WP candidate is first Opposition politician to defeat PAP in multi-cornered fight since 1981
Singapore - Workers' Party (WP) candidate Lee Li Lian scored a comfortable victory over the People's Action Party's (PAP) Koh Poh Koon in yesterday's Punggol East by-election, garnering over 54 per cent of the vote - an improvement of 13 percentage points over her performance in the 2011 General Election.
Ms Lee's triumph was historic on several counts: She became the first woman Opposition politician to win an election in a Single Member Constituency, as well as the first to defeat the PAP in a multi-cornered fight since 1981, when Mr J B Jeyaretnam won in Anson. The 34-year-old trainer at a financial institution will also step into Parliament as only the second elected woman Opposition politician, joining WP Chairman Sylvia Lim.
The four-way contest turned out to be a straight fight between the PAP and the WP, despite earlier conventional thinking that a crowded field would dilute the votes for the Opposition: The Reform Party's Kenneth Jeyaretnam and Singapore Democratic Alliance's Desmond Lim barely made an impact, garnering paltry returns of 1.2 per cent and 0.57 per cent of the votes cast, respectively.
The 521 votes cast for both men was a shade higher than the 417 rejected votes, and they forfeited their election deposit of S$14,500 each. It was the second straight time Mr Lim had lost his deposit, and this time, he fared worse than he did during the May 2011 General Election, when he won 4.45 per cent of the votes in a three-cornered fight that also featured Ms Lee and PAP candidate Michael Palmer.
Then, Mr Palmer took the ward with 54.54 per cent of the vote, but his subsequent resignation last month after admitting to an extramarital affair led to the by-election being called.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is also the PAP Secretary-General, congratulated Ms Lee in a statement released shortly after results were announced around 11pm last night. He praised Dr Koh as a good candidate who showed courage and commitment in the contest, and said he intended to field him again in future elections. Attributing the results to the "by-election effect", Mr Lee said: "In a by-election, the governing party candidate always has a tougher fight. Voters see it as choosing an MP, not choosing a government, and opposition parties encourage them to do so."
The PM said that with the by-election now over, it was time to refocus on national issues, including the upcoming Parliament debate on the White Paper on Population, and added: "Let us come together as one people to do our best for Singapore."
WP chief Low Thia Khiang, however, saw the victory as a signal from Punggol East voters and Singaporeans that they "still expect the Government to work harder".
Speaking at a midnight press conference held at the party's Syed Alwi Road headquarters, he said that while the Government had reviewed many of its policies since the 2011 General Election, the effects had not really been felt on the ground yet.
Ms Sylvia Lim, the party's chairman, echoed this view, reiterating a point she had made during the hustings that the by-election would be a barometer of the Government's performance since GE2011.
She added that the WP's victory showed that the party's message during the campaign to get the Government to pay more attention to their concerns had resonated with voters, but conceded that the by-election effect contributed to the win.
Over at the PAP's post-result press conference, held at the party's Punggol East branch office, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, the party's First Assistant Secretary-General, said a very tough fight was always on the cards in this by-election, given the circumstances that precipitated it and some local issues. He added that the delayed renovation works at Rivervale Plaza had also been an "irritant" for Punggol East residents.
Still, Mr Teo pledged that the Government will continue with its programmes for the long-term good of Singaporeans. He said works to rebuild Rivervale Plaza - renovations to the mall are scheduled to be completed by mid-year - would continue apace, but said Dr Koh's loss meant the party would not have the capability to carry out some programmes it had planned for the ward.
The newly-elected Ms Lee, meanwhile, said the party's immediate priorities would be to ensure a smooth handover of the town council and build a core of volunteers in the ward.
She added that she would hold her first Meet-the-People session on Feb 4. Hinting at changes afoot to the town council structure in the three WP-held wards - Aljunied GRC, Hougang and, now, Punggol East - she said a statement would be released in the coming week.
For Mr Jeyaretnam and Mr Lim, the results raise the question of their relevance in the political sphere.
The RP chief struck a defiant tone, saying that the loss of the deposit was "a small price to pay for democracy". He maintained that his attacks on the PAP "clearly resonated and resulted in many people voting tactically,"
Mr Lim, meanwhile, promised that he would be back for the next General Election despite his poor showing. He said he entered the Punggol East fray fully aware of the "risks and challenges", but did so to keep the "poltical flame alive". Returning to a theme he struck several times over the course of the campaign, he maintained that he was not a fly-by-night politician and would not run away from defeat.
When contacted for their take on the results, analysts said lingering discontent over as-yet-unresolved hot-button issues that dominated the 2011 polls, combined with the ward's municipal concerns, created a potent mix that led to the WP's win.
They also noted that the victory would be a game-changer for the Opposition. They expected that the scene would become more fractious, and that multi-cornered fights would become more common in future elections.
The WP's continued ascendancy also raises questions about the relevance of the smaller opposition parties here, they added.
But in a show of Opposition solidarity, several of the smaller parties sent congratulatory messages to the WP yesterday.
Singapore People's Party (SPP) secretary-general Chiam See Tong said the WP's "wide margin of victory shows that Singaporeans increasingly want more democracy in Singapore and more Opposition members in Parliament".
He added: "Together with WP, the SPP will work hard in Parliament to scrutinise the Government's White Paper on Population and the 2013 Budget, to speak up for Singaporeans, and to make sure no Singaporean is left behind."
The National Solidarity Party noted that while the WP's win does little to alter the balance of power in Parliament, it is an opportunity for the WP to "lead the national conversation by listening to all Singaporeans and speaking for them".
"In this, our sincere hope is that they will bring the same energy and industry with which they serve their own constituents to bear on national issues as well. We look forward to more robust debates on both principle and policy in Parliament," said its secretary-general Hazel Poa.
Democratic Progressive Party's acting Secretary-General Benjamin Pwee congratulated the WP for their "well-deserved and convincing win" and commended voters in Ponggol East for increasing the Opposition's presence in the House.
--Courtesy of Today