Why was it not Ong Ye Kung?
When colorectal surgeon Koh Poh Koon showed up in Punggol East on Monday as the PAP’s prospective candidate in the upcoming by-election, many party activists were taken by surprise.
Dr Koh, who joined the party only three weeks ago, is an unknown to the PAP rank-and-file. Some senior party cadres in Telok Blangah, where he lives and volunteers with the residents’ committee, have never even met him.
He is not a particularly prominent nor active grassroots leader, was not involved in 2011’s General Election, and prior to his entry into politics this week, had next to no ground experience.
According to Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, Dr Koh was in the pipeline to be fielded in the next General Election, probably in 2016; former Speaker Michael Palmer’s resignation for an extra-marital affair accelerated his ascension.
The compressed timeline has robbed Dr Koh of time to familiarise himself with party activists. But on all other fronts, he is the sort of well-credentialled and committed candidate that the PAP, with a few notable exceptions, usually fields.
The rank-and-file have no reason not to welcome their party’s candidate, but for one: they were expecting someone else.
Over the few weeks since Mr Palmer stepped down, former Aljunied candidate Ong Ye Kung was seen as a perfect choice to field in Punggol East.
He already has a national profile and hard-won campaign experience, an important edge in a snap poll.
A former top civil servant who was once Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s principal private secretary, he resigned from government in early 2011 to join NTUC, where he had been seconded since 2008.
This was widely seen as a move to pave his way to contest the 2011 polls. In the run-up to the GE, he was tipped for ministerial glory as one of the PAP’s fourth-generation leadership.
The PAP lost in Aljunied, martyred to the Workers’ Party’s First World Parliament cause. But at a post-election press conference, PM Lee said of Mr Ong: “At some point, I will bring him in.”
The Punggol East by-election, despite its deplorable genesis, seemed like a good opportunity to fulfil that promise.
When Hougang had its by-election last May thanks to former Workers’ Party MP Yaw Shin Leong’s expulsion, Mr Ong’s name also came up, but he was never seen as a likely candidate. This was partly because the PAP already had a man on the ground in the form of unionist Desmond Choo, who lost to Mr Yaw in 2011.
The other part of the equation was that the PAP was extremely unlikely, despite Mr Yaw’s ignominious exit, to win in Hougang.
Neither premise holds in Punggol East.
But that Mr Ong was not the PAP candidate reveals several things about politician and party.
The first is that the PAP does not see Punggol East as an easy shoo-in, and risking Mr Ong’s political career that way for the second time would virtually end it.
Mr Palmer, despite five years under his belt as a likeable and effective MP, won only 54.5 per cent of the vote in 2011.
And this was in the context of a three-cornered fight, which popular wisdom says should favour the incumbent. In the by-election, the PAP’s slim vote margin may be eroded further by Mr Palmer’s misconduct.
A tough fight it will be, but still a winnable one. The ward is still the PAP’s to lose.
But some sense Mr Ong displaying a waning interest in public and political life since his brutal loss in 2011.
While still remaining the party’s branch chairman in Kaki Bukit, he resigned from NTUC last November.
The ranks of the NTUC and PAP leadership are intermingled, with eight current MPs also unionists. In Mr Ong’s departure for the private sector, some saw a signal that he wanted to close the door on politics.
In an interview with The Straits Times a year after his electoral loss, he also struck a very different note from his earnest candidate introduction.
While saying that he remains open to running again, he added: “Having said that, you can serve and make a difference without being in politics, and being in politics does not necessarily mean you are making a difference.”
But the most important reason for the PAP may have been that Mr Ong’s national profile, and his short but well-known political history, could also be unnecessary baggage for the by-election.
The party has taken pains to strike a contrite and humble note, apologising repeatedly for putting Punggol East residents through a by-election. For the PAP to then field a losing candidate whom PM Lee had promised to “bring in” could come off as opportunistic to some voters.
After all, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan had said of the WP during the Hougang by-election that they had sold “bad fruit” - in the form of Mr Yaw - to voters once.
With Mr Palmer now purged, to field Mr Ong would leave the PAP open to the charge that not only had they sold bad fruit of their own, but they were now proffering, in substitution, fruit that someone else had not bought.
Perhaps Mr Ong was not yet ready, just 18 months after Aljunied, to re-enter the political fray. Perhaps the party brass thought that an unknown candidate would also be unknown to its critics, and so be less viciously attacked.
Whatever it was, the PAP’s calculations came down to this: given the challenges it faces in the fight to keep Punggol East, the best way to start would be with a blank slate.