~ By Benjamin Cheah ~
Desmond Choo is not independent of the People’s Action Party, his candidacy is superfluous, and has been around for only a short period of time. Png Eng Huat in Parliament would check the PAP, would improve the opposition’s standing, and has been working in Hougang since 2006. The Hougang by-election is about national issues. These were the three core messages in the Workers’ Party rally on 22 May.
The first half of the rally was about addressing national concerns. The speakers followed a one-two formula, critiquing the PAP’s policies and then going into detail what the WP’s response was. They also questioned Mr Choo's motives while affirming Mr Png’s abilities.
Dr John Yam began the rally by analysing Singapore’s education system. He urged the government to invest more our Singaporeans rather than foreign students. He criticised the foreign scholarship policy, revealing the statistic 20% of foreign scholars do not complete their bond. He argued that streaming and the Gifted Education Program has created a wide “knowledge gap” between students of different abilities. He questioned the concept of ‘teach less, learn more’, saying that the emphasis on competition for grades “kills creativity”. He also argued that teachers are burnt out because they have to teach while meeting Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). To tackle these problems, Dr Yam said that the government needs to dedicate more resources to weaker students to allow them to catch up, use Management by Objectives instead of KPIs and reduce job scopes and allow sabbaticals for teachers to pursue their passions. He closed his speech by contending that the government needs to “invest in a First World education”, as students who do not complete at least 10 years of education are potentially structurally unemployable.
Ms Frieda Chan followed, discussing healthcare, caring for the elderly, and the long-running consequences of the 'Stop at Two' policy. She wrapped this into her core message, pointing out that the PAP has long said that these problems “cannot be helped”. Thus voters must vote for the WP to deny the PAP from using this excuse.
After her came Mr Koh Choong Yong. He countered Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong’s claim that the results of the Hougang by-election does not matter to the composition of Parliament. "PAP has too many MPs so it does not matter to them, but every WP MP is important!" He pointed out that in October 2011 there was a hike in electricity tariffs. Despite many letter written to the newspapers, no proper explanation was given until WP MP Ms Sylvia Lim pressed for and won the release of the formula used to calculate utility bills. None of the PAP MPs did this. Mr Koh added that the every WP MP spoke but did not have enough time to raise questions in budget debates, while not every PAP MP spoke in those debates. He argued that more WP MPs meant more time to discuss issues in Parliament, making Mr Choo just another candidate while Mr Png an important candidate.
Mr Mohd Rahizan bin Yaacob centred his speech on the elderly, saying that the PAP must “change its mind set” about them. He claimed that the PAP’s policies do not reflect its stance on Asian values as they do not honour or respect the elderly. He said that community centres tend to cater to the young and questioned if there were social barriers preventing the elderly from participating in group activities. The percentage of people above 65 years old who are still working has increased from 12% to 20%, and he asked how many of them are working just to survive.
Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Mr Yee Jen Jong called the PAP a "kiasu party", saying that the PAP implemented Group Representative Constituencies (GRCs) to retain political control as it is “afraid to send new candidates to contest in Single Member Constituencies (SMCs)". He pointed to former opposition wards disappearing into GRCs and questioned whether Mr Choo could truly keep Hougang as an SMC if he won. Mr Yee then criticised the PAP’s track record, saying that the recent MRT breakdowns are a symptom of a larger problem – the PAP runs the government like a large company. He said that the PAP’s policies are designed to maximise revenue for the government, creating a wealthy elite that only cares about money. “Singapore belongs to all Singaporeans” he said, and added that it takes votes for the opposition to get the PAP to listen to the people.
Mr Gerald Giam used his speech to counter two claims from the PAP. His first defence was against Ms Denise Phua’s claim that there was no need for Opposition MPs, as PAP MPs and bloggers were the check against the government. "If that were true I would have remained an active blogger and not gone through the trouble of joining WP!" he said. He then explained the parliamentary process – since MPs have to vote according to the party line, nobody in the PAP will be an “independent voice”, referring to Mr Choo’s claim of being independent if he were voted into Parliament. Mr Giam said that Singapore needed 29 MPs to prevent the PAP from changing the Constitution at will and that there was “a long way to go”. “It is a huge insult to say Hougang voters vote blindly,” he added, referring to PM Lee’s advice for voters to vote carefully instead of blindly. He concluded by saying that Mr Png was working in Hougang long before being picked as a candidate, implying that Mr Choo has much less experience than Mr Png.
Glenda Han spoke about the rights of singles. She argued that Singaporeans singles should not be penalised for not having spouses. “Singapore’s current housing policies promote marriage for the wrong reasons," she said and asked if people were being forced to marry just so they could buy a Build-to-Order (BTO) flat. She stated that singles should be able to buy a BTO flat too. Singaporeans, single or married, should have equal rights. She concluded by reiterating that this by-election is not just about local issues but also about holding the government accountable.
Up to this point, the crowd was slowly growing, but mainly unresponsive. Throughout the speeches, the crowd remained mostly silent and was slightly restless. Despite repeated attempts to appeal to the crowd, only small pockets of WP supporters cheered in response. The only comments that elicited noticeable reaction were those aimed at foreigners and the PAP. All this changed when Pritam Singh took the stage to joyful cheers.
Mr Singh began by rebutting the PAP's accusations. Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Teo Chee Hean had criticised the WP for changing its positions on varying issues. Mr Singh pointed out that the PAP has done the same too, on casinos, F1 racing, and supply of HDB flats among other policies. Mr Singh disagreed with Mr Choo’s statement "I am my own man" by saying Mr Choo cannot stop the PAP from absorbing Hougang into Ang Mo Kio GRC. He also said that after every General Election, losing PAP MPs will be appointed as grassroots advisors, like Mr Choo, but WP MPs offered this privilege. This means that Mr Choo will have to serve Hougang residents whether he becomes an MP or not. Mr Singh added “Independence is not a mere label” and encouraged Ms Denise Phua and Mr Choo to run as independents if they truly want to be independent. Finally, he argued that the PAP has constantly punished Hougang for voting for the WP by pushing Hougang to the back of the queue for upgrading schemes. Furthermore, 26 community sites in Aljunied GRC were transferred from the WP’s management to the People’s Association. Claiming that "the PAP’s policies are divisive", Mr Singh said that the WP stands for a brand of politics where everyone is treated equally, with dignity and respect.
This focus on Hougang struck a chord with the crowd. For the first time in the rally, the crowd cheered heartily and gave shouts of encouragement during a speech. Members of the audience called Pritam Singh by his nickname Bie Dan Xin, which is Mandarin for "don’t worry". Part of this could be attributed to Mr Singh’s charisma and rhetorical ability, but it also suggests that this audience is more concerned with events in Hougang than in Singapore.
Mr Chen Show Mao then took over, to a somewhat quieter reception. Mr Chen continued dissecting DPM Teo's words. DPM Teo said that the PAP and WP’s ministerial pay cut suggestions were similar. Mr Chen asked incredulously “How can this be?” The WP’s proposal would have resulted in deeper cuts. DPM Teo said that the WP has changed its position on bringing in foreign talent. Mr Chen said that the WP has not; its position has always been to admit foreign talent to enhance the quality of life for Singaporeans. He added that the WP wants to fine tune the number of foreigners allowed in each industry, while reducing reliance on foreigners. He said that sending one more WP MP to Parliament will ensure that the PAP would listen more carefully to the people and put Singaporeans at the centre of all policies.
Next up was Mr Low Thia Khiang. Shortly after he began his speech, raindrops fell thick and furious across the field. Parts of the crowd sought shelter in nearby HDB flats. Undaunted, Mr Low spoke about the minutes from the WP’s previous Central Executive Committee (CEC) meeting which were leaked to the press. The minutes showed that Mr Png was nominated for the WP’s NCMP position even though Mr Png said he removed his name from the vote. Confirming that the minutes were authentic, Mr Low said that Mr Png was referring to the voting process, not the ballot paper. Mr Low prepared the ballot paper for the NCMP vote. While Mr Png said he did not want to be considered, the final decision lay with the CEC. "Personal preferences", he said, "had to be set aside." He called the leaking of the minutes "a weak attempt to sabotage the WP and Mr Png" and said that the minutes showed that the WP could “embrace different opinions while working as a team”. He said he did not want to speculate on the anonymous source and urged voters to focus on the by-election.
Despite the WP’s rhetoric of the Hougang by-election being about national issues, the next speaker, Ms Sylvia Lim, focused her speech entirely on Hougang. Ms Lim said that Ms Phua and Mr Teo were ignorant of what the WP has done for Hougang. She cited a case in 2000, where the Hougang Town Council used its funds to upgrade lifts in some blocks of flats – without requiring residents to pay. She then listed five incidents where the Hougang Citizens’ Consultative Committee did not approve the use of Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC) funds for improvement projects, such as signs and footpaths. She said that the Hougang Town Council had to use its own funds to pay for upgrading works. Should Mr Png be elected as MP, Ms Lim promised to elect him as Vice-President of the Town Council.
The last speech of the night was delivered by Mr Png Eng Huat. His delivery was somewhat intermittent as he struggled to read his rain-soaked script. Mr Png began by repeating the fact that losing PAP candidates, like Mr Choo, are appointed as grassroots advisors. He said that voting for him meant that Mr Choo would still be a grassroots advisor, so there is no need to vote for Mr Choo. Mr Png also reiterated his track record of serving in Hougang compared to Mr Choo. He pointed out that the PAP did not build more BTO flats or cut ministers’ salary before WP had secured Aljunied GRC. Moving on to local infrastructure, Mr Png said the WP had nominated 54 blocks of flats for neighbourhood renewal projects and 15 blocks for home improvement projects. The party would call for a tender for repair, reroofing and repainting work for 34 blocks by the middle of 2012. He promised to organise more trips for senior citizens and games for youths. He said that a lot of problems in Hougang were caused by the PAP in the first place and asked if Mr Choo should be given a chance. He referred to PM Lee’s statement that real democracy is not about voting blindly, qualifying that democracy is also not about punishing people who vote for the opposition. “Political discrimination has no place in this inclusive society” he said, asking voters to send this message on Polling Day. He concluded by saying that he did not need to convince voters that he will be an independent voice in Parliament, as his party is independent of the PAP.
The Workers’ Party wants to frame the Hougang by-election as a contest of national issues. The WP talked about how an additional WP MP would provide an additional check against the government in Parliament and raise questions on issues of national concern by showing the flaws in the PAP’s policies. This strategy would give the WP plenty of fodder to confront the PAP and gain support from many WP supporters outside Hougang. However, if the crowd reaction is anything to go by, this crowd seems to be equally concerned about Hougang specific issues as well national ones. The greatest cheers went to speakers who talked about how Hougang residents have been disadvantaged by the PAP’s policies, criticised Desmond Choo, what the WP has done and will do for Hougang. Indeed, the crowd only came to life during the second half of the rally and only when speakers touched on Hougang-centric issues.
Mr Low ended the rally early, thanking the people who stayed on despite the rain. He concluded by saying “The Workers’ Party will be here for Hougang come rain or shine!”
The Hougang by-election is as much a local one as it is a national one and perhaps more. Discussing national issues will enhance the WP’s prospects in the long-term. It cannot be denied that the hustings and the outcome of this campaign will have a great influence on the WP’s strategies in the next General Elections. Non-Hougang residents will be more receptive to the idea that the WP is a credible political party. Hougang residents however, seem to be looking for how a WP MP who can best serve them, as opposed to a PAP MP, and the implications of being represented by either party.
The WP is not facing a binary choice. It does not have to choose between the local and the national, the short term and the long term. It has to choose both. While the WP’s narrative of national issues will be heard by both Hougang and non-Hougang residents, this message was repeated again and again during GE2011. This year’s message will only be keenly felt if the WP secures a seat in Hougang again. For that to happen, the WP must convince Hougang voters that the WP continues to be their best option to handle their specific needs.
The WP will continue talking about Hougang as though it were decided by national issues. It is highly unlikely that the WP will explicitly adopt a new narrative at this stage. But the WP’s apparent shift towards talking about Hougang specifically seems to suggest that the party is also taking local issues into account. The Hougang by-election is a national’ issue, insofar as Hougang is part of the nation. Hougang’s needs are part of the nation’s needs. The WP needs to deliver a consistent message that meets both the needs of Hougang and of Singapore. It appears to be doing that with this rally. With one more rally to go, the WP must commit to a clear communication strategy, one that would fully express the WP’s message and intent.
This article is published by The Online Citizen, 20 Maxwell Road, #09-17 Maxwell House, Singapore 069113.