Fighting his first election in Aljunied GRC in 2011 was “tough”, but he doesn’t brood over the eventual history-making loss he suffered as part of the People’s Action Party (PAP) team.
“It opened my eyes to how tough it can be,” Mr Ong Ye Kung said in an interview with Channel Newsasia.
“The national mood wasn’t so good and we faced a very strong WP team led by Low Thia Khiang,” he said, referring to the Workers’ Party. “His jumping over (to join the GRC team), I think, made a big difference. But we fought the best fight we could.”
That year, the PAP not only lost Aljunied GRC but also saw its vote dived to its lowest post-Independence. Mr Ong and his team, led by George Yeo, had the ignominious honour of being the first PAP GRC team to lose in an election.
One of the lessons he learned, Mr Ong said, was “when you face a setback like that, how do you pick yourself up and soldier on?”
“Setbacks do happen, and you just have to deal with it and bounce back,” the now Minister of Education said. “Other people have much more severe setbacks and yet they bounce back. Those are inspirations.”
While it is commendable that Mr Ong did not give up politics because of one electoral defeat, it is questionable if his was a “bounce back”, to use his words.
But Mr Ong is right in saying that others have had it worse but persevered besides the odds.
He may not have been thinking of opposition candidates, but they fit exactly into this “others” that Mr Ong referred to.
When I hear PAP ministers like Mr Ong talk about how hard it was for them to bounce back after an electoral defeat, I think of all the hundreds of opposition candidates who keep coming back after every defeat, even though they knew defeat was a certainty.
Indeed, hundreds of opposition candidates have taken the even harder road and kept coming back after every devastating defeat. In Singapore, defeat as an opposition candidate is a given. You would have to have nerves of steel to keep trying after such setbacks.
To these opposition candidates, there was no red carpet laid out, no GRC back door to exploit, no coattail to hang on to, no media to tilt the advantage, no grassroots machinery at the ready to do your bidding.
But they kept bouncing back after each defeat. It’s nothing extraordinary in opposition circles. But this is extraordinary in PAP circles because PAP candidates, as Goh Chok Tong once said, will not join politics (that is, the PAP) if they are not guaranteed victory in their first elections.
And when they face defeat, it is shocking to them because it goes against their sense of entitlement. And it is a sense of entitlement they have if they demand a guarantee before they even put on the white uniform or the lightning badge.
So that’s the difference between PAP candidates and opposition ones.
Consider Chiam See Tong’s experience. 27 years, 7 general elections. He had ZERO walk overs. He fought all 7 and won 6.
That’s what inspiration is about.
Ong Ye Kung didn’t bounce back from defeat in Aljunied. Instead, he was helicoptered into Sembawang GRC to coattail behind a senior minister (Khaw Boon Wan) into what was a guaranteed victory.
Mr Ong should have stayed in Aljunied and tried for a comeback there. Then that would have been a bounce back, if he won.
And that would have been worthy of respect, like what his PAP colleague Sitoh Yihpin did, defeating Chiam in 2011, after 3 tries. Mr Sitoh’s victory was made more significant given the fact that the PAP’s overall vote had declined and it also lost Aljunied.
So, Mr Ong, being one of three in the running to be the next prime minister, should lead the way in the next general elections and stand in a SMC.
All of Singapore’s previous three prime ministers have stood in SMCs, and won.
Even Mr Ong’s PAP colleague, Tin Pei Ling, who was given a torrid time in her electoral debut in 2011, chose to fight in a SMC in 2015, and won handsomely.
Mr Ong should do the same, and if he should lose once again, he should take heart – virtually every opposition MP and candidate had lost and had to try again, and again.
It is nothing extraordinary, but it does require some nerves and courage. Just ask any opposition candidate.