Air-Conditioned Nation

Essays about Singapore / Cherian George




The Punggol by-election reintroduced Singaporeans to laugh-a-minute opposition parties. The Workers’ Party is not one of them.

In the end, the three-way split in the opposition assault on Punggol East proved immaterial. The Workers’ Party has won the constituency with an outright, unambiguous majority.

This had seemed like the ruling party’s seat to lose. In the last General Election, it won the seat with 54.5 percent of the valid votes. That was barely 21 months ago. Since then, PAP may not have satisfied most Singaporeans that it has fully reformed itself or fixed everything that needs to be fixed, and policy improvements may not yet be felt on the ground – but few fair-minded Singaporeans could honestly claim that the PAP has actually become much worse since May 2012. That being the case, it wasn’t clear how the WP was going to pick up the additional votes it needed to swing the constituency.

Sure, the PAP incumbent let down his constituents. But, thanks to the leadership’s swift and decisive response, it did not seem likely that voters would blame the party for the wayward Palmer. Importantly, the PAP maintained its apologetic tone, fighting a gentlemanly campaign and dispensing with the scare tactics, unfair inducements and bully behaviour that has marred previous elections.

On the other side, the Workers’ Party appeared to lose some of its 2011 sheen. The single most significant development in the Punggol East by-election campaign was the boiling over of opposition antipathy towards the WP.

Opposition disunity is nothing new. But past opposition leaders tended to bite their tongues or confine themselves to the occasional thinly veiled snide remark. Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s criticism of the WP marked the first time in memory that the leader of a prominent opposition party launched a full-frontal assault on another.

The PAP took advantage of this windfall by echoing Jeyaretnam’s criticism: it agreed that the WP hadn’t really made a difference. This was an unusual line for a ruling party that has traditionally equated the growth of the opposition with the End Of Singapore As We Know It.

If the charge of WP impotence had been levelled by the Reform Party alone, or by the PAP alone, it would have been discounted by most voters as mere rhetoric. But to hear the same point from both ends of the political spectrum could have shaken the faith of some voters who have otherwise been inclined to vote for the WP.

How then did the WP pull it off? It is tempting to conclude that this was a protest vote, signalling voters’ rejection of the PAP’s efforts since May 2011. But this theory may not give enough credit to the WP’s tactical genius.

We now have enough evidence to conclude that Low Thia Khiang is Singapore’s best electoral strategist. The decision to re-field Lee Li Lian – instead of some new star catch or one of his more famous NCMPs – seemed anti-climactic at the time. In hindsight, I wonder how many decisive swing votes WP got by demonstrating to Punggol East voters that they could count on the WP for constancy and loyalty – a particularly powerful message in the wake of their betrayal by their former PAP MP.

The WP may also have been able to capitalise on the PAP’s understandable wavering, over whether to treat this like Koh Poh Koon’s fight or to roll out the big guns. The first approach could make the PAP look too weak, while the latter would make it look desperate. The WP had no such self-doubt. They consistently signalled to constituents that their entire party leadership was here for them. At each rally, the WP’s entire star cast was there on stage. For a constituency in the far north, unreached by the amenities enjoyed by more central and mature estates, such attention must have been novel and welcome.

However they did it, this is a result that no politician anywhere on the political spectrum can ignore. For the PAP, it is not really anything new. It already knew that it had to correct its course. It would do well to consider whether it has moved decisively enough since May 2011. But it can also comfort itself that it might already be doing the right thing, except that policies take time to bear fruit, so the people “don’t feel it yet”, as Bill Clinton said in his speech supporting Barack Obama.

What will certainly be felt tonight, though, are the shockwaves in the rest of the opposition. I doubt if two party leaders have ever does so disastrously in a Singapore election as Kenneth Jeyaretnam and Desmond Lim performed today. For them, there is nowhere to hide. They will search for others to blame, but should eventually accept reality.

The Workers’ Party had seemed stand-offish, even arrogant, in its dealings with the rest of the opposition in the run-up to this poll. It was like the WP was trying to say to everyone else in the opposition, we are different.

Guess what. They are.



Only six times before has the Opposition wrested a constituency from PAP hands. Lee Li Lian’s margin compares favourably with all the previous instances. It is similar to the margin in Aljunied GRC in 2011. Only Chiam See Tong, who took Potong Pasir with 60% in 1984, did better in a single seat ward.

If “Rejected Votes” were a candidate, it would have beaten both Kenneth Jeyaretnam and Desmond Lim. There were 415 rejected votes, compared with 353 and 168 votes for Jeyaretnam and Lim respectively.

This is not the first time the Workers’ Party successfully brushed off a potential spoiler from another opposition party when taking on the PAP in a by-election. It happened in 1981, when Kenneth’s father J B Jeyaretnam of WP broke the PAP’s absolute monopoly of Parliamentary seats, despite the opposition vote being split by Harbans Singh of UPF, who won less than 1% of the votes.




I once interviewed Singapore’s most intellectually honest public intellectual, Alex Au, about his Yawning Bread blog and he said with his usual startling clarity that the opposition’s worst enemies are its supporters. I am regularly reminded of the truth of this tongue-in-cheek statement, and no more so than tonight, after the Workers’ Party’s stunning by-election victory. I came across a Facebook post vilifying a blogger for no other reason than that he had opined that the WP had been a disappointment in Parliament and that they didn’t deserve another MP yet.

One chap said simply: “kill him. burn him”. It wasn’t even an anonymous comment. In addition to his name, his Facebook profile declares proudly that he works at Rolls-Royce Aerospace. And to take the cake, it was his birthday. So here’s a WP supporter (supposedly) with a job in a respected MNC, who observes the day his mother gave birth to him by showing contempt for the life and dignity of a fellow human being who happens to have a different political view.

WP’s NCMP Yee Jenn Jong has already come out to say there’s no excuse for such behaviour, even if there is an explanation for the frustration behind it.

It is a useful reality check, I suppose. It hardly matters if the WP wins more seats and inches closer to a First World Parliament, if citizens’ political values are straight from the Stone Age.

UPDATE: The victim has made a police report. Not sure if that was necessary. I would have just asked the fellow’s employer to clarify if this kind of behaviour is in keeping with the company’s professed desire to be a good corporate citizen, and sit back and see what happens.






  1. “For a constituency in the far north, it must have been somewhat flattering to be showered with such attention.”

    I don’t quite understand what you’re saying. Do you mean citizens who live in Punggol East don’t deserve the attention just because they don’t live in Bukit Timah? “far north”? You talk of Punggol East as if it were in Narnia.

    • Cherian George

      Hi, you are right – this was poorly phrased. I have rewritten it. Thank you. And thanks for your food blog – already picking up ideas or lunch.

      • Jaecey

        Won’t say anything wrong with the “For a constituency in the far north, it must have been somewhat flattering to be showered with such attention.” comment. /shrugs. you don’t see leaders & politicians of both camps visiting the district every other day/Media spotlight on the district everyday. That alone, would make the district being ‘showered with attention’ for this period of the BE.

  2. a random observation: last night, during wp’s press conference, at around 15:20 minutes, i noticed that low thia khiang voluntarily picked up the microphone to say something like “the results of the by-election shows that punggol east voters … the effects has not been trickled down to the ground. i’d expect that the government will work harder. the workers’ party will assist whenever we can.”

    i thought it was a really smart move, given the context of the conference and what was said before he picked up the microphone. throughout the entire press conference, the other panel members mainly said that they were glad to be selected and given the opportunity to serve. what mr low did was to volunteer ‘quotable quotes’ to the media, portraying wp as a helpful, non-threatening presence.

    very smart move. just agreeing that mr low is a brilliant political strategist.

  3. Avinash

    Not to take anything away from Low Thia Kiang and the other WP strategists’, or the fact that the PAP election managers these days seem to have the political awareness of a tub of butter or something (aka the two cars gaffe by Dr Koh), but surely, it wasn’t as if everything was hunky dory, was it; both with the AIM saga and Palmer’s escapades, there were some critical troubling questions about the nature and role of the PA in the whole power structure. Granted, the PM (and the PAP, in getting Palmer to resign) made some moves in addressing that, but seems to me, that was still an unsettled question for a lot of voters.

    Also, I don’t know if the Baby Bonus or the cooling measures for housing are *unfair* inducements or not, but they surely were timed to influence the by-elections? Sure, not as bad as before and yes, the PAP should rightly be applauded for that, but its hard to agree with this narrative that they lost *despite* being nice or upright or something. They lost because the WP outmanoeuvred the PAP in converting what the PAP saw as a potential opening, a seemingly bad running of their town council- into a strength.

  4. jerry

    It seems plainly clear to me that Cherian Geroge is embarking on a political showdown with his personal ideology against that of the governing PAP, albeit in the name of freedom of speech .

    If you are passionate and self-proclaimed “know-it-all” character, than you should be the “stand-up Guy and present yourself as a credible candidate in the elections. My concern and question is why you bother to pain painstakingly analyze and criticize the PAP election results in your previous postings and yet hide behind the curtain? Anyone would expect you to be truthful to your passion and conviction as you put them into action, not mere’ talk loud but no action ….’

    • Cherian George

      Jerry, I read your comment with a sense of deja vu. The last time I saw similar views being expressed was 20 years ago, when the government told Singaporeans that only political parties had a right to be engaged in politics. A group of concerned citizens (including me) challenged that view by forming the Roundtable, as a political but non-partisan civic group. I think even the government has evolved in its thinking, so it is quite surprising to see an ordinary Singaporean (if you are just an ordinary Singaporean) espouse such a view.

      Of course, if you feel that you must shut up about any strongly held views unless you run in elections, that is your right. But if I choose to be all talk and no action, as you put it, that is my right, too. I have my reasons for not joining any political party or running in elections. Top of the list is a practical problem: I would be a liability to any party I join. I probably would not obey the party leadership and would be among the first to contradict any party line and to point out its mistakes publicly. I value the freedom to keep an open mind, so there is also a high chance that in the midst of an election campaign, I would suddenly agree with my opponent.

      Second, I think that armchair critics have a role to play. Not a big role – and we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously – but a role nonetheless. I value opinionated movie critics even if they don’t know how to produce a movie; I respect good restaurant reviewers even if they can’t cook themselves; and I doubt that my favourite soccer writers were champion footballers. In the same way, I see no contradiction in being a passionate commentator on politics while staying on the sidelines of the game. If you disagree, I suggest you just stop reading me. Since you are a disappointed reader, I would offer to give you your money back, except that I didn’t charge you in the first place. And since you are not impressed by my lack of action, you need never give me your vote – in fact, I will never ask for it.

Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

%d bloggers like this: