By Benjamin Cheah
Grim faces crowded around the television screens. Channel News Asia had set up a command centre at the void deck of Block 124A, and residents took full advantage of the televisions the CNA team used to coordinate their broadcast. When Returning Officer Mr Yam Ah Mee took the podium, a buzz rippled through the residents.
Earlier that night, The Online Citizen tried to enter the PCF (People’s Action Party Community Foundation) Punggol East Branch. However, a PAP member checked the media passes of non-PAP members, and asked our photographer to leave, saying the assembly was a ‘private event’. Residents, too, were barred from entry; only white-uniformed PAP members and accredited members of the mainstream media were allowed inside.
The crowd around the television sets were four people deep. About eighty people in all stared intently at the broadcast, listening to Mr Yam announce the results. When Mr Yam said the PAP candidate Dr Koh Poh Koon had secured 12856 votes, someone gasped. The moment Mr Yam announced that the Workers’ Party candidate Ms Lee Li Lian had won16038 votes, a youth sighed softly. Next to me, a young man whispered that the WP had won. A few heads shook. Mr Yam finished announcing the results, and formally declared Ms Lee the winner.
Disappointment flashed. The air grew heavy. Someone groaned softly. But most residents kept a poker face, saying nothing. Soon, a muted, stony silence fell over the crowd, and they rapidly dispersed. Within five minutes, it was as though there was no one there.
Inside the PCF building, the PAP members were glued to the television. Some residents wandered downstairs to the PCF building, and just as quickly wandered away.
The Press Conference
Eventually, Dr Koh and Deputy Prime Minister Mr Teo Chee Hean held a press conference. Just as they began, a PAP member passed the media a single copy of Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s official statement on the by-election results. There was a quick scramble to interpret and take photos of the speech. As TOC was denied entry, I headed back to the CNA command post to monitor the press conference.
A sober-faced Dr Koh thanked the voters who supported him, and the volunteers, activists and Party members who helped him in his campaign. He also indicated a preference to continue his career in politics. “I would like to continue serving where the party feels is the best place for me going forward,” he said.
Dr Koh also talked about what Prime Minister had said to him after the results were announced. “He’s proud of what we have done here, and he would like us to continue to serve in the future in whatever capacity the party feels is appropriate for us.”
“The voters of Punggol East have made their decision and we will respect their decision,” a weary-looking Mr Teo said, congratulating Ms Lee, and thanking residents who voted for the PAP as well as the people who helped the PAP campaign. “The government will continue our programme for the long-term good of all Singaporeans. There’s a lot of hard work ahead, because these are major programmes that we are putting into place. We are proud to have served (the voters of Punggol East), and I hope they will be able to support us next time round.”
Explaining the PAP’s loss, Mr Teo said, “We always knew it was going to be difficult because it was a by-election. There were a number of circumstances which precipitated the by-election, and of course there were local issues which we were aware of. ”
These “circumstances”, he said, included delayed renovation works at Rivervale Plaza, calling it an “irritant to many residents”, and apologised for the delays. “I’m sure Rivervale Plaza will be completed; the contractors would have to do their job.”
Mr Teo also spoke about the programmes the PAP proposed during the campaign. “Now that he’s no longer the MP (Member of Parliament), obviously he will no longer have the same capability to carry out all those programmes.
When asked if he saw further implications for the next election, Mr Teo said, “I think it’s premature to make a conclusion on that.”
A Quick and Quiet Retreat
Ms Lee Li Lian is the first female opposition member to win a Single Member Constituency since independence in 1965. By winning with a comfortable margin of 10%, the residents had signalled a rejection of the PAP in favour of an increasingly confident and assertive opposition party.
The PAP’s loss saw virtually all residents watching television at the centre, scuttling off as soon as the results were out.. None of the residents I approached wished to be interviewed by TOC. The ones the media spoke to also left soon after their interviews. Unlike the residents of Block 322 at Hougang, there was no celebration here, no overt post-defeat blues, no outward sign of emotion. Just a quiet stoicism coupled with resigned acceptance.
Questions for the immediate future
Ms Lee has announced her first Meet-the-People Session on 4th February. Having won the by-election, she said her immediate concerns were to build up the town council and increase the number of grassroots leaders in Punggol East.
Historically, opposition-held wards have been disadvantaged by the government. Hougang and Potong Pasir were constantly denied upgrading funds because they returned opposition politicians to power. The Workers’ Party that is governing the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council is currently sorting out its software programmes after Action Information Management, a company owned by former PAP MPs, terminated its services.Punggol East is currently managed by the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council, which is in the PAP-controlled Pasir Ris-Punggol Group Representative Constituency. During the last General Election, the PAP promised to continue management of Punggol East under the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council should the voters elect Mr Michael Palmer into Parliament. Now that the Workers’ Party has taken control of Punggol East, there will new configurations in how the Town Council will be managed.
The Reform Party’s Mr Kenneth Jeyaratnam and the Singapore Democratic Alliance’s Mr Desmond Lim received very poor showings, winning just 353 and 168 votes respectively. Both parties stand to lose their election deposits. Their strategies have evidently failed to make a significant impact on the population. To remain relevant in the Singapore political arena, they need to consider and implement new strategies. How they will evolve remains to be seen.
As for the PAP, their dominance in Parliament remains unchallenged. They still hold 80 out of 87 seats. However, the by-election results signal increasing dissatisfaction with the ruling party, and perhaps increasing support for the Workers’ Party. The Prime Minister has promised to refocus on national issues, including the upcoming White Paper on Population and Budget 2013. In the long term, however, this by-election defeat might cause the PAP to reconsider some of its policies and strategies.
One more question remains. On 3 May 2006, Mr Lee argued on Channel News Asia against having many opposition members in Parliament. “Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in Parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters’ votes.”
Following the by-election, there are now 10 opposition members in Parliament, 7 elected Members of Parliament and 3 Non-Constituency Members of Parliament. Whether Mr Lee would now spend all his time thinking of ‘fixing’ the opposition or the policiess remains to be seen.