COMMENT: 'Punggol slap turns into Punggol punch'


When some reporters, including myself, met with the People’s Action’s Party (PAP) candidate for the Punggol East by-election Dr Koh Poh Koon before nomination day, he asked us to join him for breakfast at Rivervale Plaza.

We didn’t eat anything, probably because we’re not used to waking up too early. There was coffee, bread and soft boiled eggs on the table, but something was strangely missing on the menu:  indigestible election rhetoric and motherhood statements.

In fact, the colorectal surgeon just didn’t seem like he cared much to impress the media, which is a good thing by the way.  At times he even seemed slightly out of place with the constant camera flashes and the intense scrutiny.  Not very surprising though, considering he had just only recently joined the party.

After breakfast and a short session of greeting residents, the 40-year-old happily married father of two girls told the media his philosophy was pretty much "what you see is what you get".

Some who didn’t agree totally with his party’s policies, still found him to be an overall nice guy, his "freshness" proving to be an advantage perhaps.

But the Workers’ Party’s (WP) candidate Lee Li Lian, a sales trainer, had something about her. 

The 34-year-old reminded you of the bubbly and hardworking girl sitting beside you in Junior College or in Polytechnic back in the day, the kind you could always depend on to borrow notes from if you missed a lecture -- you get the gist.

And she certainly was as heartland as heartland can be – something which obviously worked well for her.

But Koh, just like Lee, did not fight this battle alone.

He had some heavyweight support in the ring – with a slew of MPs and cabinet members softening the ground for him, including Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

And Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, also lent his support, taking almost an hour at Koh’s final rally on Thursday to rebut the Workers’ Party and explain to Singaporeans what the government has been doing for them.

Don’t forget the plethora of new goodies that was unveiled smack in the middle of the campaigning period – from more housing units to enhancements in the Marriage and Parenthood Package and more.

The downward spiral?

Still, Koh lost. 

And he lost big, which was a surprise – considering the average rational thought of most pundits had been that it would be a close fight.

So, not only does the PAP now have to endure a double whammy when it comes to defeats in by-elections in recent times – the margin casts a large shadow as to whether it will ultimately be a catalyst for a potential downward spiral for the party.

In other words, the nearly 11 per cent margin reflects the matrix of challenges PM Lee’s team will be facing from now till 2016.

WP chief was hoping for a “Punggol slap” but his party may have just delivered a "Punggol punch".

Since the “watershed” general election of 2011, the government has been trying to use a different tone and be more inclusive towards a more evolving electorate in a rapidly changing social and digital landscape.

Discontented views over various issues, from - influx of foreigners to housing to pre-school education – are something that cab drivers to bankers are spouting at Starbucks outlets in the CBD to your traditional kopitiams in suburbia Singapore.

Couple these with the way young citizens are starting to consume news via different modes and comprehend their environment in new ways – the obstacles are aplenty for the ruling party.

Will it be able to connect quickly to a younger generation who’s own individual and national identity is being constantly in the shaping process?

But that’s not to say the government has failed to take steps to rectify the problems. In fact, it has already put in motion several new policies and schemes to improve various issues from housing to helping the needy.

Complex challenges

But it needs do more and do it faster -- before 2016 -- when there could be added demands by voters who may not feel the authorities are consultative enough and are distant. The government also has to put more elbow grease in addressing the social pressures of living in a high-stress city like Singapore.

Pointing to other lands and reiterating that the problems of globalisation are well, a global one, is a very rational statement to make indeed, but it is not something that may appease those in the sandwiched class, especially with the current outlook for the economic climate.

On another level, there seems to be a wanting for the government to be more in tune with the man on the ground.

Quite often, the bureaucratic red tape maze, which of course exists all over the world, is something that can alienate citizens or those who specifically are seeking help.

Besides these problems, the government also has to keep a quick check on the seemingly rising xenophobia online, help SMEs with their problems of finding cheap labour and make sure the country is still relevant for foreign investors. It needs to, in a sense, defy gravity and at the same time succumb to it as well.

Not easy, indeed, and the work has already started but it remains to be seen where it will go and how fast will the ruling party take steps to gain back popularity.

And now, it has to entertain the still far-off but not so far-off reality of the WP perhaps pushing itself into a realm of a two-party system in time to come.

However, whatever the different ideologies of various parties and the political maneuvering by leaders from both camps, the people have spoken and they want improvements -- now.

My sense is that they are no longer are very interested in lists which put Singapore as having the No.1  airport or sea port, they want to have a better certainty that their children will have a far better life and future. 

Fittingly, the flash and pizazz of having candidates who are scholars or high fliers may not necessary be viewed as strong points like in the 1980s and 1990s.  That’s not to say qualifications don’t matter completely.

But the ability to come across as an average Joe is what it will take to win votes or in this case an average "Ah Lian" -- a term affectionately used by WP supporters in reference to Lee.

The dreams and aspirations are there. Now it’s up to the leaders and authorities to make it reality for all Singaporeans.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote in ‘Walden’: "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

Related stories:

Workers' Party takes Punggol East
Devastating loss for PAP: analysts
PICS: WP takes Punggol East
Singapore ruling party hit by fresh poll loss

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