By Benjamin Cheah
For almost two full weeks, People’s Action Party (PAP) by-election candidate Dr Koh Poh Koon has been pounding pavements and meeting residents in an effort to win hearts and minds. In his rally, he promised to address local issues with Ministers supporting him through public policy announcements and testimonials to his character.
On 9 January, Dr Koh was officially introduced to the media and some local residents, though his status as by-election candidate was not officially confirmed until the Writ of Election was announced on 11 January.
Dr Koh had a simple campaign message. “This is me. I am me.” This message suggested he would use a personal touch, relying on character, charm and authenticity to win voters. As quoted from Yahoo! News, he said, “You can say all sorts of slogans you want, but if residents can’t connect with you and if they don’t trust you, no slogan is going to change their minds.” As such and as reported, Dr Koh preferred to conduct his walkabouts without the support of senior PAP members, perhaps to establish a more personal connection with residents.
Personal touch only for residents?
Yet this personal touch was not seen in the online community. The Online Citizen (TOC) is not an accredited media organisation. The PAP has historically held a tight-lipped approach towards TOC and other bloggers. When TOC attempted to reach PAP members or government officials, requests were ignored or turned down.
Throughout the hustings, TOC has attempted to reach Dr Koh for interviews and comments, leaving him messages on Facebook and sending emails to his Head of Communications. To date, all attempts to reach Dr Koh have failed. The PAP has made no attempts to reach TOC; they have not even given out their walkabout schedules. TOC was therefore unable to deploy manpower and resources to cover the PAP on the same scale as the other opposition parties.
I met Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean while trailing Dr Koh on a walkabout. In 2011, he infamously ignored me when I tried to ask him questions following the election rally held by Mr Michael Palmer, then the PAP’s candidate for the area. During our second meeting, Mr Teo recognised me after I said I was from TOC. He said, “We just want fair and balanced coverage for the PAP.”
I told him I intended to do that. But with the PAP refusing to grant access to TOC, it is impossible to accurately understand and report the PAP’s position, and therefore impossible to get “fair and balanced coverage”. Case in point, TOC was unable to interview Dr Koh the way we interviewed Ms Lee Li Lian of the Workers’ Party, because she answered our emails.
Therefore much of what is to be discussed below is based on news reports and personal experiences of residents. It appears Dr Koh reserves his personal touch for rallies and the residents he meets on his walkabouts. It is unclear if this is due to party policy or personal preferences. What is clear is that Dr Koh has conducted an offline campaign consistent with his campaign message. Dr Koh has been very active on Facebook, regularly uploading photos and commentaries from his walkabout. The one time Dr Koh mentioned online media in his campaign, it was in a negative context. In Thursday’s rally, he said, “I knew when I joined the PAP there would be some negativity thrown at me, especially on the Internet. But the real world is different from cyberspace. These are real people with real needs, who show you what it’s like to be a real Singaporean.”
The Son of Punggol
As reported in Today, The Straits Times, Channel News Asia and other sources, Dr Koh has been busy walking the ground and meeting residents. During his walkabouts, Dr Koh has repeatedly promised to meet residents’ needs.
In a campaign flier titled “Punggol East Update”, Dr Koh stated his campaign promises, organised along demographic lines and infrastructure concerns.
For families with young and school-going children, he promised to expand capacity of childcare centres, set up new childcare facilities at convenient locations, establish student care centres at more schools, and request for the Ministry of Education to expand after-school care services in local schools.
Regarding youths, he called for a variety of programmes: mentorship, leadership development, talent development, and Youth for Change programmes. He also proposed the establishment of Youth Interest Groups and study areas in all Residents’ Committees.
His campaign promises for the elderly were three-fold. Firstly, the introduction of integrated eldercare facilities. Secondly, comprehensive health screening for the elderly. Thirdly, increasing barrier-free access and covered linkways throughout the ward.
Dr Koh also highlighted lower-income groups in his flier, promising to set up a job placement centre and to expand the current food distribution programme. However, it should be noted that the demographics of Punggol East is skewed towards middle- and upper-income families. With few details available, it is difficult to determine the actual scope, outreach and capabilities of the centre and the programme should he need to make good on his promises.
Dr Koh promised to improve public transportation and amenities in the area. Specifically, he would push for earlier implementation of a dual-carriage system for the LRT network and more feeder bus services, ‘explore options’ for more wet markets and coffee shops, and set up a new community club.
His other campaign promises, reported in the media, also included a wellness centre for the elderly, and more benches and resting points for senior citizens.
Finally, Dr Koh promised in his rally and statements to the press that he would push for the timely completion of renovation works at Rivervale Plaza, and to look for a long-term solution to improve drainage.
Throughout his campaign and his walkabouts, Dr Koh has set himself up as a son of Punggol. In his rally, he harkened back to his childhood days living in a farmhouse in Punggol. He spoke about how his family could only afford porridge and a kuning fish for meals and how he had to take up part-time jobs to support his elderly parents. He connected his experiences to his platform, implying that he empathised with the plight of local residents because he had experienced them too.
It should be remembered that Mr Palmer, the former Member of Parliament (MP) of Punggol East, had also promised the timely completion of renovation works at Rivervale Plaza, yet in the year and a half he held office renovation works continued to be stalled. While Dr Koh’s campaign promises stand to benefit locals, it also needs to be recognised that at least part of his proposals are to fulfil the promises inherited from Mr Palmer’s campaign.
Trailing Dr Koh
“He is friendly,” Mrs Lim, a butcher at Rivervale Plaza, said.
Those three words sum up Dr Koh’s approach in his byelection. Immediately after being declared as a qualified candidate for the byelection, Dr Koh went on a walkabout. Following Dr Koh on Nomination Day, I personally observed him waving at residents, shaking hands and interacting with some locals. Without access to his walkabout schedule and without contacts in the PAP, it was the only walkabout I observed.
In that walkabout, Dr Koh took time to ask residents and shop owners their concerns and learn a little about their lives. Dr Koh was warm and personable, listening attentively and shaking hands everywhere he went. Once he paused to converse with schoolchildren at a playground, cracking jokes and asking after their wellbeing.
News reports confirmed this impression of Dr Koh during other walkabouts. On Sunday, he reportedly cleared leaves from a choked drain following a heavy downpour at Rivervale Plaza. Photographs show Dr Koh interacting with residents all over the ward, from young families to elderly, shop keepers and church-goers. His focus on interpersonal relations is perhaps his greatest strength, and in this campaign he utilised it to the fullest.
Bigwigs provide backup from a distance
A plethora of PAP Ministers, MPs and volunteers have lent support to Dr Koh. Some MPs like Mr Zainal Sapari and Mr Gan Thiam Poh assisted directly with his walkabout. But senior party members and government officials took a backseat for the most part, contributing mainly in comments to the press and in rally speeches.
When talking to the press, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy Prime Minister Teo praised Dr Koh effusively. They described him as ‘down-to-earth’ and a ‘man with a plan’. Mr Lee even said that Dr Koh could well be a potential officeholder if he were to be elected.
Indeed, Mr Lee saw fit to personally support Dr Koh during Thursday’s rally, the last PAP rally. “If I had asked Dr Koh to join (the PAP) and he said yes immediately, I would have been shaken,” he said. “Dr Koh thought carefully about what it meant to join (the party) and he said yes eventually. He answered the call. My respect for him went up.”
During the PAP’s rallies, there is a noticeable division of labour. Senior party members and government officials praised Dr Koh, brought out new policies and discussed existing ones, and responded to criticisms from the opposition. This left Dr Koh free to connect with residents in his speeches. But that division is not so cut-and-dry.
On Wednesday, late in the campaign, Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob endorsed Dr Koh, saying he would speak up for residents and pursue issues concerning the young and elderly with rigour and passion. During his rally, Dr Koh himself said he would “push for more help” for “the poor, the vulnerable and especially the elderly…and practical issues [like] education, childcare and cost of living.” Should Dr Koh be elected, he would presumably focus on these issues above and beyond meeting the needs of Punggol East residents.
More of the same?
The PAP’s by-election strategy is remarkably similar to its 2011 General Election strategy. Back then, senior party members would speak primarily about national issues while Mr Palmer handled ground concerns. Indeed, Mr Lee and Education Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat have said this by-election was primarily about electing the right candidate who can best serve the residents of Punggol East. While speaking in the context of dissuading voters from voting for the opposition, their statements underscored the party’s position that the by-election is a local one. Dr Koh himself agreed, saying to TODAY newspaper “(This election) is about looking for an MP who will serve the residents’ needs.”
Dr Koh has consistently sold the image that he is a local boy returning to his roots to serve the community. The weakest part of his campaign, however, was his message, “I am me.” This suggests that he is his own man. The Straits Times on Tuesday and Wednesday said he had initially turned down Mr Lee’s offer to run in the by-election and had a reputation as a ‘troublemaker’ for criticising certain party policies. Dr Koh had said he preferred to be involved in change from within, and said Singapore should have more single-member constituencies so elected Members of Parliament would have greater political legitimacy.
But the public criticism he offered has been very mild, and on most of the PAP’s national policies he has remained silent. He has only publicly commented once on national policy, by voicing his support for the government’s new marriage and parenthood package.
With most of his statements so far in line with party policy, it is difficult to see Dr Koh as his own man. As the campaign draws to a close, it may be that his slogan “I am me” is a better reflection of his personality than his political stance in Parliament.