Backstab your Mentors
Now, first, I think this is one of those rare posts that people on both sides of the electoral divide are going to hate. The pro-PAP gang is going to hate this because I’m trying to work out how to go up against them. The anti-PAP gang is going to hate this because I’m going to tear down their leaders.
How the opposition fucked up
Ironically, one of the things that occurred to me was that the course of events in 2011 was actually driven by the PAP. The opposition had improved, but the PAP made a lot of unpopular policies. This time, however, I think that the opposition had itself to blame, which means, ironically, this time, the results were to a larger extent driven by the opposition.
During 2011, I imagined that this was a new dawn in events. But I also knew that it was a tentative first step. I had been to the rallies in 2011. They had made a few claims:
- We care about you more than the government cares about you.
- The government has found it so hard to change its ways that it wouldn’t be able to do so.
- We have a new way of running Singapore.
But I don’t think it really delivered much on all these counts. It was a pretty exciting time in the blogosphere, because we managed to get a lot of discussion on policy. Still, I suspect it might not be as substantive as I had hoped for. That's the irony: the opposition screwed itself by raising expectations to a certain level, and then failing to deliver on those promises by making the forward progression as organisations. Most unfortunately, 2011 does not seem to be repeatable. We won't likely have a scenario in the near future where the PAP fluffs its lines, unless our next prime minister after Lee Hsien Loong is an incompetent buffoon. However, as Interjit Singh has mentioned on his facebook post, LKY can only die once, and Singapore can only have SG50 once. So the conditions of GE2015 are also not repeatable. I had thought that the new normal meant a stronger opposition and the PAP listening to its people more. In truth, only the latter came to pass. This was a historic opportunity for the opposition to consolidate its gains. It blew it.
I remember thinking to myself, well, we know what’s wrong with Singapore. And we know that there are deep issues involved. Singapore is just too capitalist. It’s allowed too many foreigners in in too short a time. It’s too mercilessly competitive. It’s too lopsided towards finance. It allowed the land prices to go crazy. It’s too exploitative. It treats foreign workers like shit. I thought that the ground would be sweet for the opposition this time around because those problems are very difficult to solve. I wasn't expecting that the PAP would make that much headway into solving them. The irony is that a few things actually got worse this time around. But the PAP turned around in large part because it presented itself as being humble and willing to listen. Unfortunately, Singaporeans are suckers for that kind of bullshit. So you can screw them as hard as you can, you can jerk them around all you want, but so long as your external appearance is humble, there's no limit to what you can get away with.
So that’s the job for the opposition. Put your heads together and analyse everything from the top down. Be as wonkish as the PAP, or at least the civil servants. When I first came across the Roy Ngerng blog, you’re not going to believe this, but there was a time when he came across as a studious and serious guy, wanting to flip things over and around and talk about what the government has done wrong. However, he started getting quixotic and misinterpreting what goes on in the CPF and getting sued in court by the government.
Now, the problem is that we’re not really hearing a lot of the intelligent analysis by people from the opposition. Every now and then you will see a really cool project from the tech scene, and maybe or maybe not the govt had a hand in it. Of course this gahment loves shiny new playthings. But you do get the sense that things are moving forwards. In fact, the government was having a national conversation, and this was widely derided as “pretty wayang” at that time. But I couldn’t help but notice that there wasn’t so much of a national conversation on the opposition side. Now, to be sure, there is a lot of talk about how the system isn’t fair, and it’s tilted against them. And perhaps there are needs for checks and balances. But when it comes to the more solid issues such as economic strategy, how to improve education, healthcare, immigration policy, I don’t expect to hear all that much from them. What the fuck just happened? We’re not that interested to hear them highlight what are problems. But also to fix them.
After 2011, the two most successful parties were SPP and WP. SPP, because of the Chiam factor, managed to snag an NCMP seat. But ultimately what did that party represent, outside of Chiam See Tong? Chiam See Tong is not going to be around forever to offer guidance to his wife. NSP contested many of the seats in 2011, but they lost all of them. In a way, they were a bit of a refugee camp back then already: Nicole Seah was one of many of their candidates who defected from RP. After that, it has been debacle after debacle from them. First, their strategy in 2011 turned out to be disastrous. If they had put all their best candidates into one GRC and attacked with Tampines or Marine Parade with it, they might have been successful. But they were separated out according to whether they were part of the old guard or part of the “refugees”. Then, it was notable that Nicole Seah did not assume any of the top roles in the CEC in spite of being by far the most successful NSP candidate in 2011. To be fair, she had barely been in NSP for a few months when she became a phenomenon. But probably the leadership of NSP didn’t allow her to take on a larger role. In fact, I don’t really know what they were planning.
Then Nicole Seah quit NSP and politics. In fact, NSP very publicly asked Nicole Seah if she was going to run in 2015 in their colours. What kind of an idiot asks this question in public?
Then Jeanette Chong Aruldoss quits NSP and joins SPP (didn’t do very well there either.)
Then, in defiance of the informal arrangement between the opposition parties, the NSP decides to have a three corner fight in Macpherson. Hazel Poa quits the party in disgust. Cheo Chai Chen very publicly questions Tin Pei Ling’s ability to perform the job as a single mother, conveniently forgetting that Kevryn Lim, the eye candy candidate to replace Nicole Seah was campaigning based on her own experiences as a single mother in Singapore. He managed to gather 200 votes, lesser than any other candidate, and lost his deposit. Three corner fights, in this day and age, is extremely brutal to anybody who’s not #1 and #2. Everybody either wants to vote PAP or vote against the PAP, and everybody knows that if you’re not voting for the most successful opposition candidate, you’re basically just spoiling your vote. And in this highly connected age, everybody knows that the most successful opposition candidate is Worker’s Party. That’s why the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance got wiped out in the Punggol East by-elections.
Well, at least Kevryn Lim didn’t do too badly in Sembawang. I don’t know if it’s because they’re running against an unpopular guy in Khaw Boon Wan, or the hamsap uncles enjoy the sight of her.
I’m not even going to analyse in detail what happened to RP, SDA, PPP and SFP, who are vehicles for, respectively, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Desmond Lim, Goh Meng Seng and Tan Jee Say. Just because you have been around for longer than everybody else, it doesn't mean that you know how to run the show. Between them these parties – which are basically unelectable – have run for 31 seats. That’s giving 31 seats away to the PAP. It’s really no use telling them to fade away from the scene. Desmond Lim and Kenneth Jeyaretnam did not get the message the last time their slate got wiped clean in the Punggol East by-elections.
I wish I could say that there were more viable political forces than the PAP, the WP and the SDP, but I don’t think there are. SFP’s weakness is basically Tan Jee Say. It once seemed one hell of a coup that the opposition party managed to get a senior civil servant and one time assistant to Goh Chok Tong to run on its side. But he has made mistake after mistake. First, he wasn’t even that eloquent compared to his buddy Ang Yong Guan. Then, he basically spoilt Tan Cheng Bok’s opportunity to win the elected presidency, which is something that a lot of people are not going to forgive him for. At the same time, he quit the SDP, thus making it perfectly clear that he considers that party a piece of clothing that he can ditch anytime he wants. Then his party has a horrible name and a horrible slogan. Can there be anything more xenophobic than “Singaporeans First”? Even the Tea Parties and the National Socialists (better known as the Nazis) do not wear their xenophobia on their sleeve as nakedly as these guys do. Are they completely blind and tone deaf to their politics?
OK, I don’t really want to be too harsh on Tan Jee Say. Maybe he had the right idea, and later on I will explain why. Singaporeans First Party is still new. It is possible that he will build it up to be a larger force. Apparently I heard that he managed to get a few middle to high ex-civil servants into his ranks. Perhaps he will prove to be a capable organizer. But he has no brand name, other than “I used to be Goh Chok Tong’s right hand man”. Not that much better than Desmond Lim “I used to be Chiam See Tong’s right hand man.”
Of the new guys, this time we’ve had fewer who have captured the imagination compared to last time, but the additions of Leon Pereira, He Ting Ru, Paul Tambyah (who actually delivered a few speeches in 2011) and Daniel Goh seem to augur well for their respective parties. I haven’t been keeping close watch on the candidates, so if there’s anybody I’ve missed out on, sorry.
That brings us back to the infamous horse trading party conducted by the opposition parties prior to the elections. There were plenty of good intentions, because it helps to prevent the opposition parties from engaging in three corner fights with each other. But the unintended side effect of the opposition horse trading is that it entrenches the old guard in power. Effectively it is saying, you deserve the right to contest an elections simply because you’ve been around for long enough. So the parties of Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Tan Jee Say, Goh Meng Seng and Desmond Lim have the right to waste everybody’s time.
Suppose one day you had only the WP and the SDP meeting with each other, and agreeing not to step on each other’s toes. Then anybody else who crosses the WP and SDP, well hope they have a few thousand dollars to spend on the electoral deposit. That’s the problem with political parties in Singapore. It takes a long time to grow a political party into a viable force. One does not simply, because you’re not able to see eye to eye with other people in your party, quit your party and start something from zero. This is because it takes a hell of an effort to grow your party from zero to something, anything.
If you were to ask me what WP represents, I would say it is an alternative to the PAP, a little populist and a little dominated by the Chinese educated, but the standpoint is centrist. It’s been responsible for pulling the PAP towards the left in recent times. Most importantly, they are strong in grassroots support and they have experience in municipal affairs. If you were to ask me what SDP represents, it is the party of wonks who are on a leftist platform. They favour more aggressive income redistribution, more on health, less on defence. I’ve heard one or two complaints from the SDP people about CSJ being a little difficult to work with.
Now – even the SDP, which has made some positive progress, I’ve heard a few alarming stories coming out of the SDP. He had quite a few good people working for him to produce an alternative vision for Singapore. And not only are those people not there anymore, they’ve departed on distinctly acrimonious circumstances. Also the circumstances of the departures of Vincent Wijeysingha are pretty alarming – turns out that not every one of them supports gay rights! Michelle Lee, well, some rumours were that Chee Soon Juan tried undermining her.
So kudos to SDP for being so good about polishing their image. Kudos to them for being able to produce (relatively) good shadow government plans. But Chee Soon Juan probably knows that it’s the end of the line for him, which is why he opened his mouth again to asked to work with the Worker’s Party. Well, the Worker’s Party does need some help, I guess. It’d be nice if he were to go help them run the town council.
Backstabbing ain’t such a bad thing.
It reminds me of something. The Worker’s Party had JB Jeyaretnam as a leader for quite a while, but after 2001, Low Thia Khiang started to assume leadership of the party. As we now know, Low Thia Khiang is a better leader of the Worker’s Party than JBJ ever was. Not going to take away anything from JBJ or his pioneering achievements or his bulldog spirit. But the worldview that’s centered around perpetual conflict and oppression can only go so far. There needs to be some more focus on building a society, on creating policy, on initiatives, on doing things. We’re really past the point where you need to go up to a governing authority to ask for things, to fight for your rights. In this day and age, we have the Nike ethos: just do it. Build something first, and then see what happens. See if people are going to support it or tear it down.
For me, other than the Worker’s Party, I don’t see any leadership in the opposition parties. This is something that’s going to hinder them for years to come. I haven’t seen JB Jeyaretnam in action for long enough to have any opinions on his leadership quality. But Kenneth Jeyaretnam is a bad leader, let’s put it this way. One of the most successful tactics of the PAP in the last 4 years was to put the spotlight firmly on people like Roy Ngerng, Han Hui Hui and M Ravi. And Amos Yee. There are many voters out there who don’t follow the opposition very closely, and many of them would have missed out on the more reputable parts of the opposition, and mainly concentrated on the bad hats getting charged in court for being dishonest liars. Now, it’s mainly a good thing that they’re with Kenneth Jeyaretnam, so the damage they can do to the opposition is limited.
For the rest, you can have a look at some of the stories I’ve heard and ask yourself if it reflects well on the leadership of the opposition parties. Some might say yes, I say no. In fact, yes, I had criticized Goh Meng Seng, Tan Jee Say, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Desmond Lim and Chiam See Tong for forming their own parties. But consider:
1. Goh Meng Seng left NSP to form PPP. Before that he left WP to join NSP and became the secretary general.
2. Tan Jee Say left SDP, spent a year or two in the wilderness, possibly shopped around for a party to join, then formed SFP.
3. JB Jeyaretnam was possibly ousted out of WP, and then he formed Reform Party. When he died, his son took over as leader. Quite unfortunately.
4. Desmond Lim took over as leader of the SDA after Chiam See Tong pulled out his SPP from SDA.
5. Chiam See Tong was played out when he was removed from the SDP. He had to form his own party, SPP, to continue serving in Singapore politics.
6. Benjamin Pwee took over the Democratic Progressive Party, perhaps because for whatever reason he couldn’t continue in the Singapore Progressive Party.
All these narratives have this in common: a prominent member of an opposition party leaves that party to form his own party because of working relationship issues. This is not ideal, but perhaps they felt it was necessary. But to me, it reflects the fact that the opposition has been hobbled for many years because of a lack of strong leadership. WP is in good hands. Low Thia Khiang is no Lee Kuan Yew but he’s a good enough politician, and the same can be said of Sylvia Lim.
This is a really unfortunate situation, because it’s the party logo which conveys the fruits of your labour. It is the symbol of all the political struggle that has gone on under the banner of that party. And make no mistake, it’s one hell of a brand name. Everybody loves an underdog, especially a hard working underdog. Trouble is, you can work your fingers to the bone, but so long as somebody else is controlling the party, you can’t do anything else with it. So if the parties are in the hands of unworthy people, too bad for you, too bad for the rest of us who were depending on the opposition to provide a good check on the PAP. So while I don’t 100% approve of these guys forming new parties under their own names, and making the landscape even more crowded, I can understand why they did it.
Vivian Balakrishnan made a bit of a gaffe when he said that the PAP does not have a tradition of backstabbing its mentors. Quite literally, this is true. LKY was the leader of the PAP from the time it was formed, and until when he stepped down as PM. Nobody managed to backstab him successfully. But as you can see from this video, he backstabbed a lot of people in his time: The British. Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan. The Barisan Socialis. Well, you know what? Politics is like that. It’s like being a plumber, a mechanic, a manual laborer. If you are not getting your hands dirty, you’re not doing the job. There are a lot of people who want to do right by the cause, they’re willing to work hard and put up the long hours. But you know what? For whatever reason, they want the world to be fair, and when they get backstabbed, they run away at the sight of trouble. Think about the backstabbers, Lee Kuan Yew and Chee Soon Juan. They are hardy survivors, because they’re also willing to do a bit of backstabbing from time to time.
So here’s an appeal to all opposition party members.
I'm taking a page from this rather entertaining video that was aired during the elections:
Step one, look at your party’s leadership. Look at who has the cadre membership. Study them closely. Are they worthy members? Are they worth your time and effort going to door to door, talking to all the residents? Are you working for a good leader? Of course, I’m sure that there are people amongst the senior ranks of opposition parties who are doing just fine, you just don’t backstab a person just for the sake of it. If you’re working for a good leader, and you think your party’s leadership is sound, then stop here, continue your good work, and good luck for GE 2020.
Step two, identify somebody else in the party who’s a good leader. Try and figure out what it’d be like working for him instead. Can you figure out how to form an alternate center of power around this other guy? If so, be patient.
Step three, when you have amassed the right amount of support, overthrow the bad old leader. Just stab him in the back or something. If he’s not dead yet, then stab him again and again until he’s dead.
Because, guys, 2011 was a great opportunity for the opposition to make inroads into Singapore politics, and you guys blew the chance. You ran on a platform of transparency and accountability. Are you able to deliver, within the party, what you have just preached? And if the answer is no, then what the fuck? Figure out how to get rid of the old guard. Thank them for their good work, and then tell them they have to go, in order for the organization to progress.
Because if you can’t even overthrow the leaders of your own party, then how are you supposed to overthrow the PAP when the time comes?
Always allow for the possibility that a party will be good enough to run the government when the time comes. But also, always remember, were Lee Kuan Yew, Toh Chin Chye, Rajaretnam and Goh Keng Swee great guys before they assumed power, or were they great guys only after they assumed power? PAP already had their great leaders in place before they got voted in. They already had good people, even when they were in opposition. What was so attractive about the opposition in 2011 was that it almost seemed that they had the talent, the dedication and the drive. So remember what the opposition promised in 2011, and hold them to it. If you want to cheat on your wife, then at the very least, cheat with somebody who's as good in bed as your wife.
Then again, how many opposition parties do you need? Here is a prediction of GE2015 which went viral after the results were announced, because of how accurate it was. One of the things that was said was "why on earth did the opposition parties send their best guys into GRCs?" But then again, you had to pick a place to walk the ground. So you had to decide pretty early. And as we have seen in the case of Yee Jenn Jong, after having spent many months walking the ground, all your efforts can end up with nothing if the boundaries are redrawn to swallow up your SMC. Still, one wonders why none of the opposition parties other than the SPP sent their best guys into SMCs. Even SDP, who had run such a good campaign for its own standards, blundered by putting Chee Soon Juan and Paul Thambyah into an SMC. Even worse was SFP, who didn't manage to put Tan Jee Say and Ang Yong Guan into SMCs. Perhaps it was too late to change their long term plans. Anyway, how many opposition parties do you need? Many democratic parties are fine with two main political parties. There is the left side and the right side. In Taiwan there is the Hokkien and the Mandarin side. In the UK, for the longest time, it was mainly Labour and Conservative, although the Lib Dems (briefly), the UKIP and the Scottish National are making a few inroads. Maybe the "rest of the opposition" don't really have to hang around. Maybe we are truly better off without them.
Then again, the WP better wake up its own idea. They are still able to attract good guys like Leon Pereira and Daniel Goh into their ranks. But they have to become much better at managing their own town councils. Also, the system is not set up to favour them. At least with Potong Pasir and Hougang, you knew that the opposition would hold on to them every year. People who know how to manage town councils may get spooked at how easy it is to lose Aljunied GRC, and after that they'll have to close down their business, because no PAP town council will ever want to work with them. They didn't manage to conclusively prove that they know how to run a town council, although by some accounts they are improving. We'll see what happens the next round.
GE 2011 - A New Hope
GE 2015 - The Empire Strikes Back
GE 20?? - ????
NB: I'm going to find something new to blog about. I've been out of Singapore for more than 4 years and while the GE 2011 did capture my imagination for a short while, I don't think I'm going to care about it for much longer. I'll just leave it to whoever is interested to build up the opposition again. I used to think along the lines of "how's the opposition going to progress". But now I find myself asking a more basic and fundamental question: what do we need an opposition for? Well, we'll certainly need an opposition when the bad old PAP comes back. But until then, who's going to hold the fort?