The opposition in Singapore
In 1991, the opposition in Singapore won 4 seats. Soon after, it was down to 2, and that was because only 2 of those guys did a good job as MPs. They are Low Thia Khiang and Chiam See Tong.
Now everybody can’t wait for 2016 or whenever the next election is going to be called. I did feel that certain changes were in the air just before the last elections, but even then I had difficulty predicting that it was going to be such a tough fight for the PAP. I think one of the most exciting experiences I had last year, even more so than moving to the University of Mexico, was going to the political rallies. And finding out that there were people who looked capable of leading the opposition. Wijeysingha, Pritam Singh, Sylvia Lim, Ang Yong Guan, Tan Jee Say, Nicole Seah, Hazel Poa, Yee Jenn Jong. A great beast had awoken, and the people were lining up to take potshots at the PAP.
Later on, there were the presidential elections, and if not for the fact that Tan Jee Say and Tan Kin Lian had split the anti-Tony Tan votes, Tan Cheng Bok could have been the president of Singapore. Which may or may not have been a good thing. But it was a mighty scare.
Now, obviously we are now in the morning after that glorious one night stand, and we awake to figure out who these new people are. And things do not look as rosy for the opposition 9 months on. The Singapore Peoples’ Party, which is Chiam See Tong’s party had it worst – honestly I wouldn’t know what would happen to that party because most of its reputation rested on Chiam See Tong. If they didn’t get elected – honestly I thought that GRC would have had a chance if CST was in better shape, but you know…
Things in the opposition camp are a little messy at the moment. We have a series of battles. First, we have the Peoples’ Association versus the Hougang – Aljunied town council saga. Then we have the fight between the opposition parties. The Chinese New Year visit to AMK hub was supposed to be a symbol of opposition between the parties, with members from SPP, SDP and NSP walking the ground together. But after all it was Reform Party who had contested AMK, and Kenneth Jeyaretnam was not too pleased. He didn’t send representatives from the Reform Party. Also, there was the unedifying sight of Eric Tan quitting the party after he and Gerald Giam were within 5% of winning East Coast. I think it was because he was passed over for some leadership position of the Worker’s Party. Then there was the Worker’s Party debate in parliament about the salaries of the ministers, which is something that the Worker’s Party unfortunately could have done better in. The difficulty of that debate is that there is after all some merit to the PAP’s position that you just had to pay the ministers and the top echelon well. And the fact was that the Worker’s Party didn’t have access to a lot of the data that the PAP based their parliamentary debates on.
And then there was the Yaw Shin Leong saga where you had a lot of accusations of marital infidelity being leveled at YSL. Since then, he was fired from the WP, lost his seat and there was turmoil for all the parties, except ironically the WP themselves. First, the prime minister waffled on whether to call for a by-election, when it was perfectly clear to anybody who has his pulse on the ground that not to have a by-election was extremely costly politically. Then he bowed down to pressure and said that he would call for a by-election, but would not specify the date. Increasingly it looks as though this was delaying tactics for the PAP to be more prepared for the by-elections.
Things look even worse for the National Solidary Party. While most of the other parties made it clear that it would not run for Hougang, the NSP refused to rule out putting a candidate up for elections. There was even talk of getting Tan Jee Say to run for elections as an independent candidate, and for NSP people to support him. Goh Meng Seng, the former secgen of NSP has been making all kinds of startling remarks, probably as payback for how WP “snatched” Kallang Moulmein away from NSP. He even raised the possibility of Nicole Seah running for Hougang, forcing her to put out a statement saying that neither herself nor the any other opposition party candidate should participate if WP were going to put somebody there. The internet was abuzz with rumours that the National Solidary Party were arguing among themselves over this issue – one faction wanted to rule out contesting in Hougang, another faction wanted to fight with Worker’s Party over Hougang. Seems like they really don’t understand the rules of the game.
More generally, there is a perception that now that the Worker’s Party has established itself as the second most important party in Singapore, it has become a more closed organization. It has removed from its ranks people who would be seen as troublemakers: Goh Meng Seng, James Gomez and Yaw Shin Leong. This has possibly displeased not a few people, who feel that they are becoming too similar to the PAP. It would be very startling if the opposition parties all started thinking that they had to take the WP down, in addition to taking the PAP down, in order to create a “more level playing field” but that is what seems to be happening. The story is still unfolding: the Hougang elections have yet to be called. There will still be more twists and turns in the story yet.
Now the opposition are being taken seriously, and they are being held to account for their actions. The romance is over. 1 year ago, we all stood transfixed when a lot of capable candidates came forward to join forces against the PAP. Now their show of unity is fraying. I’m not certain that SPP or RP are going to be viable forces in the next GE. WP and SDP have got their act together, but SDP just seems to be more of an NGO than a viable political party. NSP seemed to be a party which looked set to be a great force, but now it seems to be an umbrella of disparate forces coming together in a marriage of convenience for GE 2011, and are currently slugging it out for supremacy. I’m not totally sure their leadership knows what they’re doing.
There were 2 considerations for me wrt to the opposition. 1. Did I think that the opposition people were capable of running things as well as the PAP? Not a chance, even if they were to have better intentions. 2. Do I think we need an opposition? Yes. We actually needed an opposition back in the 90s before we charted the course that we are following today. So I think it's a good idea to vote more opposition members in, throw them into the fire and see what comes out of it. We need to train people to be opposition members in parliament.
Then we go on to the purpose of opposition in Singapore. Is their purpose to win elections? Or to be dissidents? Or to govern?
I felt that people in Singapore were more outspoken about what they wanted and expected from the government this time around. When things were better and life was more comfortable - say before the great Asian Financial Crisis, people were probably too well taken care of to think too hard about what they wanted the government to do. The government emerged with a lot of credit after that crisis because Singapore did have very good foundations in place. But after that, they embarked on that one policy that drove a lot of Singaporeans up the wall: foreign talent.
Yes, Singapore needs foreign talent. Yes, they need cheap labour, and they need talented people from the region. But apparently there was one main reason why the PAP brought in MORE THAN 1 MILLION of them, and that was because they thought that they would get citizens who were more loyal to them. Also – when you are a slave master, there never seems to be enough slaves to go around. We don’t need 1 million of them. Maybe a few hundred thousand would do. Well that backfired spectacularly.
It took 2 election cycles for things to reach boiling point. A few PAP loyalists would talk about the "rage" of the people - probably the poor embittered souls, not able to withstand the greater heat. People were losing faith in the system. But the point is - do they also have trust in the opposition?
One of the perennial problems with the opposition was that they always had infighting. The typical picture you would see of the opposition member was that he was an old crank, lost in his thoughts, not very coherent, but vacillating between messianic self belief and thousand yard stare despondence. He would have his own agenda, convinced that he would be the one who would "save" Singapore from the PAP.
It was my hope that the opposition would have outgrown this phase of development when I heard that they had a co-ordinated plan for nomination day. At least they managed to avoid three cornered fights, with the exception of Desmond Lim who proceeded to be the only guy to lose his deposit. There were plenty of shows for opposition unity: the SDP rally I went to urged people to vote for the Worker's Party anyway if they weren't from one of the SDP constituencies.
But there were cracks in that facade. It turned out that somebody in SPP wanted to join up with the Reform Party to contest in AMK. The opposition members will always send a weakened team to AMK, partially for the experience and out of respect to LHL who they don't want to topple as prime minister anyway. But the party leaders were reluctant to do that: eventually, the SPP "loaned" a few party members to RP and they contested AMK, got thrashed, although not badly enough to lose their deposits.
And it turns out that the parties got into a bit of a squabble over Moulmein-Kallang. The NSP wanted to contest there because it was seen as being "winnable". But WP wanted to field a rookie team, and later expand it out from what was hopefully their stronghold in Aljunied.
Goh Meng Seng used to be in the Worker's Party, and a fairly well known guy. But he got kicked out of WP because of indiscreet remarks made over the internet. He later on became the SecGen of NSP because of his experience, but judging from his performance, wouldn't have made a very good party leader. His strategy was wrong: he should have picked one GRC, put his best people into it, and try to make them win. He had good shots at Tampines and Marine Parade. In any case, you had to feel sorry for the guy - he sold his flat to fund the campaign. His brother died of a heart attack during the campaigning, and now he finds himself superseded by younger members of the NSP. Except – now I’ve heard rumours on the internet that his selling his flat was a ruse, and that he had ties with the secret society in Hong Kong.
Therein lies another source of conflict within the opposition: you had old warhorses who had been ploughing a lone furrow for years because nobody was crazy and stubborn enough to join them. Then suddenly you had the younger net-savvy, PR-savvy, more educated people sensing that this would be a good time to enter politics and not worry about PAP party discipline. Suddenly you found yourself being outshone because they might have a few skills you didn't have. They saw things differently from you.
At the same time, the PAP is learning from their mistakes. They’re starting to admit that some of the things they did were wrong, that maybe a few of them, or a few of their friends were benefitting from their policies a little bit too much, at the expense of other Singaporeans. Maybe they thought about becoming a more respectable party, one that could still attract hard working and idealistic people simply because they were actually seen as doing the right thing. That’s the thing about the PAP – the ship was listing for a while and people simply shrugged it off, or thought that it didn’t matter. They’re starting to pay more attention to the concerns of the people – well that’s good. They’re not totally corrupt, they’ve not totally lost their way. And it’s always good to think that they can be counted on, but somebody had to kick them up the backside now and then. For years they’ve been telling us that a little bit of competition is good for us, well it’s time they tasted their own fucking medicine.