By-election talk, but will PAP bite?

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Opposition pushes for an early date but Lee Hsien Loong seems to be in no hurry

 AT the height of a series of quarrels between Malaysia and its southern neighbour, Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad took a tongue-in-cheek swipe at Singapore by wondering what the first three letters -- sin -- in the country's name really meant. Many years later, it is Singaporeans who are wondering if sin is beginning to stick.

 In the past month, allegations of sex corruption, prostitution and extramarital affairs in high places have appeared with such breathless regularity that many are asking: is the little red dot turning into a red light city?

 Very damaging to the government was an admission by the government that two of its senior civil servants are under investigation for allegedly outsourcing work to companies for sexual favours. Then came the news that police are investigating an Internet prostitution ring involving a school principal.

 And finally, Singaporeans were shocked when told of a dramatic decision by the opposition Workers' Party to sack one of its MPs over reports that he had affairs with a married woman from the same party and a Mandarin tuition teacher from China.

 It is the Workers' Party affair that is taking centre stage. Many see the group, which made the deepest dent in the track record of the ruling People's Action Party in the last general election, as not just a credible and responsible opposition but also one that has the best chance to help bring about an effective two-party system in Singapore.

 Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was quick to accuse the party of having let voters down while party chairman and National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan went one step further by saying it had misled voters.

 Khaw's words were exceptionally sharp. He said: "...is this an attempt to conceal something they knew, first through silence, and when they found that it is not possible, then they get rid of the liability, and blame everything on him?"

 The Workers' Party must take some of the responsibility for the mess they have found themselves in.

 It dragged its feet when allegations that Yaw Shin Leong, a first-time member of parliament who romped home with an impressive 64.8 per cent margin victory last May, had an affair with a married member of the party surfaced online. As the mainstream media rushed to follow up the story, he and party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang stuck to the same line: these are rumours.

 Their position became untenable after allegations of the MP's other affairs began to emerge. In one case, a Mandarin tuition teacher admitted she had a brief fling with the twice-married man.

 For the party chief, this is a personal blow. Yaw was his political protege; he had groomed the 35-year-old for 11 years before handing over the party's prized seat, Hougang, to him to defend in the last election.

 Yaw didn't disappoint and returned the favour by securing a solid majority -- even better than Low's victories in that constituency.

 The big questions now are whether a by-election will be held, and if so, how will the Workers' Party fare.

 (In Parliament yesterday, Yaw was given until Feb 24 to clarify his position. If he does not do that, the seat is deemed vacant.)

The prime minister does not seem to be in a hurry to take that route. He said in a statement: ..."I will consider the matter carefully. There are many other issues on the national agenda right now."

 And he reminded Singaporeans: "Under the law, there is no fixed time within which I must call a by-election."

 Other calculations, mainly political, must have been on his mind. First, this government is not a fan of by-elections.  Singapore has had only 21 by-elections since 1965.

 The last time a by-election was held for a single-seat constituency, opposition bulldozer and then Workers' Party leader Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam got into the history books by breaking the PAP's stranglehold in Parliament in 1981.  And there has been only one more by-election since then.

 Second, by keeping the Hougang seat vacant, the opposition party's resources will be stretched as it has one fewer person to take care of the needs of Hougang residents. Third, the Workers' Party and its chief are still popular in the area, if newspaper and online reports are anything to go by.

 Low visited his former constituency on Wednesday night, a couple of hours after the announcement of the dismissal.

 One online account said he was greeted like a celebrity. Emboldened by such a reception, Low said in reply to the PM's accusation: "The Workers' Party has not let the people down. Whatever is wrong, we have put it right."

 Then, in a parting shot, he tried to put the ball in the PM's court when he said: "Perhaps, the PM should look at the sentiment (on the ground) and not drag too long about the by-election if he has a national agenda and wants to move on."

 It looks like Low is spoiling for a fight.

Workers’ Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang leading his team of candidates on a walkabout during Singapore’s general election campaign last year. He’s pushing for an early by-election in Hougang. Pic by Santha Oorjitham


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