Hougang by-election to take place on 26 May

Polling Day for the hotly-anticipated Hougang by-election will take place on 26 May, if contested.

Nomination Day will happen on 16 May, between 11am and 12pm, at Serangoon Junior College (SRJC), President Tony Tan announced in his writ of election issued on Wednesday, after which nine days of campaigning will begin.

Singapore's Elections Department confirmed in a press statement that Polling Day will not be a public holiday, adding that under the law, employers should allow Hougang electors under their charge "a reasonable period of time for voting".

The single-member constituency (SMC) seat has been left vacant since 14 February, when former MP Yaw Shin Leong was expelled from the Workers' Party. He did not appeal his dismissal.

In a statement on his Facebook page, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the by-election will give Hougang residents the chance to elect a new MP to serve them.

He recalled that when news of Yaw's personal indiscretions surfaced in January, the WP first kept totally silent, then supported Yaw, and then three weeks later suddenly expelled him from the party.

"Until now the WP has not given Singa­poreans a full and proper account of what happened, or why it acted in this way. Mr Yaw himself has said nothing, either to explain or to apologise for his behaviour, and has reportedly left the country. Both the WP and Mr Yaw have let down all those who voted for him," he said.

He expressed hope that the events will not distract people from focusing on national priorities and building an inclusive Singapore.

He also reiterated his stance that he was not compelled to call a by-election within a set time.

"Although the Constitution does not require me to call a by-election within any fixed timeframe, I said in Parliament that I intended to call a by-election in Hougang. This morning I advised the President to issue the Writ of Election," he said.

"I encourage Hougang voters to use this opportunity wisely, to elect the best candidate with commitment and integrity: someone they can rely upon to express their hopes and concerns, address their needs, and make a real difference to their lives," he added.

PAP, WP respond to call

The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has not yet announced who it will be nominating as a candidate.

However, when contacted, former PAP Hougang candidate Desmond Choo said that he would be "excited and honoured" if he were to be fielded again but it would be the prime minister's decision.

“We've been working hard to serve the residents of Hougang before and after GE2011,” Choo said. “We will be ready to answer the call."

The 34-year-old was one of the seven candidates out of PAP’s slate of 24 new faces introduced during the May general elections last year.

He garnered 35.2 per cent of votes, the lowest electoral percentage result for the PAP in the Hougang SMC since the 1988 General Election.

Watch the video of a recent interview we did with Choo:

Race for Hougang by-election heats upIn the first-part of our series on the Hougang by-election, Yahoo! Singapore's Deborah Choo speak to last year's PAP candidate for the SMC, Desmond Choo, to find out what he's been up to.

In the meantime, the Workers' Party has already issued a call for volunteers to assist them at SRJC on nomination day, as well as in their campaign, on their Facebook page.

In their post, the party said, "We will work as hard as we can to defend Hougang SMC!"

The by-election is expected to be a two-way race between the PAP and the WP.

It is now widely believed that the opposition party will be fielding 50-year-old Png Eng Huat, who has chaired the Hougang Constituency Committee since Yaw's dismissal.

In recent months, WP chief Low Thia Khiang had been seen introducing Png to residents, and Png himself had been distributing fliers carrying a picture of himself, a brief bio and his contact information.

[Watch a video on Png Eng Huat and what the Workers' Party has been up to in Hougang here.]

The Singapore People's Party, National Solidarity Party and Singapore Democratic Party have all confirmed that they will not be fielding candidates in the by-election.

“Our prime concern is that the constituency remains in the hands of the Opposition,” SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan emphasised on Wednesday evening.

At the same time, former presidential candidate and ex-SDP member Tan Jee Say, who previously indicated he would not rule out the possibility of his standing in the by-election, said on Wednesday that he, too, will not be submitting his name for the polls.

In a statement he posted on his Facebook page, Tan said the Hougang by-election has put the issue of opposition unity into focus.

"At this juncture of our political development post-GE2011, the best way forward is for all of us to support WP in its defence of the seat against the PAP," he said. "I am sure WP will appreciate this gesture of political cooperation from individuals and other opposition parties alike and will reciprocate accordingly in the run up to the 2016 general election."

Political observers' reactions

To political science lecturer Bridget Welsh, the calling of the by-election shows that “the PAP is willing to face a tough contest in what is known as a safe WP seat”.

The ruling party’s aim will be to “reduce the majority and transform the negative losses of last year into a more positive mandate,” the Singapore Management University’s associate professor also speculated.

“This by-election will be less about the candidates but about both parties trying to strengthen their core support,” she said.

Former newspaper editor PN Balji was not surprised by the announcement of the by-election.

“It looks like the PAP's election strategy is to take the fight to the WP,” Balji told Yahoo! Singapore, after having read PM Lee’s statement on Facebook. “He is putting the blame squarely on the WP for creating this so-called distraction. Another point he highlighted was the way WP handled the Yaw affair.”

The media consultant said he expects “the PAP machinery to go into full swing in attacking the WP for choosing the wrong person to represent Hougang and for not being decisive in acting after the Yaw rumours began to float”.

National University of Singapore’s law professor Thio Li-ann also told Yahoo! Singapore that she is “glad a by-election is being called in a timely fashion, particularly as we are in the relatively early stages of the 12th Parliament”.

“It does set a good practice which is a useful guide and will shape future expectations,” she said.

“The basic principle vindicated is that of the constitutional principle of representative democracy - that the people of a constituency should have a representative in Parliament, whom they have given the mandate to through the ballot box, who will carry both the power base of being elected and the burden and duty of serving his constituency.

“That is as it should be and discretion should always be principled and serve this basic purpose,” Thio added.

Court case questions

It is not clear how the call for the Hougang by-election will affect the case for a judicial review being sought by Hougang resident Vellama Marie Muthu.

Vellama, represented by lawyer M Ravi, has asked the High Court to declare that the prime minister does not have unfettered discretion in calling a by-election for Hougang, and to order the prime minister to hold a by-election within three months or within any such period which the court deems fit.

High Court justice Philip Pillai granted leave for a hearing on the application but the case was brought by the Attorney-General's Chambers to the Court of Appeal, which will hear the AGC's appeal on 16 May, which is also the nomination day set for the Hougang by-election.

M Ravi told Yahoo! Singapore that he still intends to make submissions to counter the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ appeal against Vellama's ongoing application.

Declining to speak further about his legal strategy, however, he said he believes that Vellama's application has at least helped to bring the issue under greater scrutiny.

“Singaporeans should thank Vellama for bringing the PM to be accountable to the constitution,” he added.

Additional reporting by Jeanette Tan