Singapore’s ruling party lost a by- election in the opposition-controlled Hougang district, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong signaling more measures are needed to regain support after its worst vote result last year.
Png Eng Huat, a 50-year-old businessman from the Workers’ Party, defeated ruling People’s Action Party candidate Desmond Choo, 34, a trade union official, at the May 26 polls. Png won 62.1 percent of valid votes in northeastern suburb for the seat left vacant after Yaw Shin Leong. Yaw, who won 64.8 percent of votes in 2011, was expelled by the Workers’ Party in February for “indiscretions in his private life.”
Lee’s People’s Action Party, or PAP, has struggled to reinvent itself since returning to power in May last year with the smallest victory since independence in 1965. After the vote over the weekend, Lee reiterated a pledge to change the way the party governs a population that opinion surveys show is most concerned with issues such as high living costs and an influx of foreign residents.
The election outcome shows the opposition’s “ability to participate in constructive debates over issues like immigration and the cost of living,” said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “One of the things about by-elections is that they sometimes send signals that are relevant to general elections and they often assist parties in preparing for them.”
While candidates campaigned for the by-election on local issues such as improving public housing, a survey of 50 residents by Today newspaper this month showed a majority of them are concerned with national policies, including the cost of living and the influx of foreigners.
Of the 122,600 jobs created in Singapore last year, about 70 percent, or 84,800 positions, went to foreigners, according to data from the Ministry of Manpower.
“The PAP government has done its best to address important national issues like housing and transportation, immigration and population, economic upgrading and workers’ incomes,” Lee said in a statement after the election. “We have made progress, but there is much more to be done.”
About 23,000 people, or 1 percent of the electorate, were eligible to vote in the Hougang district. Png got 13,447 out of 21,951 ballots cast, of which 294 were considered spoiled votes, Returning Officer Yam Ah Mee said in a national broadcast. Choo received 8,210 votes.
“It is a very good result given the circumstances,” Workers’ Party Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang said at a press conference that was broadcast nationally, referring to the drop in the victory margin. “We value every vote.”
While the poll was a barometer of support for government policies, Lee’s party still controls Parliament with 81 of the 87 seats. The PAP has governed the country since 1959.
The government is under pressure to placate voters without disrupting the arrival of talent and labor that helped forge the only advanced economy in Southeast Asia. In the past year, Lee’s government has implemented stricter immigration policies and cut ministerial pay.
The administration has raised property taxes for non- Singaporeans and accelerated construction of housing. Lee also made permanent a program to provide cash, utility rebates and medical funds for the elderly and low-income households. The government is subsidizing bus companies’ purchases of new vehicles to reduce crowding on public transport and adding hospital beds.
More than a third of Singapore’s 5.2 million population is made up of foreigners and expatriate permanent residents, and efforts to reduce the inflow of workers since 2010 have had little effect. The foreign workforce has grown 7.5 percent annually over the last two years, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in February as he imposed new rules on the percentage of overseas labor that companies are allowed.
“There may be a need to revisit issues and policies with an out-of-the-box approach,” Eugene Tan, an assistant law professor at the Singapore Management University and a member of Parliament who has no voting rights, said yesterday of the PAP. “The Hougang voters, the way they voted may indicate that policy tweaks are not enough.”
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