Upon entering the headquarters itself, the first thing you will notice is the wall of blue, which is the backdrop the party uses for press briefings.
The media’s cameras were all set up and, as it were, ready to roll. Soundmen were making final tests of the audio reception of their equipment, and cameramen making final checks to ensure their cameras were in the right place.
Reporters from the traditional media - Straits Times, Today, Yahoo Singapore, Lianhe Zaobao, Razor TV, and others – were all decked out with notepads and recorders at the ready. So were several people from the online media, including of course, publichouse.sg - Biddy Low and yours truly.
Microphones were all laid out on the press conference table where the panel of WP speakers would be sitting. However, besides the 5 chairs there, there was no indication of who would be present to introduce the candidate. Thus no one knew who the WP candidate would be either.
At 3:59pm, the secretary of the WP Youth Wing, Mr Bernard Chen, strutted out – clutching to his chest the name plates of the WP panel, including that of the candidate. Mr Chen then proceeded to place each plate according to the seat assigned to each member of the panel.
Everyone looked on in anticipation as Mr Chen slowly revealed who the panel members were. First, Mr Pritam Singh, and then Ms Sylvia Lim. And the middle seat – Mr Png Eng Huat. Some reporters could immediately be seen typing into their smart phones, probably relaying the news back to the newsroom. Mr Low Thia Khiang’s name plate was placed next on the table, followed by Mr Gerald Giam’s.
At 4pm sharp, the 5-member WP panel emerged from the ante-room behind the main conference room. WP is known for being right on the dot when it comes to its press conferences. Cameras started flashing as Mr Png, flanked by Mr Low and Ms Lim, strode out and took his seat at the table.
Mr Low, who was the first to speak, said in jest, referring to Mr Png's name plate on the table, “Yes, now we know. Shall we just leave now?”
Mr Low then got serious in his introductory speech, mentioning the WP’s campaign slogan in last year’s General Election, and explained why the party had dismissed Mr Yaw Shin Leong, triggering this by-election in the single-member constituency. Mr Low then introduced Mr Png as the WP candidate this time round, finally putting all speculation to rest.
When the Q&A session started, questions flew fast and furious as reporters jostled to shoot queries at mainly Mr Png and Mr Low.
What does Mr Low think of what the PM said? What does he think of what DPM Tharman said earlier in the day? What does Mr Low think of Mr Png’s chances of victory? What issues are Mr Png concerned about? What does Mr Low think of the PAP candidate’s slogan? Why should voters vote for Mr Png? Et cetera.
Here’s a little tip when asking questions of Mr Low – never ask him speculative questions. Do not ask him questions pertaining to the results of the by-election. For example: “Mr Low, what do you think of Mr Png’s chances of victory?” Or: “Mr Low, do you think the results of this by-election, whether WP wins or lose, is indicative of whether people support the WP’s handling of the Yaw Shin Leong incident?” A fair question, no?
On both counts, Mr Low’s answers will be dismissive: “I do not think we should speculate on the outcome of the election.” You would be left hoping for more but that is just about all he would give you. Why give answers to speculative or hypothetical questions, right? You could get yourself into unnecessary knots. All politicians should learn this from Mr Low, a response which he also used in the general elections last year to similar questions from the media.
Perhaps the sharpest question put to Mr Low on Thursday afternoon was from the Straits Times’ Ms Tessa Wong. She asked Mr Low how Hougang voters could be sure that the party has chosen the right person for the job this time, after what had happened with Mr Yaw. Why should voters trust that the WP’s selection process was a stringent one?
Mr Low, the ever consummate politician, was unfazed. He listened intently, his demeanour a familiar one to those who know him – a serious face with slightly squinted eyes. He gave his answer, which didn’t satisfy Ms Wong who pressed him on the point. It is a fair point to press too. After all, the party is asking voters to support its candidate, trumpeting him as a man of integrity and capability – which Mr Png undoubtedly is, of course. Still the question remains: how can voters be sure?
Mr Low then said he doesn’t think any organisation or institution has a perfect method of assessing its members. "We've always had strict guidelines,” he said. “We always took a period of time to understand a candidate before sending him forth to elections, but no method is foolproof."
After some 45 minutes, the press conference drew to a close. Mr Low thanked everyone and the panel stood up to leave. Not just yet. At least not for Mr Png who was soon swarmed by reporters. And once more, flashlights went off, microphones thrust towards him. Mr Png could go nowhere and do nothing except to face the small army of reporters hungry for more. Mr Png patiently answered their queries. It lasted a further 15 to 20 minutes.
Biddy and I decided that it is hopeless to try and fight the crowd for Mr Png's attention. So, we backed away. In any case, everyone will be reporting the same thing. Better to find something different.
Finally, the thirst for every crumb of news was quenched. The reporters were appeased and Mr Png was allowed to leave the room.
Mr Singh and Mr Giam, the deputy and the head, respectively, of the WP media team, mingled with the reporters. Mr Giam, in particular, was surrounded by members of the media who were eager to know what the WP had planned in the coming days, and wanted to ensure that Mr Giam would send them whatever information the party was going to be issuing the next two weeks or so. Namecards were exchanged and assurances given.
I spotted Mr Singh chatting with someone. I went up to him and he agreed to receive my queries. "Having been an MP for a year now, what advice would you give Mr Png if he wins?"
Mr Singh laughed and said he would not presume to be giving advice to Mr Png. Instead, he said, "Png can call upon the entire Workers' Party machinery to help him and we will be there for him."
What do you think is Mr Png's strengths?
"He's a people person, very down-to-earth," the MP for ALjunied GRC said. "He gravitates in that sort of direction, a position of service, and try and help whoever he can. I think that would probably be the best way to describe Png."
The room slowly becomes empty, as reporters take their leave to write and file their reports.
Here are a few other nuggets of observations which might be of interest:
1. Throughout the entire press conference, only Mr Low and Mr Png spoke. All of the questions were directed at either of the two men. The other three members – Ms Lim, Mr Singh and Mr Giam – did not speak at all.
2. Not all WP MPs were at the press conference. Mr Chen Show Mao and Mr Yee Jenn Jong were absent.
3. Besides the 4 WP MPs on the panel, there were no other WP candidates from the last GE present, as far as I am aware.
4. Mr Low spoke a few words in Teochew during the press conference.
5. Mr Png spoke mainly in English, with a smattering of Chinese and a few words in Teochew.
While sipping coffee and chatting with two WP supporters at the coffeeshop after the afternoon’s event, a member of the public came up to us and asked if Mr Low, Ms Lim and Mr Chen Show Mao were around. It was about 6pm then. We told him the press conference had ended and that Mr Low and Ms Lim had already left. We also explained that the press conference was only for media and party members.
“Will Mr Low and Ms Lim come back here later?” he asked again. We told him we did not think so. He seemed disappointed. He finally thanked us and left.
In some ways, it was a fitting end to a day of anticipation. Mr Low will be returning to Hougang again. He will undoubtedly be in the limelight the next two weeks. Mr Low had led the charge for Aljunied GRC last year. Indeed, he held the fort for the WP in GE 2011, taking all bullets directed at the party by its opponents.
As the press conference on Thursday showed, Mr Low will again be the point man for the party. He will need to put on his shield once again and navigate the party through the 10 days of campaigning – something which he has done the last two general elections as secretary general.
And oh, that question about whether the party will see the results of this by-election as indicative of the support or disapproval of the way the party handled the Yaw Shin Leong controversy? That question was asked by this writer. Mr Low’s reply?
“Maybe you can ask me after the results of the by-election is known.” (Or words to that effect.)
Maybe I indeed will.