Concluding report of the Hougang by-elections

~ By Howard Lee ~

This article is, first and foremost, a salute to the residents of Hougang, and written for them. For 20 years, they have been a bastion of, not democracy (although some would disagree), but the undercurrent of a shining shade of the true Singapore spirit. Strength in adversity, dignity without compromise, fighting for an even playing field.

This by-election has turned the spotlight, rather unfairly, on these 23,000-odd voters, expecting them to take a stand on a broad swath of issues. Over the past two weeks, both the People's Action Party and the Workers' Party engaged in a tug-of-war over the voters' ballot slip, strongly and emotively. But in all honesty, not all tugs were relevant, some even blatantly belittling them as thinking voters.

Personally, each Hougang voter would also have considered their own wishes in the voting equation. We all have varying thresholds for the creature comforts we desire. These are not selfish considerations and every voter, in choosing their representative in Parliament, have a right to consider them. Indeed, it is by asking citizens to choose these considerations over other needs, such as democratic representation, that selfishness is demonstrated.

But with the gaze of a nation falling on this very personal choice, many a Hougang resident will wonder if this chance to vote again is really a blessing or a curse. Why should Hougang residents bear the scrutiny of a nation?

So my intent is not to make this decision any harder, but to put the proposals made by PAP and WP in a direct comparison. This will be according to how the parties have presented their cases so far, and what they profess to stand for.

Local needs

Both Desmond Choo and Png Eng Huat have been active on the grounds of Hougang for about the same time, running social assistance programmes for the needy and disadvantaged. In their campaigns, they have pledged to continue their work in these efforts.

But WP has upped the ante by promising Png a vice-chairman seat on the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, replacing Yaw Shin Leong and Low Thia Khiang. This essentially means that Hougang under WP will retain top priority in Town Council interests to develop the joint estates.

PAP, on the other hand, has not made any substantive commitment to Hougang. The PAP is evidently withholding upgrading carrots, perhaps for fear that, should Choo not win, there would be a replay of the 2006 general elections, where Low asked Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong to release the upgrading funds the PAP promised Hougang during the hustings.

In short, upgrading efforts in Hougang big or small, but clearly at low or no direct cost to residents, will be attributed to the WP. Should Png be voted in, there is no reason why this should not continue. If it is an unfair assessment, it is really the PAP's own undoing. In a lack of foresight, by refusing to be altruistic in the physical upgrading of the estate, the PAP has only distanced themselves from the residents and not make voting for the party more desirable. This has giving the WP an in-your-face trump card – if there is no abalone porridge, fish porridge is still pretty darn good.

Without his Party's backing, Choo is fighting the local front only on the grounds of social assistance schemes, and for this, he is on equal footing with Png. At the end of the day, how each party has contributed on the ground in Hougang will be assessed by the people who live in Hougang, and the WP's dogged determination to do with what they have would undoubtedly give then some credit.

National agendas

At this point, the equal footing of the two contesting candidates ended. The national agenda is really something that only the WP has claimed as part of Png's campaign.

I have earlier questioned whether the WP can justify the vote of confidence given it by the voters of the Aljunied and Hougang constituencies. They need to demonstrate that their position in Parliament was put to good use in policy formulation, not simply infer that their presence has made a difference. And indeed, the WP has circulated a flyer at their second rally, presumably also distributed to Hougang residents, listing the arguments  that each MP made in Parliament for or against certain policies. It was a good move – no one can expect them to change policies overnight, but the effort will now not go unnoticed.

The WP had also campaigned aggressively for Hougang to be returned to them, as a sign to the PAP that democracy prevails. "Hougang is not for sale" had been a pounding rally cry, and was aimed at fuelling the defiance that has characterised Hougang residents. Would this attempt actually win the WP more votes? It is hard to tell.

Should Hougang residents continue to hold the banner for democracy? Realistically, it is a tall order for those who felt that they have been deprived too long from benefits for voting in the ruling party. There might also be sentiments that the baton can now be passed on to Aljunied constituents. The decision on this aspect will be a personal one, and no "spiritual support" by the WP will change that much. In particular, this would have very little traction among hard core PAP supporters in Hougang.

Still, it is evident from the increasing margins that the WP has enjoyed in the past few general elections that this defiance might be spreading, and coupled with the PAP's politicisation of election benefits, would likely continue to be a key motivator for Hougang voters to return the ward to the WP.

While democracy is still a lofty ideal, the WP has also clearly campaigned for Hougang voters to also base their votes on the need to address broader policy issues that affect Hougang voters. For this to happen, they would need an independent voice that speaks for citizen interests in Parliament, challenging the government on policies when necessary, without fear of reprisal or the whip.

Independence, to the benefit of citizens

In this aspect, the independence of the two candidates were called into question. Both candidates have expressed equally well the broader national issues that affect Singaporeans. These include cost of living, public transport and low wages. Many have noted similarities in the mantras professed by both candidates, and we need not be surprised, as these are meant to be issues that affect everyone. Indeed, be worried if one candidate sees it differently from the other, for one would then be inaccurate.

What was left was for each candidate to prove how he will effectively bring these issues to Parliament. Choo's assertion that he can speak up for low wage workers because he is a unionist is small comfort. Many a time, the trade unions have been perceived to be supporting employers more than employees, and the tripartite alliance would have given Choo's position a lingering sting.

Conversely, Png has party brand on his side. As an opposition party, the WP is free to engage the ruling party on any issue it chooses to champion, and has proven the willingness to do so, no matter how muted. Choo will always live in the shadow of being a PAP candidate, without a key decision making role in his own party, and hence limited influence. It also does not help that his party colleague have came out to reiterate the PAP's version of independent voices. Voters hankering for an independent voice would be looking for an MP with full voting rights, not a token voice.

But party brand also comes with party history. At this point in time, voter might wish to think about what the WP stands for, particularly on whether they have followed their own election manifesto. Rather than say the WP has been shifting its core principles and reneging on the promises it has made to its supporters in the general election, I would only say that the WP is possibly testing the field and its new-found influence, and it is still a long way more to GE2016. Nevertheless, it is clear that their independent voice will now be under greater scrutiny from their supporters.

The irrelevant

As a person, Choo has actually been touching hearts and effectively working the ground, if media reports are anything to go by. If there is a real misstep in his campaign strategy, it would be to allow Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Teo Chee Hean anywhere near the microphone.

Not only did Teo not provide representational support from the PAP, nor contribute to the tangibility of Choo's campaign, his combative and offensive (in every sense of those words) stance had effectively decimated Choo's promise of a clean fight between two candidates.

The exact start of the damage to the PAP's reputation is not clear, but lies somewhere between DPM Teo dragging up Yaw yet again, and his probe on why the WP did not nominate Png for a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament position following the general election last year. Perhaps Png was a political amateur for falling for it and dragging his Party leadership into a defensive clarification mode. Perhaps even Teo did not expect a response.

But clearly, this was an incident were Teo was kicking up a fuss about something that only the PAP sees as significant. Most of the other political parties have clearly indicated that they don't give two hoots about the NCMP scheme, and it would not be amiss if they do not take it seriously.

In short, whether Png really took his name out of the run for NCMP and whether the WP really voted him for the position is basically an irrelevant point in this by-election. For sure, the integrity of each candidate needs to be seriously considered, but not over the NCMP issue. If anything, Hougang residents would be reminded that they are voting for a full-fledged MP, not an NCMP.

If the name James Gomez does not sound familiar in Teo's charge, then let me call it for what it is: Desperate electioneering, mud-slinging, bordering on the petty. Teo's actions is a reminder why important issues can be forgotten in the heat of campaigning, confusing the electorate for the sake of gaining a few more brownie points. He did very little credit to Choo's campaign.

The questionable

A lingering question remains over the WP's internal cohesion. With so many distractions leading up to polling day – spare tyre candidate at nomination day, allegations of racism, leaked minutes of a Central Executive Committee meeting – one wonders if the WP is in such a disarray that it might fail to project the unity necessary for it to be a decisive force in Parliament.

But the operative word here is "project". It is a far stretch to say that a good party, even the PAP, is really united. Clashes should be expected. The question is whether the party has sufficient internal discipline to keep a united front. The PAP is a master at this. Whether they like it or not, the WP has a lot of catching up to do in this aspect.

Yet it is also gratifying to see that championing for citizen's democracy has not dampened the desire for their campaigners to have some if it as well. In fact, clashes of character and differences in opinion is positive – the very idea of independence within party ranks depends on it.

Yet the string of incidents surrounding the by-election does very little to credit the WP, particularly if compared to the stone-cold discipline of the PAP. This will be something for the WP to address – managing differences without appearing to tear at the seams.

Is the issue a concern to Hougang voters in this by-election? As far as they are concerned, they are making a choice based on how their MP would fit into their own parties. Png is a favoured member in the WP, and toes party lines readily. Yet he has evidently expressed an independent streak, particularly in openly declaring his disinterest in the NCMP position. There are also indications that the Party was happy for him to field Teo's attacks, until the leaked minutes gave Low incentive to tackle it at the second rally.