The general public perception was that it was going to be a prolonged wait for the Hougang by-election to take place given the enigmatic attitude of PM Lee Hsien Loong on the subject. It could have been a divine awakening on his part that prompted him to make the much-awaited announcement of a by-election in Hougang SMC. President Tony Tan Keng Yam issued a writ of election on 9 May setting Nomination Day for 16 May and Polling Day on 26 May. That PM Lee's sudden change of heart caught the public by surprise is not an exaggeration. There could be considerable speculations on his change of heart but foremost is probably a sense of realisation that putting off the by-election sine die is not in the long term interest of the PAP politically.The possibility of the court action brought by Madam Vellama Marie Muthu, a Hougang voter, challenging his "unfettered" discretion being ended up in his disfavour could not be ruled out.
This by-election announcement is indeed a welcoming piece of news to Singaporeans, especially Hougang voters. The PAP and Workers' Party (WP) lost no time in introducing their respective candidates for the by-election. Three opposition parties have declared that they will stay away from the hustings, virtually making it a straight fight between the PAP and WP. PAP's candidate is 34 year-old Desmond Choo, a deputy director at NTUC Industrial Relations Unit. WP's candidate is 50 year-old Png Eng Huat, a businessman.
Mr Low Thia Khiang, WP secretary-general, as a former MP of Hougang SMC had been nurturing the Hougang constituency for the past twenty years to make it into a WP stronghold. Therefore Desmond Choo faces an uphill, if not impossible, task in trying to wrest the Hougang SMC from WP. As if to pre-empt any attempt by the opposition or other interested parties to equate this by-election as a referendum on the performance of the PAP since the General Election in May 2011, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam stressed at his press conference on 10 May to introduce Desmond Choo that this by-election is a local election strictly about choosing the MP who can help its residents solve their problems. As if by collusion a PAP spin doctor in the Straits Times wrote a commentary under the title: Poll is not a referendum on either PAP or WP. She asked the question whether Hougang is just a local election and answered by saying it is certainly not a national referendum on the performance on either PAP or WP. Earlier she had said it is not a referendum on the performance of the PAP since May 2011.
It is not difficult to understand why DPM Tharman and the Straits Times Review Editor went to some length to emphasise that the Hougang by-election as a local election and not a national referendum. The former WP MP Yaw Shin Leong won the Hougang seat by a wide margin of 64.8 per cent of the votes in the GE in May2011 and the general feeling among Singaporeans is that the PAP may lose by a bigger margin. Hougang voters' anger over PM Lee's procrastination in holding the by-election may be a relevant factor. Whatever DPM Tharman and the Straits Times may assert to the contrary there is nothing to prevent Hougang voters who vote for the WP candidate and other right-thinking Singaporeans to regard the by-election result as a national referendum on the performance of the PAP since May 2011.This should not distress the PAP unduly because in the unlikly event that the PAP candidate secures victory against the general trend of opinion, this will in turn become a referendum on their good performance.