Straits Times: Moving ahead, staying together…in the opposition


Even though it did not win more seats, the opposition emerged stronger and more organised at the recent general election. One month after the polls, Sue-Ann Chia and Peh Shing Huei find that one party is moving ahead while the other camp is struggling to stay together.

EVERY Monday night, a handful of Workers’ Party (WP) members and supporters gather at its Syed Alwi Road headquarters to meet the public.

Usually, few people stroll in and party faithfuls end up flipping through the day’s newspapers or chatting with each other.

But that changed after May 6. A crowd of more than 50 showed up the Monday after the polls, leaving little standing room in the main hall.

There are now around 30 people each week.

“Singaporeans are showing huge interest in joining the party,” says WP member Eric Tan, who was part of the East Coast GRC team.

Not all who show up want to become members. But at least 100 people have expressed interest and some are potential candidate material, say party members.

Others are curious to meet the WP’s election candidates. The rest want to offer moral support.

The WP has a clear edge among the opposition parties, both in the public attention it is getting and Singaporeans’ interest in joining the party.

The scene is much quieter over at the Singapore Democratic Alliance. The only rumblings are of discontent within the ranks.

Some members of the alliance, which is a grouping of four parties, want a change in leadership and structure. They want the member parties to merge into one party and not remain as an alliance of electoral expediency.

But alliance chairman Chiam See Tong is dead set against it, which means the idea is also practically dead on arrival.

An even worse fate could befall the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). It could be wound up and cease to exist if the party fails to pay the damages for defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

For now, the three opposition groups are headed down different paths that could well determine how they fare in the coming years and the next polls.

Workers’ Party: Moving ahead

THE ruling party’s phrase of choice post-polls used to be that it begins preparations for the next election the day after an election. Now that is being heard within the WP.

For starters, expect many new faces who contested the recent GE to make a claim for party leadership positions.

Party members say up to half of the 15 Central Executive Council (CEC) leaders may step down voluntarily at next month’s party elections.

Equally significant is the fact that these elections are being brought forward by a year.

“I believe we have to quicken the pace of renewal,” WP chief Low Thia Khiang tells Insight.

He is not content to let the renewal engine stay idle despite clinching the top spot among opposition parties with 38.4 per cent share of the votes and fielding 15 new faces at the polls.

Indeed, during the run-up, the secretary-general had declared that the WP’s rejuvenation plans will “continue until I’m renewed”.

He started the process when he took over the WP in 2001.

A new party chairman, the telegenic Ms Sylvia Lim, was elected soon after. By last year, five among the 15 CEC members were from the post-65 generation.

More changes are afoot.

Veterans leaving their CEC posts are likely to be Dr Tan Bin Seng, 54, who stood in Joo Chiat; second vice-chairman Abdul Rahim Abdul Rahman, 65, who contested in East Coast GRC; organising secretary Ng Ah Chwee, 56; and deputy treasurer Goh Seng Soon, 56.

Second assistant secretary-general James Gomez, 41, is also not expected to defend his post. He is working in a think-tank in Sweden and is unlikely to be able to return every month for party meetings and commitments, say sources.

In their places are likely to be the rookies who fought their maiden electoral battles last month. They include Mr Perry Tong, 34; Mr Yaw Shin Leong, 30; Mr Lian Chin Way, 36; Mr Eric Tan, 50; and Ms Glenda Han, 29.

Young faces already in the council, such as Mr Chia Ti Lik, 32, and Mr Goh Meng Seng, 36, are likely to remain.

Mr Low says that Ms Lim, 41, who is the new Non-Constituency MP, “should still be the chairman”.

The possible new line-up raises several questions. What is the likely impact of younger people taking over the reins of WP? Will there be a shift in the issues that it focuses on?

With Mr Low and Ms Lim still in the driver’s seat, substantive changes are unlikely.

The WP’s public outreach programmes, where members go to public places and also door to door, will start soon.

The party is likely to continue its moderate line that an opposition must not oppose for the sake of opposing. As seen in the recent election, it will strive to continue as a rational and reasonable party.

Ms Lim said as much last week at a forum to post-mortem the general election, when she stressed that the WP intends to continue playing by the rules.

In short: pragmatic politics.

“We’ve found that getting embroiled in legal battles is not very productive,” she said. “We’d like to survive in the middle to long haul.”

Nonetheless, the WP is metamorphosing from its working class and Chinese-educated roots into a party of middle-class members as it continues to draw in young bilingual graduates.

This changing leadership profile affords it a broader appeal.

At the same time, it is unlikely to abandon its traditional emphasis on the poor and democratic reforms – as encapsulated in its manifesto – in the short term.

Unfortunately, its Achilles heel also remains: a poor crop of minority candidates.

Mr Low had acknowledged after the election that the party lost Aljunied GRC because it failed to secure enough votes from the Malay community.

He conceded that the minority candidate on WP’s Aljunied team, Mr Mohammed Rahizan Yaacob, did not connect with voters as well as Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed – his PAP counterpart.

“If Malay, Indian or other minority races do not come forward to join the opposition, we will be caught,” he said.

Despite the recent influx of new members, there have not been more credible minority faces.

“Someone like Zainul? No, we don’t have that yet,” says a member.

But Mr Eric Tan believes getting good minority candidates is tough for all parties, including the PAP.

“It is on our to-do list,” he adds.

One area which could see change is the party’s media strategy. Some party members say Mr Low still wants to keep a distance from the media, while younger ones hint that they have standing instructions not to accept interviews without checking with party leaders.

Yet, some want to reach out to the mainstream media as they see it as one useful way to connect with Singaporeans.

As with any party that sees a sudden infusion of new talents, there are also murmurings of impatience with Mr Low’s perceived conservative and overly cautious stance.

But sources interviewed say he has been astute in his readiness to listen to differing views and submit to the democratic processes within the party.

Intra-party negotiations will require members to be skilled and disciplined.

To continue its ascent, the party must avoid the script of most opposition parties here: a rise followed by a quick fall triggered by in-fighting and poor party discipline.

Given his years of experience and standing as the party’s only elected MP, Mr Low’s leadership remains critical. Any attempt by younger members to usurp his position could prove fatal on their part.

For now, the party is solidly united behind him and the euphoric mood has not subsided. Many younger members have described themselves as being “upbeat” and “motivated”.

Mr Eric Tan declares: “We have captured the imagination of Singaporeans.”

Ms Lim is also optimistic about the party’s future. She says: “We should be able to field more candidates by the next general election.”

The other parties: Staying together?

LIKE the WP, the SDA – comprising Singapore People’s Party (SPP), the National Solidarity Party (NSP), the Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS) and Singapore Justice Party (SJP) – won one parliamentary seat.

The WP scored 38.4 per cent of the votes and the SDA had 32.5 per cent.

Yet, while the WP displayed a united and coherent election strategy, the SDA’s campaign was quite the opposite.

Sources in the alliance reveal that they were disorganised and there was poor coordination between the two major parties – SPP and NSP.

For example, a plan to introduce all 20 candidates had to be axed at the last minute because the SPP’s Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC team was not ready.

The alliance also fumbled over its rally schedule. “We had more than one a night and they were all not coordinated. Most of the time we had no idea what the SPP was doing or saying,” says an NSP member.

Some alliance members blame chairman Chiam See Tong. They describe him as an indifferent captain and the alliance a rudderless ship.

The Potong Pasir MP promised to have an election post-mortem “two, three weeks” after the polls, but nothing has been done so far, says a source.

“He is only interested in Potong Pasir. He doesn’t care about renewal and growing SDA,” says a member.

An NSP member puts it more starkly: “As long as he’s there, SDA won’t grow.”

But no one wants to push him out.

“We still respect him…and we don’t want to be another Chee,” says the NSP member.

Problems with protege Chee Soon Juan led Mr Chiam to resign as secretary-general of the SDP and later as a member. In 1996, he joined the SPP which became part of the SDA.

But over the years, Mr Chiam has turned his loyal supporters into critics. One of them, party chairman Sin Kek Tong, accused him of wanting only “fame and power” and resisting renewal by rejecting well-qualified people who want to be party members.

Mr Sin says he has met Mr Chiam to discuss these issues but he stands by his comments.

At the meeting, both men agreed to push ahead with “aggressive” renewal plans. But talk might not translate into action, he admits.

Mr Chiam, 71, brushes aside such criticisms.

“If you can introduce somebody tomorrow, I will step down as secretary-general of the party, let him take over. Renewal, easier said than done,” he tells Insight.

But NSP secretary-general Steve Chia, who is taking a break from politics, believes Mr Chiam can take up a “mentor adviser” role, like Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, and let someone else lead the SDA.

It is an idea Mr Chiam rejects as he believes there is much more he needs to do. Asked what these might be, he says: “My main focus is economic union with Malaysia. I still think it can be done.”

With him at the helm though, the alliance will likely meander along between elections, as is happening now.

Members have three suggestions for an overhaul.

One is to turn the alliance into a single party. Mr Steve Chia, NSP member Vincent Yeo and Mr Sin are keen advocates. It would give SDA a united agenda and avoid duplication of activities, they argue.

But Mr Chiam and the PKMS are against it.

PKMS president Borhan Ariffin says: “Our party has assets and property like the five-storey building in Upper Changi Road worth millions. We prefer to stay as an alliance.”

A second suggestion is to retain the alliance and solve the current problems, which Mr Chiam and the PKMS prefer.

They concede that the set-up does pose problems in attracting new members. For example, some people want to be in the SDA but the rules require them to join one of the member parties instead. They often end up not joining at all.

The third suggestion is to disband the SDA with each party going its own way.

This might well happen once Mr Chiam exits the scene as no one currently appears to be able to command a hold over the entire alliance.

Right now, the alliance remains his personal vehicle while most of the others in it tolerate the ride because they need him to boost the grouping’s chances.

For as long as both sides find the relationship beneficial, it will survive.

Still, it is in far better shape than its nearest competitor, the beleaguered SDP.

Once the biggest opposition party here, after it won three seats in the 1991 polls, the SDP fared the worst in this election with 23.3 per cent share of the votes.

It is in dire straits following a defamation suit. The 26-year-old party could close down if it cannot pay damages to PM Lee and MM Lee for defaming them in a SDP newsletter this year. A hearing to assess the damages has not been set.

Two CEC members quit after the polls and more defections appear to be on the cards.

The talk is that some may hop over to the Democratic Progressive Party, a small player in the opposition circle, and undertake the task of reviving the party.

Sources say that some members will go party-shopping only after the SDP is wound up.

“I don’t want to be seen as a grasshopper, hopping from one party to another just because the party is in trouble,” says a member.

But there is also tension simmering between party leaders, which SDP chief Chee Soon Juan has denied repeatedly.

Sources say party veterans Ling How Doong and Wong Hong Toy had plans to oust him but could not find someone keen to take over. There is also talk that Dr Chee, who is fighting the same defamation suit, intends to shore up his support base by roping in more new members.

But such manoeuvrings would come to nought if the party ends up being shut down.

If the SDP is unable to stave off closure and the SDA is unable to shake off stupor and the WP is able to stay focused, the next general election will see it powering further ahead of the pack. The biggest, shiniest opposition vehicle in town? All signs point that way.

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