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Battle for Hougang warms up

PAP's Desmond Choo serves up Teochew porridge to residents as WP's Png Eng Huat makes house visits. -TNP
Koh Hui Theng and Lediati Tan

Wed, Mar 28, 2012
The New Paper

Something tasty is stirring in Hougang. The opposition stronghold, where many Teochew hearts beat, is pulsing with many questions as well.

"Did you hear? Workers' Party (WP) member Png Eng Huat was giving out fliers."

"Did you see? People's Action Party (PAP) member Desmond Choo was spotted on a walkabout."

Talk of an Hougang by-election started when its Member of Parliament (MP) Yaw Shin Leong was abruptly sacked by WP after allegations of an affair emerged. He consequently lost his seat.

Neither PAP nor WP has named its candidate for Hougang, but sightings of Mr Choo and Mr Png are fuelling speculation.

Those sniffing for a possible by-election followed their noses - and the smell of porridge - to Poh Teck Siang Tng temple at Hougang Avenue 5.

While cooking pots of piping hot muay (Teochew for porridge) yesterday, temple chairman Ng Yang Hua said (in Teochew, of course): "I thought of giving residents free vegetarian porridge breakfast five years ago.

"But it was only late last year that the temple had the resources to carry it out. Desmond (Choo) helped to publicise the event by telling people about it."

Mr Choo, the Hougang PAP branch chairman, added: "The temple and Hougang citizens' consultative committee are collaborating to further our joint outreach to Hougang residents, especially the senior citizens."

Free porridge will be offered "as long as there is demand for it". About 200 residents scooped up yesterday's fare.

The first Sunday porridge session, on March 18, drew some 150 people. The $500 bill each time is fully borne by sponsors and temple volunteers, Mr Ng, 67, said.

As they tucked into the Teochew muay, residents bantered with Mr Choo, 34. "You look well. Been eating very well, huh?" a sprightly aunty teased, staring pointedly at Mr Choo's tummy.

He laughed.

At another table, he asked: "How's the muay, ah ma? Good? Are you going for the brisk walk at MacRitchie Reservoir?"

Is this porridge diplomacy at work? MrChoo's chance to bond with residents before the by-election is called?

No, he said.

"The free porridge is the temple's long-term engagement and charity (plan).

" The idea came about last year, before the by-election issue surfaced."

Free tuition for Primary 6 pupils - an idea that took off last October - was so well-received that the team has already started planning for this year's version.

There are also plans to launch a permanent job placement centre next month.

"It will help residents upgrade, re-skill and get better jobs," said Mr Choo.


"This will come in useful as the economy becomes more uncertain."

The job scheme is tailored to suit Hougang residents, so aunties who prefer to work near their homes can be matched with openings in Defu Lane, Ang Mo Kio or Serangoon, said PAP's assistant branch secretary in Hougang, Mr Lionel de Souza, 69.

Such activities "show we care for you, the resident, as a human being", he added.

Still, Hougang grassroots leaders weren't the first to call on porridge to warm residents' hearts and minds.

Potong Pasir MP Sitoh Yih Pin, who has been adviser to the Potong Pasir grassroots organisations since 2001, famously served up abalone porridge during the ward's Chinese New Year celebrations in 2005 and 2006.

Despite the abalone porridge offensive and an $80-million estate upgrading carrot, Mr Sitoh lost to opposition stalwart Chiam See Tong in his second attempt in the 2006 General Election (GE).

He eventually won the seat with 50.4 per cent of the votes against Mrs Lina Chiam in last year's GE after Mr Chiam left to contest in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Choo's efforts in Hougang, a WP stronghold for more than 20 years, will pay off if he becomes PAP's candidate in the ward's by-election.

The incumbent WP has chosen a more low-key method to win over hearts and minds.

Residents told The New Paper that in recent weeks, MrPng, 50, a semi-retired company director, accompanied by WP representatives, has made house-to-house visits at different blocks to introduce himself.

He also left them fliers bearing his photograph, some information about himself and a contact number.

But he told reporters at last Wednesday evening's Meet-the-People Session in Hougang that the house visits are what he has been doing all along.

"I do drop by. I'm a grassroots person, so I have to reach out to the residents. Even the needy, I still visit them."

After Mr Yaw's sacking, Mr Png was put in charge of the Hougang Constituency Committee - the WP's grassroots arm.

Asked whether he has been put in Hougang to do damage control, Mr Png said: "Personally, no. I'm just doing what I'm called here to do, to run the grassroots. I'm focused."

He said that three voluntary welfare organisations have been working with the committee to run food programmes for needy residents in Hougang for at least five years now.

When asked to comment on Mr Choo's porridge programme, Mr Png said: "This is their programme. Like I said, we've been doing this on our own for so long..."

Political observer Zulkifli Baharudin said that as there is a vacant seat in Hougang, it's only natural that both WP and PAP would want to do more for the residents to win them over.


He said: "Whether or not it will be well-received by the residents is something that they have to make their own calculations for.

"At the end of the day, it's a good thing for the residents."

Asked if he has eaten the porridge served by Mr Choo, retiree Toy Siok Kiang, 89, an Hougang resident for about 30 years, said in Teochew: "I don't want any porridge. I have all kinds of porridge at home.

"It's only served once a week. I would have starved to death by then."

Mr Toy was at last Wednesday's MPS session to alert Mr Png to some faulty outdoor lighting. He later walked with Mr Png, in the rain, to show him the location.

Bank executive Eric Tan shrugged when asked about the by-election buzz. He said: "I'm not directly affected by activities like free porridge and free tuition, so I don't pay attention."

Born and bred in Hougang, Mr Tan, 31, added: "I wonder why more activities are introduced only during the GE or by-election.

"To me, such moves seem insincere. I'm not impressed."

A retiree who wanted to be known only as Madam Leong, 77, also said she would skip the free porridge meal.

"I have enough to eat at home," she said in Mandarin.

Then, giving a conspiratorial grin, she said: "Free porridge or lift upgrading, all these, I can live without."


Former foreign minister George Yeo

Part of the People's Action Party's (PAP) team that lost to the Workers' Party in Aljunied GRC in last May's General Election, Mr Yeo is now vice-chairman of Hong Kong property developer Kerry Group.

Netizens have urged Mr Yeo to run in the opposition ward.





Former SAF Chief Guards Officer, Colonel Nelson Yau

The head of the NDP organising committee stepped down earlier this month for personal reasons. He is believed to be the first SAF officer to do so, leading to speculation that he may have left to give politics - and the by-election - a shot.

The Straits Times reported that he is unlikely to be fielded as acandidate.




NTUC deputy secretary-general Ong Ye Kung

A former civil servant and one of those considered a potential office-holder, he was also part of the PAP's Aljunied GRC team.

He is heading the SMRT's internal investigation team looking into last December's train disruptions.





MediaCorp actor and Young PAP member Tay Ping Hui

Former National Solidarity Party secretary-general Goh Meng Seng floated Mr Tay as a possible face to watch out for.

The actor's edge? His highly public profile - a "fast track" way of gaining recognition among voters in an SMC where individual branding is key.

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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