By Bhavan Jaipragas — VOTERS in a Singaporean opposition fiefdom will vote today in a by-election seen as a test of reforms launched by the ruling party, in power for 53 years, to address rising public discontent. The contest in Hougang, a rebellious ward held by the Workers' Party for 21 years, is Singapore's first by-election since the People's Action Party (PAP) suffered its worst showing yet in a general election 12 months ago.
The PAP, in control since before independence, was jolted when it got an all-time low of 60 per cent of all votes cast and the opposition grabbed an unprecedented six seats in the 87-member parliament. The PAP holds the rest. "Some voters will certainly treat the by-election as a referendum on the PAP government's policies and actions since May 2011," said political observer Eugene Tan, a law professor at the Singapore Management University.
Issues in last year's election like immigration, the cost of living, a growing income gap, high salaries of cabinet ministers and overcrowding in public transport have not gone away, Tan said. After last year's vote, the government stepped up the construction of public-housing flats, budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade public transport, and reduced the intake of foreign workers.
Cabinet ministers also took a pay cut but they remain the highest-paid politicians in the world, with the prime minister still getting a basic annual salary of $1.73 million.
Singapore says the high salaries are designed to deter corruption and attract talented people from the private sector.
The Hougang seat was left vacant in February after the opposition Workers' Party sacked its MP over allegations of extramarital affairs, giving the PAP an opportunity to redeem itself if it takes the seat. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is now putting his reputation on the line in Hougang by campaigning all-out for his party's candidate, Desmond Choo, 34, who is fighting the Workers' Party's Png Eng Huat, 50.
Apart from national issues, many Hougang residents are angry at the PAP's policy of putting opposition wards at the back of the queue for upgrades of public-housing estates, where more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans live.