The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has had many of such successful intra-party handovers. For the opposition, however, Hougang is the first and only such story of a smooth constituency handover since independence. Anson, captured by WP in the 1981 by-election, was subsequently delineated into two GRCs. Both Bukit Gombak and Nee Soon Central lasted under opposition hands for only one Parliament term, while Potong Pasir returned to the PAP after 27 years knowing only one opposition personality.
In the case of Hougang, there was not one - but two handovers - in just over a year. Observers were surprised that despite the expulsion of Yaw, leading to a second round of voting at the electorate's expense, and the Poh Lee Guan controversy, the PAP hardly made a dent - at most a scratch - on WP's shield around Hougang. Contrast this with Potong Pasir, which was lost to the PAP the moment Chiam See Tong passed the torch to someone else - namely his wife, Mrs Lina Chiam.
The statistics magnify the reality. Yaw achieved more than 64% of the valid votes in 2011, beating Low's own score of 62.7% in the 2006 GE. With 62.1%, Png was so close to retaining Low's score that one could say the difference was negligible.
While critics charged that the WP’s latest score has "returned to the 2006 period", this analysis is simplistic given that 62.7% was Low's personal highest score to date. In the GEs of 1991, 1997 and 2001, Low's percentage had never crossed the 58% mark. Moreover, Png's result was in the light of much negative news hounding the WP during the hustings.
In Potong Pasir, the percentage of votes for the opposition did not rise, but fell by 6.2% from 2006 to 2011. So what accounted for the difference between the two constituencies, both hailed as bastions of opposition presence and Singapore democracy?
Before we answer the question, we need to bear in mind that voters decide on who (and which party) to vote for on different merits. Two voters who vote for the ruling party may not do so for the same reasons. One may admire the track record of the government, while another may be enticed by upgrading carrots. Ditto for two voters who vote for the opposition. One trusts the incumbent (in this case the WP), the other may do so out of a belief in competition and checks-and-balance in Parliament.
Firstly, the WP's branding appears to have come of a certain age. While it remains inferior to the PAP's brand name, the pattern of Hougang's electoral support for the WP mirrors those in PAP strongholds - the ruling party may make several missteps, but hardly lose many wards. This implies that such parties have built a stable support base - somewhere, at least.
Being in existence for a long time is no guarantee of a party's brand name. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) once rivalled the WP despite being a newer party, but this is no longer the case.
However, WP's brand name has been comparatively more familiar and recognisable back in the seventies, perhaps due to founder David Saul Marshall, the 1961 Anson victory and the fact that it did not boycott the 1968 GE. On top of that, it has grown in stature since the turn of the millennium with careful, calculated party building under Low.
The image of not only WP, but Low as well, has been steadfastly and consistently imprinted onto the tracks and roads of Hougang, figuratively speaking. It can be concluded that WP retained Hougang on both WP's and Low's brand names. In Aljunied GRC, where Low's brand name was less recognised,, WP mustered enough stealth to capture it by a lesser margin compared to Hougang.
As for Potong Pasir, three political parties had ruled over it since 1984 - first the SDP, followed by the Singapore People's Party (SPP) and the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) after Chiam's ouster, and back to SPP again.
Since Chiam had been returned to Potong Pasir in consecutive elections, it would make sense to conclude that it had to be only Chiam's brand name rather than any party's brand name, which had gained him these victories. The only exception was the SDP since the brand could capture it three seats in 1991. Notably, Chiam scored above 60% in the three GEs under the SDP ticket and below 60% in the three subsequent GEs under a different platform.
An observer may surmise that having good people join a party uplifts the brand name of the party until a certain time when the party brand uplifts whoever joins it. Naturally, when the party absorbs too many people of suspect credibility, its brand name may suffer, bringing it down the ranks again.
For a long time, the opposition was recognised as personalities rather than a team. As a result, WP's case is seen as a little exceptional. There is not one but a few recognisable faces. There is the lecturer who became the first woman chairman in 2003; the affable, charismatic legal genius from Beijing; the fiery, eloquent Sikh speaker; the pretty "suicide squad" lass; the blogger touted as "Singapore's Jeff Ooi"; and now the warm and friendly "Huat". Other lesser known personalities who do not lack academic credentials or are specialised professionals lend to the overall positive feel.
Since Low took over as chief, WP has had its fair share of party quitters, but upon closer inspection, such departures were much more common in WP's earlier days under Marshall and J. B. Jeyaretnam. They were also found in contemporary parties, such as the Reform Party (RP) which lost a faction sizable enough to give another party - namely the National Solidarity Party (NSP) - a new lease on life.
Chiam himself underwent many of these challenges. After resigning as secretary-general of the SDP, he was expelled as a member but was subsequently reinstated. Before the 1997 GE, however, he resigned from the SDP. Years after he formed the SDA, the NSP quit on the alliance. Later, his own party, the SPP, did the same. Most recently, there was an exodus of half the SPP leadership. Compared to these, WP's departures appears more like splinters than significant splits.
The second reason can be attributed to perceptions. In general, the overall handover process of Hougang was decorated by altruistic perceptions. Low handed the ward to Yaw, a man whom he had groomed for ten years. After the expulsion of Yaw, the WP selected Png, a team candidate in East Coast GRC in the 2011 GE and a veteran who had been involved in grassroots work since joining the WP in 2006. Neither men's foray added to the personal interest of Low or any member of the WP leadership.
For whatever reasons, Chiam's decision to field his wife in Potong Pasir did not garner the same desired results. Some observers feel that had it been Benjamin Pwee- a former scholar who was fielded in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC instead – Potong Pasir might have been retained. Mrs Chiam did not fare too badly though, which shows that not many were turned off by the decision, but an opportunity was lost to prevent the loss of Potong Pasir nonetheless.
Some may have been more sympathetic if the SPP lacked the credible numbers, but the presence of Pwee and several others proved that this was not the case. Hence, the decision to field Mr Chiam’s wife gave rise to perceptions of an inner family agenda, even if it may not be true.
The third and final factor is timing. Political watchers would be hard-pressed not to agree that Chiam's decision to hand over his ward to his successor could have been done earlier. As mentioned, when Low handed over the ward to a successor, it came after he had attained his best-ever result in Hougang, and had relatively many good years left in his political career. In contrast, Chiam’s handover came at a time when his margin of victory was thinning. It was risky as a few percentage points swing to the PAP and the ward would change hands - which was what happened in Potong Pasir.
No one, of course, will know for certain the reasons why each voter chooses to vote the way he does, or the reasons behind a result. Other factors could have influenced the final outcomes, such as demographics of the constituency, media coverage and so on. Nevertheless,, there are lessons here which opposition parties and even the ruling party can draw from for future reference.
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