Political analysts say the Workers’ Party’s (WP) recent troubles are a sign all is not well within the party.
While Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Eugene Tan calls veteran member Dr Poh Lee Guan’s no-show on Nomination Day “an anti-climatic end to the fiasco”, he said it had also damaged the party’s image.
Poh emerged as a surprise potential contender after it was revealed he had been issued a political donation certificate, a prerequisite for standing in the by-election. His claim to the media that he was the “unofficial back-up” contradicted party chief Low Thia Kiang’s insistence that there was no such reserve candidate.
In the end, the battle for Hougang has come down to a straight showdown between the WP’s official nominee, businessman Png Eng Huat, and the People Action Party’s Desmond Choo.
Tan, assistant professor in law at Singapore Management University, said: “[Poh’s actions] damages, somewhat but not significantly, the WP’s standing as a disciplined and cohesive party. It also raises questions about WP’s party unity and whether fissures are showing with its growing political prominence.”
Institute of Policy Studies research fellow Gillian Koh agreed, saying: “It’s good that [WP party chief] Low Thia Kiang has clarified there is no party fracture. But it is a bit difficult to believe that, given that we have seen a number of people leave the party in recent months.
She added that those people “did not just leave but made comments which suggest that there is an issue – from their point of view at least – with how people make the grade for cadreship and candidacy”.
Poh’s fiasco follows the resignation of several WP members. On Sunday, Sajeev Kamalasanan left the party amid accusations that the party was racist, citing his dissatisfaction with its cadreship selection system.
Last year, veteran Eric Tan quit after he was overlooked and Gerald Giam was nominated for one of two Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) seats the party had won during the General Elections. In February, Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong was expelled from the party after allegations of marital indiscretion, which to this day, have yet to be fully explained.In the same month, former East Coast GRC member Mohamed Fazli Talip also quit the party, citing personal reasons and work commitments.
However, Koh said that these issues may be a “natural consequence” as the WP would have to make “difficult” choices to carry on the momentum gained from last year’s watershed elections.
On the other hand, SMU Associate Professor of Political Science Bridget Welsh said Poh’s eventual decision not to file his nomination papers is a good sign.
“This shows that the WP has managed to hold party discipline and heal some of the internal fissures which are a natural process of a party gaining ground,” Welsh said.
She added that is it more important to focus on issues that affect the constituents of Hougang and Singapore, instead of the personalities involved.
Tone of by-election
Turning to the by-election itself, political experts said the PAP and WP should tailor their campaigning strategies.
While the PAP should tackle head-on bread-and-butter issues such the widening income gap, high housing prices, public transport woes, and inflation, it should not neglect the “material concerns” of Hougang residents, said associate professor Tan.
“The desire for estate upgrading and improvement, while not central, is something that the Hougang voters would be keen to have,” he said.On the other hand, WP should focus on showcasing itself as an “alternative presence” in Parliament, according to Welsh.
“What is important [for WP] is its assessment and performance in Parliament. WP has to show the electorate that it has made a difference, that it has helped Singapore move towards a First World Parliament,” she said.
Tan echoed Welsh’s views, saying : “They [Workers’ Party] will emphasise Hougang as the barometer of political pluralism in Singapore, and would urge voters to support it so that the circle of good governance will continue and be sustainable.”
However, he added that both PAP and WP will have to deal with the Poh fiasco and disgraced ex-Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong’s debacle without “alienating voters”.
“The messaging will have to be balanced. Put a foot wrong, press a particular issue too much, and it could cost either side votes,” he said.