Yet, despite everything that seems to be going for him, Singapore’s Prime Minister does have some serious problems to worry about. These can be summed up with the phrase: “He and his party have forgotten what it’s like to be challenged.” This was particularly evident in his party’s defeat in last week’s Hougang by-election. The ruling PAP somehow turned every advantage they had in terms of financial resources, mainstream media support and high profile personalities, into a major handicap.
Let’s start with the obvious. The PAP had the right idea of following the old adage that “allll politics is local.” It insisted that the by-election would be about ‘local’ rather than national issues and the party presented a likeable candidate in the form of Desmond Choo, whom many described as an “Aunty Killer”. You could call him the type of guy any mother would wish her daughter would bring home.
To his credit, Mr Choo tried to play the game fairly. He stuck to talking about his devotion to the residents who had rejected him in the last election. He refused to get personal and avoided saying anything about the previous MP, Mr Yaw Shin Leong, who was sacked by his party for failing to come clean over the alleged marital affairs.Unfortunately for Mr Choo, his party decided to “help” him. Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Teo Chee Hean, who is also the PAP’s 1st Assistant Secretary General, became the chief strategist of Choo’s campaign and before long the campaign turned personal. Teo could not resist raising questions about the honesty of the Workers’ Party (WP) candidate, Png Eng Huat. Many felt this was an issue not worth talking about. Towards the end of the campaign, Teo even went as far as to challenge the leader of the WP – Low Thia Khiang - to “take legal action” if Low felt he’d been accused wrongfully.
The PAP strategy was clear – show the residents of Hougang that Mr Choo had the ear of the powers-that-be. Why else would such a senior member of the government campaign for him? Unfortunately, the PAP failed to realize that the moment the DPM got involved, it would be playing into the hands of the WP, which had billed the by-election as being about national issues instead. Whatever Mr Choo might have said ended up being overshadowed by theTeo. This impression was most telling when Choo had to give his concessionary interview on TV. Teo was there by his side, watching over Choo and in the process giving the publicthe impression that Mr Choo was only a mouth piece and that Teo was the one pulling the strings. Secondly there was the issue of where the election was fought. Hougang is the one place in Singapore where the PAP was the proverbial ‘underdog.’ This seat was held by Low for 19 years. Low is a local hero in the area for a good reason – he’s looked after the residents despite every effort by the ruling party to ensure he fails (think of the consistent offers of lavish upgrading in return for unseating Low and the persistent placing of Hougang at the bottom of the list for upgrading after elections).
Unfortunately, Teo failed to recognize the reasons for Low’s popularity and committed two crucial errors. Firstly, he suggested that the residents of Hougang could vote for Choo as their official MP and keep Low as their unofficial MP. The second, more crucial error was to attack the opposition candidate and suggest that as the leader of the opposition, Low wasn’t being particularly honest with the residents by sending them an allegedly second rate candidate.
Both strategies backfired. As far as most residents were concerned, the attacks on Low were attacks on them. Teo’s challenge to Low to sue him was not seen as an invitation to Low to defend his reputation from slander but a bully-boy tactic.
If one looks at the by-election, it seems that the PAP remains unaware of how times have changed. Previous tactics of promising money and threats or challenges to sue might have worked in the past. Unfortunately, the public no longer accepts these sort of things.
More importantly, the by-election was about good old flesh pressing. Low had built his base in the area by being visibly there for his residents. This goodwill was passed onto Yaw Shin Leong and later to Png. While Choo did press the proverbial flesh, he ended up being overshadowed by his party seniors. Whatever he did became irrelevant because everybody got caught up by what his seniors were doing instead.
Choo would still have been the underdog had his party not overshadowed him. However, there is room to argue that his campaign might have been more effective had his party known when to let him do what he needed to do.
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