Voters need to know that the WP doctrine still serves them and that is still hard to judge from the first rally.

Personally, I have my concerns about WP’s unexplained deviations from their 2011 election manifesto. The ministerial salary issue nags at the corner of my brain. Friends have also remarked that they could have spoken up a lot more on issues that have clear national implications such as the SMRT fiasco, which was fertile ground for WP to push through their proposal for a nationalised public transport system. The by-election is a good a time as any for them to clear the air, before asking voters to endorse them further.

PAP - a renewed lack of synergy

Yet, while I can prod the WP for needing to put the tick the right boxes, the PAP campaign is a much larger cause for concern. While Choo has indicated his preference for this to be his own battle, the speeches made at the PAP rally suggests that he might actually have to contend with dissent in the ranks!

For a start, the blow-by-blow account by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on the WP’s various “flip-flops” in Parliament is clearly meant as a disruption tactic to make voters rethink the WP’s brand promise to voters. Now, while I agree that WP’s position in recent Parliamentary debates need further questioning, such statements made by DPM Teo actually does little credit to the PAP’s own “flip-flopping”. It was DPM Teo himself who seemed to have welcomed this same position, when he said that, "The Workers' Party has clearly made a fundamental change, and taken a new position, which I hope they will hold to in the next General Election. I welcome this change. This change has helped this debate to move forward and arrive at areas of convergence."

The PAP also seems bent on undermining Choo’s claim to independence by demonstrating a lack of understanding of the term. Denise Phua was dismissive of the fact that WP was the catalyst for political change, claiming that the government has able critics in Nominated Members of Parliament and blogger mrbrown, which she suggested were the "real check on the PAP". It seems not so long ago when mrbrown was chastised by the same government because, “He offers no alternatives or solutions. His piece is calculated to encourage cynicism and despondency, which can only make things worse, not better, for those he professes to sympathise with.”

And despite Choo’s repeated insistence that this was to be a straight fight between him and Png, DPM Teo continued to drag Yaw Shin Leong out for a flogging. So much for teamwork.

Such own goals do very little to credit the PAP as an effective electioneering force, never mind that electioneering might not be a good thing. Such self-depreciation, intentional or not, reflects a lack of strategic focus for Choo’s campaign. Such errors in judgment can be easier to justify in a general election, where the diversity of candidates means more individualism at the fringe that is needed to address specific constituency needs. But if the PAP cannot demonstrate cohesiveness and clarity for one SMC, there is clearly much to be desired here.

What is more important and clearly lacking, at least in demonstration, is the PAP's commitment to Choo’s bid for Hougang. Showing up at his rally, singing his praises and speaking passionately against his opponents means nothing, if the Party is unable, at the end of the day, to demonstrate their willingness to back him in Parliament.

For a start, none of his speakers have vouched support for Choo’s wish to keep Hougang as a Single Member Constituency, which Choo has indicated was a resident’s wish. If they are unable to fulfil this basic promise, one wonders how the PAP can make voters believe that Choo’s voice will be heard, much less agreed with, once he is elected.

Since party backing is clearly a quality that is not lacking in Png’s bid, it is clear who has the leading edge in this area. In that sense, my view is that Choo is, indeed, his own man in this fight – perhaps not the way he envisioned, and definitely not to his benefit.

Conclusion

It is still early days and the debate to go on well after the by-election. In fact even as I write, Png has come out to refute DPM Teo’s allegation that he is not the best man from WP because he was not selected to be a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament. But as more party members enter the fray, it is clear that we can no longer see this as an isolated by-election taking place in Hougang, but a litmus test of what went on in GE2011 - a benchmark for other elections to come.

They might not like it to be this way, but Hougang residents are in the position of being that enigmatic ward which, together with Potong Pasir for the longest time, has been the grounds for where political values have been redefined and participatory democracy tested. To ask Hougang voters to vote for themselves is demeaning is a certain way but it is clear that such wider issues will need to be addressed in order to gain their trust for a cross on the ballot slip.

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