Hougang has taught us nothing
I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about the significance of the Hougang result. He pointed out that the result was a 3% swing away from the WP and said that it was a victory for the PAP.
I said that it was only to be expected that the WP’s share of the vote would fall because of the allegations that Yaw Shin Leong were having a sex scandal. It was a surprise that it didn’t fall even further.
He said that you had to take into consideration that there were other problems with the government that surfaced during the last 1 year: the Ferrari crash, the SMRT incidents, Bedok Reservoir suicides and the PRC drivers mowing people down with their vehicles. In that light, the PAP is not doing badly.
I said that you had to take into consideration all the new problems that the WP were having: the allegations of unfairness over the appointment of Indian candidates as cadres. Another WP member thinking that he should have stood for elections. The hiccupping performance of WP in parliament. Png making the mistake of saying that he didn’t want the NCMP seat.
He said that you had to take into consideration that the PAP made some other errors, like chasing Png too hard on the NCMP issue when it was a non-issue. There were rumours that Desmond Choo was not happy about Teo Chee Hean’s strategy of “attacking WP’s credibility”. Moreover, you had to take into consideration the by-election effect. The Hougang voters could freely vote an opposition member into parliament considering that you wouldn’t overthrow the PAP. Everybody saw what happened during GE 2011 and the victory was a foregone conclusion. This would encourage more people to vote against the PAP because they knew that their vote would count.
I said that you had to factor in how the behavior of the opposition showed that “opposition unity” was a big farce: the NSP and the SDP did not help to campaign against the PAP. The comments that Sylvia Lim made about running in Tampines showed that the opposition had gone back to its old ways of bickering with each other.
He said that the WP central committee’s decision to fire YSL should have given WP an advantage, and they were running on the moral high ground that they had earned the right to call themselves accountable solely on the basis of one brave act.
I said that the WP should have been glad that the people did not feel pissed off at having to come out and vote for somebody again, which was the price they had to pay for showing faith in a successor to Low Thia Khiang.
After running through all the arguments, I was forced to come to this conclusion: the by-elections taught us absolutely nothing, other than Png Eng Huat was the new MP for Hougang. Anything else we learnt, we learnt from the campaign. We couldn’t agree on what the number should have been after having adjusted for all the above factors. We couldn’t figure out whether the people had heard all the news. We couldn’t feel what the people were thinking. If the figure was a sharp gain for the PAP, or a sharp gain for WP, we could at least concluded something. As it is, we learnt nothing from the election results. The people have spoken, but they weren’t speaking clearly.
The following is something that we can all think about, but otherwise there are no clear answers.
The WP was able to appeal to the “spirit” of the people of Hougang. They had made so many sacrifices. Yes, there was a sense of pride that Hougang was like the village of the Gauls who was the only village that hadn’t fallen to the Roman empire in the Asterix comics. The WP had pushed the right buttons. It was the heartland of the Teochews, the stubborn, hardworking and spirited Teochews. (Disclosure: I am a Teochew).
What can the PAP do to win back Hougang in the future, as they have promised to do? Well my opinion is that it’s not up to the PAP. So long as there is a capable enough town council and a capable enough MP, the PAP will find it hard to win it back. Seriously, what can you do to win back a seat that has fallen to the opposition? You could deprive the town of upgrading, but that has made Hougang and Potong Pasir more stubborn. You could then change tack and say “we will make our PAP candidate available to you as a back-up MP”. Then the residents would be like, “well why don’t we vote the opposition every time from now on so that we get 2 MPs for the price of one?”
The guy I was arguing with said that the PAP was the incumbent. I said, how can the incumbent be the PAP when they haven’t held Hougang for 21 years? He said that the incumbent is the national government. But this is the by-election, isn’t it? Well a long time ago, it would have been straightforward. The people merely voted for the MP, and the Singapore government would take care of municipal issues. Then they had to introduce the town council. At first, it seemed like a good idea, because it raised the barrier to entry for the opposition party. But later on if an opposition party member were to win the seat, and run the town council well, it would be to the party’s eternal credit. Chiam See Tong would be a hero for the bravery that he showed in conducting his meet the people sessions in the void deck. The opposition would be lauded for the inventiveness they show in spite of a lack of resources. The PAP failed to understand that that kind of goodwill is priceless.
The big drama of GE 2011 was undoubtedly Aljunied. It was a seismic shock of maybe 8 on a Richter scale. (You need to vote out a PM to make it a 10.) A team that had at least 2 very likeable characters in Zainal Abidin and George Yeo. They also had Singapore's first female minister, Lim Hwee Hwa. None of that mattered: apparently having Low Thia Khiang in parliament was more important. Before GE 2011, GRC meant that it was a "sure thing" for the PAP people to get elected if they stood in a GRC. Now, it was very uncertain, and we know that a combination of a Goh Chok Tong and a Tin Pei Ling is only going to scrape through. I just found out that Bedok Reservoir is in Aljunied. I wonder why foreign workers would go there to drown themselves. Could it be that the message is "fuck Aljunied"?