Ruling party fails
    by-election test

  Wall St Journal
May 26, 2012
By Chun Han Wong

SINGAPORE’S ruling party lost its bid to reclaim a longtime opposition bastion in a Saturday, May 26, by-election that was widely billed as a referendum on the government’s efforts to ease swelling socioeconomic tensions in the city-state.

The People’s Action Party government still dominates Parliament despite the setback, retaining its 81 seats in an 87-member legislature, while the Workers’ Party — winners of Saturday’s vote in the Hougang ward — restored their ranks to six lawmakers. But the result, a widely expected one, echoes strident public calls for more government remedies to deal with high living costs, infrastructural failures and a widening gap between rich and poor—concerns that dragged the PAP to its worst general election showing last year.

Workers’ Party candidate Png Eng Huat, a 50-year-old businessman, received 62.09% of valid ballots cast, an election official said late Saturday. The PAP’s Desmond Choo — a 34-year-old trade union executive and Mr. Png’s sole rival in the vote — received 37.91%. Nearly 94% of Hougang’s 23,368 eligible voters showed at the polls.

Mr Choo’s loss was his second in Hougang, even as his vote share improved by 2.7 percentage points from last May when he lost to Yaw Shin Leong, then of the Workers’ Party, by a near 30% margin. His defeat also marked the PAP’s sixth straight setback in Hougang, which the Workers’ Party has controlled since 1991.

The by-election, Singapore’s first since 1992, came as an unexpected test for the PAP, triggered after the Workers’ Party sacked Mr Yaw in February for failing to respond to allegations of marital infidelity.

“This is a very positive and very good result under the circumstances,” Workers’ Party Secretary General Low Thia Khiang said in a news conference late Saturday. “I thank the voters of Hougang for keeping faith with the party despite setbacks and distractions” from the PAP’s attempts to discredit Mr. Png during the campaign, Mr Low said.

Analysts credit the slight vote swing toward the PAP to Mr Yaw’s disgraced exit, tensions within the Workers’ Party, as well as the greater opposition presence in Parliament since the last general election. This, analysts say, may have convinced some voters out of the urgency of having more opposition voices in Parliament, and may have persuaded some to prioritize local issues like upgrading of government flats.

“I had expected a Workers’ Party win [but] with a reduced vote share [and] a bigger swing to the PAP,” said Siew Kum Hong, a former independent lawmaker and a political analyst in the city-state. “[There was] disappointment with the Workers’ Party due to…their internal issues, and their generally underwhelming performance in Parliament.”

Over a nine-day campaign, Mr Choo tried to cast the poll as a local contest based on municipal issues, although senior PAP leaders — including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong — too made regular campaign stops. But the Workers’ Party framed the vote as a fresh chance for citizens to rebuke the government for its policy failures.

“A vote for the PAP will be a sad day for the future of our children because there will be one voice less in Parliament to protect their interests,” Mr Png said in a speech on Thursday. “A vote for the Workers’ Party will send a clear signal to the PAP that they are hearing but they are still not listening to the people.”

Already, voters have twice chastened Singapore’s ruling establishment in bruising electoral battles last year. The PAP was first stunned at the general election last May, when its vote share fell 6.5 percentage points to 60.1% — the lowest since Singapore became a nation in 1965. An unexpectedly heated presidential election followed in August, in which the government’s favored candidate won by just 0.35-percentage point over the closest of three rivals.

Those results prompted government leaders to pledge reforms and policy tweaks to alleviate citizens’ woes, including steps to cool a buoyant housing market, boost low-end incomes, and slow the inflow of unpopular foreign workers.

“The PAP government has done its best to address important national issues like housing and transportation, immigration and population, economic upgrading and workers’ incomes,” Prime Minister Lee said in a statement after the result.

“We have made progress, but there is much more to be done. Now that the Hougang by-election is over, we should refocus on these longer term issues,” Mr Lee said.

Some analysts, however, maintain that the Hougang constituency remains an anomaly, as a rare opposition stronghold where the ruling PAP remains an underdog — making it difficult for the election to been seen as a litmus test for national sentiment toward government policies.

“Hougang is an exception, and for the foreseeable future is quite simply invulnerable,” said Cherian George, a professor at Nanyang Technological University. “Not even the PAP ever claimed that the positive effects of its reforms would be felt so soon on the ground, and entered the campaign moderating expectations…it has only been one year.”

Saturday’s result drew a boisterous crowd — numbering in the high hundreds — onto Hougang streets, where they greeted and cheered Workers’ Party leaders into the wee hours of Sunday morning.

“It’s important that the Workers’ Party defended Hougang,” said Tan Hock Huat, a 62-year-old retiree who has lived in the district for over 10 years. “We need an alternative party in Parliament, to place a check on the PAP and challenge their policies.”

–Shibani Mahtani contributed to this article.