From ‘PAP leaders expected contest to be difficult’ 27 Jan 2013, article by Rachel Chang, Sunday Times
In the wake of its defeat in Punggol East, People’s Action Party leaders yesterday said it was always going to be a difficult contest for the ruling party because of the “by-election effect”. The Government’s candidate always has a tougher fight in a by-election because voters see the contest as one to choose an MP, not a government, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a statement last night.
Opposition parties, he added, encourage this line of thinking. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the loss was precipitated by the by-election effect, the circumstances that triggered the by-election – former Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer’s resignation after admitting to an extramarital affair – and a host of unresolved local issues. As an example, he pointed to the upgrading works at Rivervale Plaza, which stalled due to the contractor going bust, and apologised that the situation has been an “irritant” to residents.
Speaking at the PAP’s Punggol East branch among a shocked and downcast activist corps, Mr Teo said “we always knew it was going to be difficult because this is a by-election”…”There were circumstances already as we came into this by-election. And of course there were local issues as well. So we knew it was going to be a difficult fight.”
The ‘by-election effect’ can be summed up as: ‘Voting 1 more Opposition member into Parliament won’t hurt the ruling party, so why not?’. The PAP has a dismal record with snap polls ever since the shocking ‘watershed’ 1981 Anson by-election which brought JBJ into Parliament, and it seems convenient to attribute the loss to voters simply wanting greater representation of an alternative voice. I doubt that’s all there is to it. Perhaps the PAP should reflect deeper, and not just on the ‘local issues’ surrounding Punggol. Maybe Punggol residents voted to send a stern signal that something is not right with the ruling party, that sending a fresh-faced Lee Li Lian into Parliament would knock some sense into them, or as WP chief Low Thia Khiang would bellow: ‘Slap the driver’ when he’s sleeping. Except that the driver, now awake, has started to blame the map rather than his own sense of direction. This isn’t just about Rivervale Plaza or straying politicians, but about the people seizing the rare opportunity to give the PAP demerit points for overall substandard performance on a national scale, without really seeking to overthrow it. All the National Conversations in the world won’t jolt PAP into action as much as a single seat in Parliament usurped by a member of Opposition.
It’s not just a case of swinging percentages. It appears the media also swung wildly in its bid to predict the winner of this election. Basing their analysis on an informal (illegal?) poll of Punggol residents, ST called this as an ‘uphill battle’ for the Opposition. In a piece by Robin Chan, political correspondent ( ‘Vote swing among highest in history’, 27 Jan 2013, Sunday Times), ‘the fall of Punggol East is therefore perhaps NO SURPRISE’. Ah, the magic of hindsight. Some may argue that PAP simply lost this game of wits, that they chose the WRONG candidate to run for election. Newbie in the field aside, the Son of Punggol was initially reluctant to run as candidate, having been hand-picked and summoned to PM Lee’s office for a ‘tea session’. Li Lian, on the other hand, is a veteran in comparison. In the pivotal 1981 by-election, PAP similarly attempted to pit a new face (i.e a nobody) in the form of Pang Kim Hin against JBJ . It was like Paris Hilton’s chihuahua squaring off against a pitbull on steroids. This was what Lee Kuan Yew had to say about the shock result in his memoirs, having left the campaign under the charge of then Minister for Trade and Industry Goh Chok Tong.
“I was disturbed, not by the defeat, but because I had no signal from Goh that we might lose..”
Like any wounded predator in battle, the first thoughts of any dominant party unfamiliar with defeat are always about getting back on their feet to ‘even the odds’. The PAP seems to be spending more time sharpening their claws than licking their wounds.
In a scathing ST review which was unusual at the time, Pang was criticised for being a political lightweight, lacking ‘physical stature’ and coming from a ‘wealthy background’. Even his occupation as an officer in the army was picked on as a reason for failure. By pitching a ‘small boy’ against JBJ, some residents felt that the PAP wasn’t taking the constituency seriously. There were even whispers of nepotism as Pang was also the nephew of ex Minister Lim Kin San. The PAP persists in its rigid faith and protection of their losing candidates; Lee Kuan Yew stood by Pang after defeat, and his son as PM continues the tradition with fresh incumbent Dr Koh, even if everyone knows by now from the Palmer incident that the selection process and its machinery is not all that reliable as it’s hyped to be. No one is going to admit that they chose the wrong man for the job, especially the Prime Minister; that would be an admission of lack of ‘foresight’, which is almost as heinous for a politician as confessing to an affair.
So, what did Punggol residents make of a colorectal surgeon who was ‘arrowed’ for the job, or the PAP for treating the by-election as a sparring contest and rite of passage for new blood, knowing full well their track record of losses in the past? Did the PAP put the greenhorn Dr Koh on the spot because they could ‘afford’ to lose Punggol East, and they were just afraid of slotting a more experienced and valuable candidate against WP? How bad, really, did the PAP want Punggol East? Was Koh mere ‘sacrificial lamb’, part of the PAP masterplan, that the loss would prepare the Pawn of Punggol for an easier fight when he returns with a vengeance as part of a team of PAP old dogs in a future GRC?
Without knowing what’s really up PAP’s sleeve, perhaps this celebration of a ‘political awakening’ and predictions of WP shares going up is somewhat premature. If they were intent on making Dr Koh a PAP man, this by-election would benefit him win or lose. Teo Chee Hean himself was inducted via a GRC by-election under the helm of none other than Goh Chok Tong. By taking a strictly strategic view of such polls without reflecting and asking the more important questions (like whether PAP-owned companies should sell software to town councils) the real losers in the end are still us Singaporeans, no matter how many blue umbrellas we flood our stadiums with.