Former People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP) Charles Chong gave an interview to The Straits Times recently, which was published last week (‘PAP street fighter Charles Chong did not plan to stay so long‘, 11 Aug).
Chong is known to be the “fire-fighter” of PAP who would be sent to the various “tough” constituencies to help PAP win. Wherever he contested, he always won “by the skin of his teeth”, as noted by PM Lee in a tribute to him in June. “Because when there is a tough fight, and we need a strong candidate who will fight hard and fight smart, we send in Charles Chong. And every time, Charles has delivered”, PM Lee praised Chong.
Chong is arguably PAP’s most skilled political street fighter, who always won during his 32 years in politics. He is one of the longest serving politicians in Singapore.
He was a union leader in one of the SIA’s unions when then labour chief Lim Boon Heng took notice of him. Soon, Lim recommended Chong to join the PAP. In 1988, he was asked to stand for election in Sembawang GRC.
But he told the media that his “most stressful contest” was in 1991, when he was sent to Eunos GRC going up against a Workers’ Party (WP) team that included former Barisan Sosialis leader Lee Siew Choh. The vote counting lead changed between both camps several times on polling night as the votes were counted.
“I recall writing my victory speech when we were leading, then throwing it away and writing a defeat speech. We later caught up and I had to scramble to look for the speech I had thrown away,” he recalled. In the end, PAP won only by a slim margin of 52.4%.
By the next GE in 1997, the ruling PAP government had dismantled Eunos GRC and Chong was fielded in the newly created Pasir Ris GRC.
In 2011, Chong was sent to the newly created Joo Chiat SMC and won with 51 per cent against WP’s Mr Yee Jenn Jong by a mere margin of 388 votes separating them. And again, the ruling PAP government dismantled Joo Chiat SMC and merged it into Marine Parade GRC in the next GE. Chong was then sent to Punggol East in 2015 GE, where he pulled off another of his “knife-edge wins”. He beat WP’s Lee Li Lian with 51.8 per cent by just 1,159 votes.
Chong attributed his string of successes to convincing voters to trust that he will do his best for them. He said, “So as long as they think that you are genuine and you would fight for their interests, they will give you a chance.”
Indeed, Chong’s mix of street-smart savvy and affable charm has been able to consistently persuade voters of his “sincerity”. It is quite an impressive feat of him to convince the electorate, considering that his party would usually drop him into a new constituency at the last minute, giving him very short time to prepare the ground of the new constituency.
Controversial win in 2015 GE
Chong may have won in the 2015 GE, which was his last GE but it proved to be most controversial for him.
On 8 Sep 2015 just 3 days before 2015 GE, Chong distributed flyers alleging WP has somehow “lost” $22.5 million of town council funds. “The indisputable fact is that when Punggol East was transferred to the Workers’ Party, $22.5 million was transferred to the new town council. That sum is now unaccounted for…,” he wrote on the flyers (‘PAP Sec-Gen Lee pays tribute to Charles Chong: We sent him in to “fight hard and fight smart”‘).
Three years later on 15 Feb 2018, Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) finally said that it has resolved all its outstanding audit issues with auditors KPMG. In the report, KPMG confirmed it is satisfied that AHTC is compliant with the Town Council Act and that all audit points and control-related matters have been resolved.
Writing on his Facebook page on the same day the auditor’s report was released, then WP MP Png Eng Huat took the opportunity to dispel the accusation put forth by Chong on 8 Sep 2015, which no doubt, must have swung certain number of votes against WP (vote difference in Punggol East SMC was only 1,159 votes).
Mr Png explained that by the time WP got wind of the flyers distributed by Chong, it was already Cooling-Off Day. After the election, which Chong won by a slim margin, Mr Png met him to discuss the handover matters. “I asked him about the alleged missing $22.5 million. I told him we would want to return every single cent to PE residents if he could point out what this money was all about,” Mr Png recalled.
“In every audited financial statement since 2013, there was $22.8 million to $26.3 million attributed to PE sitting in our accounts. He brushed off my question and said he had already explained. I did not recall there was an explanation given anyway.”
Mr Png then waited until PRPTC under PAP, filed its annual report in 2016 and noted that there was $24.7 million attributed to PE sitting in its book too. And finally, the KPMG report also exonerated WP with regard to the imaginary “missing” $22.5 million as alleged by Chong.
“I waited further for KPMG to publish its final report (on 15 Feb 2018) to complete the final piece of the puzzle. The final report speaks for itself,” Mr Png added.
“We will never solve the mystery of unaccounted $22.5 million now as none of the audited statements from the two town councils and special reports by KPMG and PwC (hired by PRPTC to also look into the accounts of PE after GE2015) could shed any light on the allegation,” he countered Chong’s 2015 allegation. “The end of the KPMG audit also marks the end of my attempt to find some answers into this matter.”
In any case, the damage had already been done. Chong helped PAP win back Punggol East in 2015 GE.
Punggol East was then dismantled and subsumed into Sengkang GRC in the recent 2020 GE. In a biggest upset in this year’s GE, PAP lost the entire Sengkang GRC to WP. On why the PAP lost the GRC, Chong declined comment, saying that the team led by Ng Chee Meng had done a detailed post-mortem analysis.
Perhaps Ng should have adopted Chong’s strategy of distributing flyers alleging “something is missing” from WP’s town council.
Chong undergoes liver transplant
Chong finally retired from politics this year.
He had a liver transplant in 2016 following a diagnosis of an inflammatory condition called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. It is actually a fatty liver disease, characterized by fat accumulation in liver.
Chong said he now looks forward to being “an ordinary senior citizen” but will consider other areas where he can make a contribution after taking a break.
When the media asked him with regard to how much room there is for dissent and debate within the PAP, especially for backbenchers like him facing powerful ministers, he replied there is enough room. In fact, that is how influence can be brought to bear, behind closed doors, he said.
“You know, I don’t think they appreciated public sort of rebukes. If you try and change from outside by attacking different policies, I notice that they always circle the wagons and then block you. But if you lobby from within (the party), much change can take place more effectively.”
In other words, Chong confirmed what many netizens have been saying about the ruling government – that it doesn’t listen from outside the party.