At 62.1% of valid votes cast, Png Eng Huat (Workers’ Party) convincingly defeated Desmond Choo of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in the by-election 26 May 2012. Png’s vote-share was only a shade lower than the 64.8% that Yaw Shin Leong won in the general election of 2011 and hardly different from Low Thia Khiang’s 62.7% in the 2006 general election.
I’ll admit this: Png’s victory was better than I expected.
Yaw Shin Leong had benefitted hugely in May 2011 when party leader Low Thia Khiang anointed him as his heir for the single-member constituency of Hougang. Low had been the member of parliament for Hougang for twenty years since 1991, but in 2011 he decided he would lead the Workers’ Party team in neighbouring Aljunied group representation constituency (they won).
Hougang voters had evidently grown to like Low a lot, and their high regard for him was a huge advantage for Yaw last year.
However, in February this year, allegations of an extra-marital affair by Yaw and his clumsy, non-communicative way of handling the rumours led to his sacking from the party. The big question therefore was whether Hougang voters would become a lot more sceptical about the transferability of their esteem for Low to anyone else after the Yaw incident.
Now we know: Hougang voters still trust Low and the Workers’ Party and although Png is relatively new to them, they’re extending that trust to him too.
The election campaign was dominated by efforts at character assassination, led by Teo Chee Hean (PAP), the deputy prime minister. The media took the cue and played up Teo’s shrill allegations. Going by the way Desmond Choo kept his distance from these attacks, I reckon the candidate himself wanted no part of it, preferring to be a low-key nice guy to Hougang residents. Facebook chatter had it that Choo was dismayed by the strategy adopted by his own party’s bigwigs. I don’t know if that is true, but if it was, it must have been highly frustrating for him, because the mainstream media has been so pavlovian-trained to give big headlines to anything uttered by PAP leaders that invariably the daily headlines reflected what Teo wanted, rather than what Choo thought was wise.
In that sense, it was a reprise of the debacle in Aljunied in 2011. That was when George Yeo, one of the PAP candidates there, had to plead with other PAP leaders to tone down their heavy-fisted attacks. But to no avail. Lee Kuan Yew’s commandment to Singaporeans to vote PAP or else repent for five years was given full play by the mainstream media, but it so cheesed off voters, he could well have been single-handedly responsible for an extra 5 percentage points going to the opposition.
In the end, Teo’s character assassination strategy was either ignored by Hougang voters or perhaps served to fortify their determination to vote for Png Eng Huat.
The Straits Times asked me if the Poh Lee Guan affair had any effect. Firstly, I knew nothing about that because I was in Cambodia when it happened and was unable to read the news online. But I am told that this Workers’ Party old-timer had collected a set of nomination forms for himself without informing party headquarters. Apparently much hay was made of it (by the mainstream media and the PAP?) alleging disunity and chaos within the Workers’ Party.
It should be obvious now that Hougang voters refused to be distracted by it.
As I told the Straits Times: The result shows that the Singaporean voter is a mature one; he knows very well what he wants. He is not a little child that is easily distracted by side issues, petty allegations and empty noise.
The voter is clearly looking for a change in style and substantive changes in policy. This rang loud and clear in last year’s general election. However, the fact that the PAP engaged in exactly the same discredited tactics in this by-election probably told voters that the party has not absorbed the lesson. If it cannot even change style, what hope of changing policies? It doesn’t augur well.
Yawning Bread extends his heartiest congratulations to Png Eng Huat and the Workers’ Party.