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Singapore ruling party loses by-election
New Punggol East MP Lee Li Lian at the press conference last night. The 34-year-old, who overturned decisively the scores of two years ago, said: 'I’m grateful to be given the opportunity to serve... While I celebrate this victory tonight, I know there is a lot of work to be done.' Photo by Kevin Lim/The Straits Times
Publication Date : 27-01-2013
It was touted as a close fight, but Workers' Party (WP) candidate Lee Li Lian, 34, sailed into Parliament on her second attempt yesterday, riding on the crest of strong support in the Punggol East single- member constituency.
The final margin of victory was nearly 11 percentage points, or more than 3,000 votes, as she overturned decisively the scores of two years ago.
This time, she raked in 54.52 per cent of the votes. The People's Action Party's (PAP) Dr Koh Poh Koon picked up just 43.71 per cent, a rout that stunned observers and PAP MPs alike.
Talk of spoilers and dark horses proved unfounded as the two others in the four-cornered fight - the Reform Party's Kenneth Jeyaretnam and Singapore Democratic Alliance's Desmond Lim - netted less than 2 per cent of the vote combined. Both lost their deposits, and Lim gained the dubious honour of scoring the smallest vote share since independence.
Though the mood could not have been more different in the PAP and WP camps last night, both sides emerged with forward-looking statements about tasks ahead.
Said WP chairman Sylvia Lim: "We accept this victory with gratitude and humility, conscious of the responsibilities it carries and the expectations of Singaporeans in Punggol East and elsewhere."
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in turn, congratulated Ms Lee and her party, and stressed that the government must continue with its work, saying: "Our plans and programmes are already in progress. But they are geared towards the longer term, and will take time to show results. The PAP will continue to work to improve the lives of Singaporeans, and present our report card for voters to judge in the next general elections."
He added that he respected the choice of Punggol East voters.
The past two weeks had been punctuated by big ticket announcements including an expansion of the rail network, a large increase of subsidies and grants to encourage Singaporeans to get married and have children, and a seventh round of property cooling measures.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, too, cast his eye to the future: "For the Government and the PAP, the hard work continues... And I hope that the voters of Punggol East can give us their support the next time."
In reflecting on the loss, the PAP last night pointed to several factors that eroded its vote share almost from the word go.
First were the damaging circumstances that precipitated the by-election. Last month, the popular MP and Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer left the seat vacant after stepping down over an extramarital affair. In 2011, he had won with 54.5 per cent of the vote against Lee's 41 per cent, and Lim's 4.5 per cent, after the ward was carved out from neighbouring Pasir-Ris Punggol GRC.
Then, there was the by-election effect, a point raised both by PM Lee and DPM Teo last night.
"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," said Lee. During the campaign, he had urged voters not to vote tactically but to pick the party that would serve them best.
DPM Teo, who had first said there would be a close fight, put it this way last night: "There were circumstances already as we came into the by-election. And of course there were local issues as well."
WP leaders acknowledged that the by-election effect played a part, but they and other opposition supporters also pointed to what appears to be a growing appetite for alternative voices in Parliament and lingering unhappiness with the PAP over issues that emerged in 2011.
Party chief Low Thia Khiang, speaking at a midnight press conference, returned to a message he had put forward in the campaign, that voters should vote for the WP to make the PAP work harder.
But, he also reprised the constructive tone that he had begun the WP campaign with: "Although many policies have been reviewed and the Government has been working towards that, the result shows that the effect has not really trickled down to the ground and people still feel the pressure of high cost of living and many other things as well. So I would expect that the Government will work harder on that and the WP will assist whenever we can."
The results also serve to consolidate the WP's position as Singapore's dominant opposition party. It now expands its presence in Parliament from six to seven MPs, plus two Non-Constituency MPs.
The night had begun with little hint of what was to come. About 45 minutes after polls closed at 8pm, all signs pointed to a tight race.
Then the WP tide became clear as agents began reporting that it was pulling ahead. As the updates rolled in, more WP supporters began pouring in to join others who had gathered at a coffee shop in Hougang.
By the night's end, the crowd had spilled onto the streets, with people chanting in Hokkien, "thank you, Palmer", as they waited for party leaders.
At the PAP branch in Punggol East, activists huddled together, some blinking back tears.
A stoic Koh thanked volunteers and those who voted for him, as he said it was not the end of the road for him: "I would like to continue serving where the party feels is appropriate and the best place for me."
Lee added that he still intends to bring Koh into his team.
For Singapore's newest MP, Lee, the top priority now is to ensure a smooth handover. She said: "This is a privilege entrusted to me by you. I'm grateful to be given the opportunity to serve...While I celebrate this victory tonight, I know there is a lot of work to be done."