It is with great regret that I refer to the article entitled ‘How Charles Chong won back Punggol East’ in the online version of the Straits Times today. The article attempts to explain how Charles Chong gained the seat of Punggol East SMC back for the PAP at the 2015 General Election. The seat was won by Lee Li Lian in the by-election of January 2013 which was precipitated by the sudden resignation of then-Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer who had had an extramarital affair. Charles Chong managed to win 51.8% of valid votes while Lee Li Lian garnered 48.2%, with Chong winning a razor thin majority of 1159 votes in what was a very close fight. Insofar as the Straits Times article draws attention to the supposed merits of Chong’s own political persona and that of his campaign, it glosses over and omits certain realities that are too fundamental to ignore with regard to the manner in which his campaign was carried out and, consequently, the manner in which he won.
Allow me to declare, at this point, that I was very much involved in his opponent’s campaign team, including having served as her Counting Agent in that election. In doing so, I must hasten to add that the views contained herein should not be taken to be representative of any organisation, political or otherwise, of which I am a member. In any case, I have a vested interest in this issue as a constituent and elector of Punggol East SMC.
The article reports that Charles Chong’s Legislative Assistant (LA), Daniel Tan, highlighted two strategies undertaken by Chong and his team during the campaign – firstly, they focused on his “independence of mind”, which he presumably meant was a feature atypical of PAP MPs, and secondly, they toned down on the distinction between his seniority and the shorter time span during which Lee Li Lian had worked as a public servant in the capacity of Member of Parliament to avoid “exploiting his experience over a relatively inexperienced candidate.” While it would be unwise to underestimate the effect that the perception of this dichotomy had had on the eventual outcome, the article and Chong’s LA have made a stunning omission of the other tactics employed by the PAP that led to Chong’s win and Lee’s loss.
Indubitably and rather ostentatiously, the article, while at one point almost seemingly waxed lyrical about the stylistic elements of the posters the PAP campaign team put out, conveniently forgot to mention that another consequential tactic employed by Chong was to convey information to the media which misled Punggol East voters. The WP-run town council issued a media release on 8 September 2015 stating:
On 28 August 2015, the PAP candidate for Punggol East SMC, Mr Charles Chong, stated in LianHe ZaoBao:
“After the 2013 Punggol East By-election, Punggol East SMC was carved out of Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council and merged into Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council. At that time, the Town Council had approximately one million dollars of surplus (emphasis mine), and Aljunied Town Council in 2011 also had over $3 million dollars in surplus. Today, the whole of AHPETC’s financial situation has deteriorated”.
We have seen no supporting evidence for Mr Chong’s claim that there was a surplus of $1 million in the accounts of Punggol East SMC at the point of merger into AHPETC (emphasis mine).
Till date, Charles Chong has remained unaccountable for this claim and has never issued a definitive clarification on what he meant when he issued such remarks to the media. No one but Charles Chong, himself, would know how he came to have the idea that a surplus of $1 million was handed over to the WP-run town council after the Punggol East by-election. Such an astounding claim which circulated in the media would have led to the shoring up of support for the PAP at the polls, because it would have perpetuated the idea that the WP had somehow mismanaged town council funds possibly with ill intent. The doubtful veracity of these claims, when contextualised with the difficulties faced by the WP in getting its own message out to the masses due to the uneven political playing field that is manifested through the nature of the mainstream media in Singapore today, points to how voters were misled into thinking that the WP and Lee Li Lian were incompetent. While this effort may be construed to be clever campaigning on the part of Chong and his PAP team, the fact remains that this tactic was premised upon allegations which Chong has, time and again, refused to acknowledge as baseless or decisively account for, since their publication and in the wake of his victory in Punggol East. To those of us who campaigned hard on the ground in Punggol East only to see our opponent make claims about our candidate that were highly doubtful but nonetheless contributed to his narrow victory, his silence is deafening.
Charles Chong, in one of his campaign outreach materials to Punggol East electors, claimed that “The town council issue has been highlighted repeatedly and I understand that it can be confusing.” As much as he labelled the whole matter as “confusing”, he only added to the confusion and did very little to clarify the circumstances in which such confusion had arisen. Had he bothered to do so, more Punggol East residents would have been aware that the lack of accountability in the WP-run town council originally stemmed from the actions of the PAP’s affiliates themselves, due to the withdrawal of the software provided by the PAP company we have come to know as AIM to the old PAP-run Aljunied Town Council, which, data-wise, left the WP-run town council in the lurch. Charles Chong, for all his supposed “independence of mind” could have run a much cleaner campaign by highlighting the institutional challenges that Opposition-run town councils have faced with regard to procuring a non-PAP affiliated and unbiased managing agent who would be willing to work for them, and by championing the need to ensure that no matter who runs a town council in whichever part of Singapore, our laws and institutions should be reformed to never again inhibit any town council and elected MP to serve residents efficiently. Ultimately, when it came to the issue of town council management, Charles Chong put his political interests before that of Punggol East residents and our nation’s institutions for the long-term good of local governance in Singapore. Insofar as Charles Chong promised during the election to “sort out the town council accounts,” he himself has been unaccountable to the people for, in the first place, this campaign promise was based on a claim he himself did not bother to properly defend after his victory.
Perhaps the one point which the Straits Times article was right about was its mention of the Prime Minister’s quip in which he praised PAP candidates in Opposition-held wards who have proved that “no opposition constituency can consider itself ‘safe’.” Indeed, such seats ought never to be considered safe in light of such tactics employed by PAP candidates in general elections.
In short, Charles Chong did not win merely by way of voters’ trust affixed to his supposed “independence of mind” and seniority, or by way of purposeful campaign materials and strategies. These factors might have lent themselves to gaining for him considerable support but what brought him over the edge, to win that thin majority of 1159 votes, were the fear and uncertainty his campaign helped to instill in Punggol East voters just before the polls.
So much for being touted as an atypical PAP MP with veritable “independence of mind”, Charles Chong has proven his prowess in subscribing to a longstanding electoral tactic of the PAP – to put rhetoric above reason if that’s what it takes to win.