It’s almost unimaginable that there will be no by-election in Punggol East (above) until the term of the present parliament ends. It’s too many years away. Should Lee Hsien Loong delay it that long, he will only cement his reputation as the Great Ditherer.
Naturally he will want to choose a time that is most favourable to the People’s Action Party (PAP). He has already hoisted his reasons for not calling a by-election immediately, saying that there are many pressing national issues to deal with. I’m not sure how many people are as unconvinced as I am with such an excuse. It’s a by-election, for goodness’ sakes. If we can run a nation-wide presidential election on a fixed schedule, what’s the big deal about a single constituency poll?
Of course, “pressing national issues” makes for better news copy than “fixing the mess at the local shopping centre”, but the latter is probably nearer the mark. Rivervale Plaza, the local shopping centre, was undergoing renovation but the contractor reportedly went bankrupt. Work has stopped for months and residents and shop-owners are annoyed at the mess (below).
None other than Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean has now taken an interest in tiling, plastering and plumbing works, in the hope of fixing up the local eyesore as quickly as possible.
However, I think the PAP’s biggest problem holding back a quick by-election is recruitment. They must be struggling to find a suitable candidate. If Ong Ye Kung, the unsuccessful candidate in Aljunied for the general election of 2011 had not resigned from NTUC recently, leaving politics, he might have been the favoured candidate. The PAP had signalled in 2011 that he was intended to be part of the next generation leadership. After failing to be elected in Aljunied, getting him into parliament via Punggol East would have been a possible option.
Ong didn’t give any reason why he wanted to leave politics; he may have calculated that waiting till 2016 for another shot at political office was too long. He may have judged it too dispiriting to be known as the failed candidate for five more years. Might the PAP be able to persuade him to change his mind and come back? Or would that look even more desperate?
Maybe Desmond Choo, PAP’s unsuccessful candidate in Hougang could be moved over. But he has not had any time to work the ground. Moreover, he too is tagged with the “failure” sticker, having been twice defeated by the Workers’ Party in Hougang.
Normally, having failed at the polls shouldn’t be such an impediment. Very few opposition party candidates, for example, get into parliament at first try. However, expectations skew perceptions. PAP candidates, backed as they are by the party’s huge machinery, are expected to steamroll over their opponents, while opposition party candidates are almost always Davids fighting Goliaths. So, for a PAP candidate to fail is a very big defeat. Ong Ye Kung must have felt it acutely.
Whoever the PAP is approaching now (or soon) to be their candidate for Punggol East will weigh the odds very carefully. Michael Palmer, the previous PAP member of parliament who resigned suddenly after his extra-marital affair was exposed, won only 54.5 percent of the vote in the 2011 general election. If just one in ten of those voters defect to the opposition (and if the opposition do not put up more than one candidate), the PAP will lose the seat.
The prospective candidate will ask himself or herself: All that loss of privacy, becoming the target of brickbats and maybe vitriol — and should it be a victory, all the forthcoming years of weekly meet-the-people sessions, cutting ribbons and party discipline — is it worth it?
Much harder to calculate, but an increasingly major consideration, will be whether one even wants to be associated with the PAP brand. Like a sandcastle, regimes decay when the flanks and edges erode and crumble away. We are beginning to witness this phenomenon. Ex-civil servants, such as Donald Low and Yeoh Lam Keong, have become highly critical of the government’s policies. Even current civil servants like Paul Ananth Tambyah. If this is a general feeling among the elite whom the PAP might otherwise have tapped to be their flag bearers, it must be getting hard for the party to find talent.
Particularly significant is that erstwhile enforcers for the regime may have glimpsed the post-regime future, and are positioning themselves as victims of the system, so as to gain a modicum of safety when the tide comes in and the sandcastle is washed away. Yes, I am referring to former Straits Times editor Cheong Yip Seng.
What is it that these insiders know that we should take heed of? Whatever it is, it doesn’t provide much ground for confidence.
So, would you want to pin your colours to the mast of a 50/50 sinking ship, and agree to be the PAP’s candidate in Punggol East?