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Charles Chong’s million-dollar surplus claim in General Election 2015

I chuckled a fair bit when it was announced that Deputy Speaker, Charles Chong was made to be Chairman of the Select Committee to look into the matter of deliberate falsehoods in Singapore.

Not because of the 64 year-old veteran politician being inexperienced or unqualified for the task but because of a controversy that he was involved in during the General Election 2015.

Mr Chong was a candidate in the election for the seat of Punggol East Single Member Constituency (SMC), contesting against Ms Lee Lilian, the Workers' Party Member of Parliament who had won the SMC in 2013's by-election following Mr Micheal Palmer's resignation.

At the end of the GE2015, Mr Chong won the seat back from Ms Lee with a total vote of 16,957 (51.76%) against 15,801 (48.24%).

While Straits Times reported that Mr Chong had won Punggol East SMC back because he had shown himself to be a People's Action Party MP who would lobby publicly against government positions that he disagreed with, but with his thin margin of 3.5%, one cannot deny the impact of the unjustified claims made by Mr Chong during the few days of the General Election.

Claims made about a million-dollar surplus with Punggol East SMC before handing over to WP

Article published on Lian He Wan Bao on 25 August 2015

Mr Chong was quoted by Lianhe Wanbao, a local Chinese evening paper, on 25 August 2015 saying that he was feeling indignant for the residents of Punggol East SMC.

The full paragraph (shown above in highlight), goes like this. "Charles Chong, in yesterday's interview at People's Action Party Punggol East branch, pointed out that, when the Worker's Party took over Punggol East SMC, the town council had over 1 million of surplus. But two years after merging to form Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol-East Town Council, the entire town council had a financial deficit, this made him indignant for the residents of Punggol-East SMC."

The subsequent paragraphs talk about how he will be able to solve the issue if he is to win the town council and re-enter the Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. He was quoted to say, because it has been only two years since the Punggol-East by-election, if wait till another five years, the financial deficit for Punggol East SMC will be too large then.

News article published in Lian He Zaobao on 28 August 2015

On 28 August, Mr Chong's claim was again reproduced by Lianhe Zaobao, a local Chinese morning newspaper, with him promising residents that the town council accounts will be cleaned and he will fight for the government subsidies to be released so as to proceed with essential infrastructure development.

The paragraph in question, writes, "He pointed out that the Punggol-East town council was separated from the Pasir Ris-Punggol town council after the 2013 by-election to become part of the AHPETC. Then the town council had about 1 million surplus, and when AHTC was taken over by Workers' Party in 2011, it had also 3 million in surplus. Now, AHPETC's financial status is worsening every day.

Misquote of one-million dollar, says Charles Chong

Secretary General of Workers' Party, Mr Low Thia Khiang held up a copy of the financial statements of PETC during a WP rally, and pointed out that instead of a surplus, the PAP-run town council had in fact registered a deficit of $282,009 at the point of handover to the WP.

In defense, Mr Chong claimed that the WP had "deliberately misquoted" him on the issue.

“The interview... quoted me as saying that when Punggol East was handed over to the Workers’ Party, the Town Council had a surplus in excess of S$1 million. This was clearly a reference to Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council,” Mr Chong said, adding that there was no such entity known as "Punggol East Town Council" at the point in time.

“For the record, Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council (PRPGTC) ended its 2012/2013 Financial Year with a surplus for the year of approximately S$1.7 million,” he added.

The PAP's organising secretary, Ng Eng Hen, had then said during the hustings, "The party will issue a definitive clarification that puts on record and out of doubt what the clear financial position is. We have very good audited accounts."

He also added, "The facts will speak for themselves and, if Mr Low agrees on the facts, he may have to issue a correction. I hope he is gentlemanly enough to accept that he was wrong in this regard."

In a post made by PAP MP, Zainal Bin Sapari of the Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, he wrote, "although there was a deficit in the accumulated routine fund of $282,009, the same set of accounts also showed an amount of $303,372 claimable as reimbursement from the CIPC fund, which PRPGTC had already secured for Punggol East SMC. This was made known by PRPGTC to AHPETC at the point of takeover of Punggol East’s accounts and monies, which would give an actual net surplus of $21,363."

Mr Teo even shared the post, and wrote, "Read the full facts: Punggol East had net surplus of $21K when handed over to #AHPETC."

But Mr Teo seems to have forgotten then, that the question at hand is Mr Chong had claimed that there had been a million surplus with Punggol East SMC. Netizens also pointed out that Mr Sapari's explanation also didn't make sense, given that the money has yet been debited to the Town Council.

If one were to read the Chinese articles, one will surely come to an understanding that Mr Chong had all along been referring to the SMC, rather than Pasir-Ris Punggol town council. No attempts had been made by Mr Chong to clarify the articles at time of publication.

One such resident who had the impression, even wrote on Mr Teo's Facebook page to seek answers.

With no clarification on the matter by Mr Chong, Mr Teo and the PAP – even till today – and the slandering happening all over social media, voters from Punggol East SMC who are concerned over the affairs of their constituency, would surely have voted "prudently".

Will the proposed regulations cover both anti and pro PAP fake news?

Going back to the Select Committee on fake news, it should be clear to anyone that if the government wishes to pass any bills to introduce any laws, it can do so regardless what people thinks (Case in reference, the amendments to the Elected Presidency).

Given that it is an inevitable outcome, I would beseech the Select Committee to consider on how any proposed regulations to prevent the proliferation of fake news in Singapore, will be applied to either side of the fence, pro-PAP or anti-PAP, criticism of the government and in-defense of government policies. If there such be a body that determines what is considered "fake news", it ought to be an independent body appointed from individuals publicly nominated, and its decision allowed to be placed under public scrutiny and a relatively easy appeal process.

So that the bill to protect Singaporeans from fake news will not be used to silent critics of the establishment and yet allow fake news from selected individuals to propagate for the interest of a particular ruling party.

In my opinion, the best defense against fake news is an educated and informed public with a wide range of publications for the public to do their fact-checking. A country cannot assume it can determine what is "fake" and not for the people, and at times, it is very subjective such as, "The amendments to the Elected Presidency is not meant to block Dr Tan Cheng Bock but to promote racial harmony."