Punggol East By-Election: The Campaign So Far

by singaporearmchaircritic


At PAP’s first rally in the Punggol East by-election, party leaders stressed that “the government has listened and learnt.” Education Minister Mr Heng Swee Kiat said, “Listening to you, we’ve learnt much. We share your concerns.” In a similar manner, Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of Law and Education, added that “We have not misread and we have not forgotten the message the electorate has given.”

To reinforce PAP’s message, a slew of measures to tackle Singaporeans’ concerns was splashed across the front pages of our local press over the past week. Singaporeans were told that 200,000 new homes will be built by 2016 and there will be two new MRT lines by 2030. In the more immediate future, the government will increase the number of trains and buses to ease the public transport bottleneck. A new round of property cooling measures was also launched.

While these announcements were no doubt timed to boost PAP’s winning chances in the Punggol East by-election, they would be welcomed by Singaporeans who are facing housing and transport woes amid the relentless rise in cost of living. Perhaps the government has finally heard the people’s voices?

Before we heave a collective sigh of relief, there is reason to be skeptical. On the day of PAP’s rally, another piece of news almost went unnoticed. Published in The Straits Times and on Yahoo Singapore, the report reads, “DBS Vickers expects an upcoming white paper on Singapore’s population to raise its population target to 7 million from 6.5 million, which will benefit construction, land transport, property and healthcare companies.”

Seven million is DBS Vickers’ projection based on the current population growth rate of 2.4% per year from 2009 to 2012. But reading it against the government’s promises of a greater housing supply and an expanding public transport network, one could not suppress this thought: are the new measures meant to prepare for a larger influx and population after all, instead of easing the current problems?

These national issues, on top of local issues to do with the existing amenities in Punggol East SMC, will be on the mind of voters as they ponder on which candidate may best represent their interests in parliament. All four candidates running for the Punngol East seat have pledged to build more amenities such as childcare centers, eldercare facilities etc. to meet the residents’ needs (see Infographics).

Among the alternative parties, Workers’ Party’s (WP) good track record in managing Hougang SMC and Aljunied GRC should assure voters that it is well-equipped to run Punggol East. In addressing voters’ concerns over their parties’ relative lack of resources, Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party (RP) and Desmond Lim of the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) have promised to donate a certain percentage of their annual MP allowance to fund local programs if they were elected.

While PAP is certainly way ahead of the alternative parties in terms of resources, the less than satisfactory state of amenities in its incumbent ward Punggol East is proof that having more resources does not necessarily mean better management.

Both WP’s Lee Li Lian and PAP’s Koh Poh Koon have positioned themselves as someone who can best serve the residents owing to their backgrounds. Lee Li Lian, 34-years-old, was touted as a “people person” by WP leaders. Her youth gives her an edge in Punggol East, where 50% of the residents are between the ages of 22 to 49.

Conversely, although Koh Poh Koon, a surgeon with his own practice, has stressed his humble beginnings, he came across less convincing than Lee Li Lian as a heartlander that can empathize with the concerns of an average Singaporean, in part due to the entrenched elitist image of the PAP.

SDA’s Desmond Lim and RP’s Kenneth Jeyaretnam may be hampered by the way their campaign has been run. The former, who has been working the ground in Punggol East since 2005, is the last among all four candidates to conduct a rally, albeit an online one. The slowness to do so gives the impression that SDA is less than savvy in harnessing the power and speed of the Internet to its advantage.

Notwithstanding the threats directed at Kenneth Jeyaretnam and his family, RP’s shilly-shallying in holding its first rally on Sunday evening might have disappointed its supporters and cast doubts over Jeyaretnam’s resolve in running for the election. The antagonistic tone of RP’s earlier facebook administration (before it was reorganized) might have also put some netizens off.

In last May’s Hougang by-election, the PAP attempted to pitch it as a “local election.” This time round, however, it has refrained from doing so. Perhaps the ruling party has finally recognized that whether the election is “local” or “national” is not up to it but the electorate and the contesting parties.

From the point of view of Singaporeans, the dividing line between national and local issues is also fuzzier. Overcrowding in modes of public transport, rising childcare and healthcare costs, inadequate eldercare facilities and a shortage of housing units are not simply localized issues in a particular area. They are, to a large extent, the outcome of national policies such as our liberal immigration policy that affect every Singaporean.

And this is why DBS Vickers’ projection of 7 million population is so alarming. We can all see how importing more migrants to grow our population will trigger yet another vicious cycle of escalating costs of living and additional strain on our infrastructure. The ruling party has been silent on Singapore’s population target in this by-election to avoid incurring the wrath of frustrated Singaporeans and damaging the chances of its candidate being elected. And as such, the population white paper, slated to be released this month, will probably be released after the election.

In the interests of voters and supporters, the contesting parties/candidates in this by-election should pressure the government to come clean about this. The residents of Punggol East deserve a clear answer on what shall have a tremendous impact on their livelihood. So do the rest of us Singaporeans.

(This article first appeared on The Online Citizen)