One similarity between ex-unionist Ong Ye Kung and unionist Desmond Choo is that they have been defeated at the polls before. Given Singapore’s history of being dominated by the PAP for more than half a century, defeat is not something that gets talked about too often. They are back, albeit in different places. Ong Ye Kung has moved to Sembawang GRC whereas Desmond Choo is most likely fighting the next elections in Tampines GRC.
Lest one thinks that they’re seeking safehaven in their new GRCs, we must know that it is not really their choice. Decisions on where to contest is the decision of the PAP Secretary General (aka the Prime Minister) alone. The histories of these candidates are a little more interesting to me. Ong’s resignation from the NTUC and subsequent joining of Keppel Corporation raised a few eyebrows back in 2012. However, I thought it would be a good thing. In a time where the PAP lacks private sector representation, Ong would well fill this void in Parliament. Then again, the man is widely touted by Party peers to be of ministerial material… so we may quite see him back in the Executive.
“What have I learnt from 2011? A lot – big lessons and small lessons. The big lesson, as Minister Khaw mentioned, is that we never take things for granted. I don’t think people want total dominance, so even Ministers can lose their seats. We need to serve with our heart and soul. We can’t let one loss become a defeat, one setback become a failure,” said Ong at Sembawang over the weekend.
What about Choo?
Desmond Choo lost twice in a time-span of almost a year. Once during the General Elections, and once during the By Election when disgraced Worker’s Party member Yaw Shin Leong got the boot.
His was a baptism by fire. It is not known how the party leadership decides what type of persona they want in Hougang, or how/why/who goes there. Touted as a Worker’s Party stronghold, it seems any PAP candidate assigned this portfolio is almost headed for defeat.
So even with all his charm, sincerity and Teochew-ness, residents were overheard to have said words like: “I really like you, but too bad you’re from the PAP, so I can’t vote for you”.
Personally, I have more to mention about this person; I heard him in person as at Association for Public Affairs forum named “Dream Future”. One word I can use to describe his responses to youth is “honest”; he takes his time to explain his points when youth, for instance, questioned him on matters related to the extent to which the government should care for its citizens.
He took time to explain the trade-offs to youth leaders, leading to thinking points post-forum. I thought he was a good engager, perhaps due to the need to negotiate on behalf of unionised employees. The fact that both of them hail(ed) from the unions is a point worth discussing; the tripartism model in Singapore might be unique because our unions are cooperative rather than confrontational. Normally the government, employers and unions have different objectives at the negotiation table.
It has always been a personal belief that matters can be solved in Singapore by negotiation and “thrashing things out at the table”, not by demand through strikes and protests. The important learning point: the extremely close-knit relationship among the three parties allows for high executive efficiency when it comes to introducing policy that matters, such as improving the lives of our common man.
The government, in its quest for aiming for the stars, may not do enough for the common man to “level up” in sharing the opportunities of the future. In many countries, the confrontational aspect of unions means that policy must be settled through horse-trading. The relationships, being less than cordial, also reek of mistrust.
Thankfully, in Singapore, unions cooperate with the government and employers.
These two examples rang strongly for me:
1. Bus drivers. Bus driver pay has always been a thorny issue. It has always been on the lower end of the pay scale. Hours are shift-based and long. One key person involved in ensuring the welfare of bus drivers: Ong Ye Kung. Negotiations for a rise of bus driver wages in 2010 show that he is indeed, a big-hearted man with empathy for the common man, and equally importantly, the capability to fight for the common man.
2. Free Teochew Porridge Hougang is a Teochew area. One will almost never try to contest in Hougang without knowing some Teochew; speaking to residents in a language foreign to them is a bad idea in winning elections. However, Desmond Choo doesn’t simply fight elections; even after his defeat in 2011, he stayed on to serve the people. He has a long list of initiatives for Hougang, including free hearing aids, mobile TCM clinics, Job Hub, weekly meet-ups with residents called “coffee session” and Project Hope.
No election loser I know (besides Sitoh Yi-Pin) has decided to stick around post-elections, which is indeed a real pity that he ended up being shifted to Tampines.
In any case, both candidates, upon defeat, never called it quits. But more important than them not quitting, is the fact that the PAP leadership did not stop them from contesting a second round and even placing them in “safer” constituencies.
There must be something about Choo and Ong that the PAP sees and wants to retain for the leadership of Singapore.