Straits Times: Has the opposition gone Awol?


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says the Workers’ Party team at Aljunied GRC has been absent without official leave. Peh Shing Huei finds out



ONLY TWO LEFT: Out of the WP’s five-member “Team A” that contested the Aljunied GRC in the last election, three are inactive: financial controller Tan Wui-Hua (third from left, partially hidden) is based in Dubai; researcher James Gomez (fourth from left) is working in Sweden; and businessman Goh Meng Seng (far right) is now with the NSP. Only Ms Sylvia Lim (second from left) and Mr Mohammed Rahizan Yaacob (not in picture) are still working the ground.

MR SEBASTIAN Teo believes Singapore politics suffers from a widely held fallacy – that the opposition emerges only when elections roll around.

“When I’m on the ground talking to people, what I hear is the complete opposite,” says the National Solidarity Party (NSP) president.

“The voters tell me that their PAP MPs only shake their hands once every five years!”

Be that as it may, there is a persistent perception in local politics that the opposition parties are rarely heard, much less seen, until the polls come a-knocking.

Is this traditional malaise of the opposition an urban myth or heartland reality?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as leader of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), believes it is the latter, opening the debate far earlier than usual.

At last Sunday’s PAP convention, a member asked how the party intended to defend Aljunied given Workers’ Party MP Low Thia Khiang’s recent declaration that his party intended to gun for a GRC in the next polls. Aljunied GRC was the most closely fought constituency in last year’s General Election.

In his response, Mr Lee said that the PAP MPs there were working hard and quipped that the WP team had gone Awol – absent without official leave.

It was a play on the term The Straits Times had given the WP Aljunied slate when the newspaper gave the label Team A to the five-man team led by party chairman Sylvia Lim.

“Our (PAP) five men are working hard, but the opposition’s five have scattered like monkeys when the tree fell,” he said in Mandarin, using a Chinese proverb.

“One of them has run to Sweden, the other has left the WP. They called it their A team, I say it is A for Awol,” he added.

Ms Lim took issue with Mr Lee’s choice of words.

“I don’t think Awol is an appropriate term to use in the first place, as the WP has no official capacity in Aljunied GRC at the moment,” she tells Insight.

But is it true that the opposition is missing in action on the ground?

Where are they now?

A YEAR and a half after the heat of the election, many opposition candidates have indeed taken a breather.

The WP, which produced the strongest slate among the opposition parties, has seen at least seven of its most prominent young candidates leaving the frontline.

The Team A that garnered 43.9 per cent of the valid votes has lost three of its five men.

Researcher James Gomez, 41, is working in Sweden; financial controller Tan Wui-Hua, 40, is based in the United Arab Emirates; and businessman Goh Meng Seng, 37, left the party late last year and is now with the NSP.

Only Ms Lim and vice-chairman Mohammed Rahizan Yaacob are still working the ground in Aljunied GRC.

Over at East Coast GRC, the second-best performing WP team has lost its firepower.

Lawyer Chia Ti Lik, 34, who led the team to pull in 36.1 per cent of the votes, quit the WP last year after disagreements with party leaders over Internet regulations.

While his team-mate, Mr Brandon Siow, 32, remains in the party’s executive central council as webmaster, he took up a posting in Shanghai with Singapore Airlines not long after the elections.

The party’s youth wing secretary, Ms Glenda Han, 31, is working in Hong Kong, while business manager Lian Chin Way, 37, is not involved in party work.

At the NSP, the fallout rate is just as high.

Only engineer Tan Lead Shake, 38, and business adviser Ong Hock Siong, 60, from among its five-man team in Tampines are still active. Team leader Arthero Lim, 52, is working in China.

Mr Edmund Ng, 34, has left the party and Mr Abdul Rahman Mohamad, 55, is working overseas.

The same is true for its Jalan Besar team, with three members of the quintet – including former opposition MP Cheo Chai Chen – taking a backseat.

Similarly, Mr Chiam See Tong’s Singapore People’s Party has been almost invisible at Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC where it took on Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean’s team last year.

That is not to say the opposition is nowhere to be seen. The WP still sells its Hammer newsletter weekly in places such as Hougang and Aljunied GRC. Members of the NSP – donning luminous orange tops, the party’s new colour – are also seen across the island every weekend selling the party’s newsletter, North Star News.

Presence counts

THE opposition offers a robust defence of why its members need to take a break from politics.

The main argument is that the PAP MPs have a well-oiled machinery to support their grassroots work and, on top of that, they receive a monthly sum of $13,200 for being elected. Opposition candidates find it far harder to juggle earning a living and doing political work.

WP organising secretary Yaw Shin Leong wrote on his blog: “Unlike their paid counterparts, James Gomez and Tan Wui-Hua…have been working hard in Sweden and Dubai respectively.

“Both James and Wui-Hua are doing what is right – by bringing bread and butter first and foremost to their families.”

Ms Sylvia Lim says that it is the reality of an increasingly globalised world that many young people go overseas to earn a living. “It would not be fair for us to stop people taking overseas stints, as each of us needs to earn a living and has to answer to the stakeholders in our lives,” she adds.

“What is important is that the party presence is maintained and potential candidates put in their fair share.”

Dr Terence Chong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies says it is a “thankless task” being in the opposition in Singapore.

“You have to worry about social stigma, your employers especially if you work in a GLC (government-linked company), and an uneven playing field. If you’re a new PAP candidate, on the other hand, you’re virtually guaranteed of a place in Parliament if you’re in a GRC,” he says.

“Comparing PAP MPs and opposition candidates is like comparing apples and oranges.”

Aljunied GRC resident Mato Kotwani, 20, is not too perturbed that some of the WP candidates are not around.

“If they just gave up and left, it’s not very responsible. But if they left to get on with their lives, I don’t have an issue if they still want to come back and fight at the next election,” says the student.

“Even if they were in Singapore they wouldn’t be able to do very much for the estate because they are not even MPs.”

Indeed, voters take it almost as a given that the opposition is not likely to maintain the same level of presence as the ruling party in the years between elections. How else does one account for the opposition’s ability to attract votes even when members have hardly shown up before the polls?

But the value of working the ground should not be discounted at all, say observers. Visibility is important, they say.

Another reason candidates and their parties lie low also appears to be for self-preservation purposes, to avoid the ruling party unleashing its entire force on the opposition members, thoroughly discrediting a candidate well ahead of the polls.

In short, they have learnt the Chee Soon Juan lesson too well. The Singapore Democratic Party chief’s high-profile sparrings with the Government saw him thoroughly demolished ahead of the General Election in 1997.

As PM Lee said in a dialogue with PAP activists in Nanyang Polytechnic last month on the Gomez issue, time is needed to show up a person.

He said: “James Gomez came from nowhere. He’s not a good guy, but in nine days we don’t have time to prove that.”

Mr Gomez had claimed during last year’s GE that he had submitted his minority candidate form, but video footage released later showed he had not.

It became a major electoral talking point when the PAP’s big guns came out firing at him.

But law lecturer Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University argues that lying low is not an option for the opposition.

“They cannot have their cake of anonymity and eat it,” he says.

“Their starting point has to be presence, presence, presence since the PAP has the monopoly of the political landscape.”

Mr Teo of the NSP says that it is “ridiculous” to fear being attacked by the PAP. “If we are not doing anything wrong, what is there to hide?”

Winning a GRC

THE nub of the problem for the opposition lies in what some have described as a perverse relationship between process and outcome.

First, no matter how hard they work, the likelihood of victory and being elected is low.

As WP chief Low Thia Khiang said before the last GE, be prepared to lose if you join the opposition.

Second, the harder they work, the steeper their climb may be, with the ruling party more likely to come down hard on them.

Hence, it is hard to incentivise talents – especially the top professionals – to plough the ground, knowing that their efforts are likely to come to nought.

Yet, without these top talents, the opposition would lack the most basic ingredient necessary for the GRC breakthrough – something which Mr Low had boldly declared recently as a WP target for the next GE.

It is an uphill climb which analysts believe the opposition must make if it is serious about putting a dent on the PAP’s dominance.

“Commitment on the part of an underdog working in PAP territory has the potential to go down well with voters,” says Mr Tan.

“Otherwise, they cannot hope to make any significant impact if they show up just before an election. Elections are not won at the hustings; they are won through the work done between elections.”

In short, the opposition has no choice. If it wants to win a GRC, it has to attract talents who are willing to make sacrifices and work the ground years before the election.

Therein lies the challenge – finding the talent willing to do the work, not overnight, but over time.

Says Mr Tan: “It’s a long road, but that’s the reality of taking on a political hegemon like the PAP.”

PAP MPs who went ‘Awol’ – absent with official leave

IT IS common for opposition figures to go away in between polls. But the ruling party has also had MPs who leave the country for study or work.
MPs from the People’s Action Party (PAP) often do so just for months, though.

MP Penny Low (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) left in August for a fellowship at Yale University. She will stay for a semester and is likely to return in January.

She did not reply to Insight’s e-mail.

Her parliamentary colleague, Ms Irene Ng, was also based overseas last year as she worked on the biography of the late member of the Old Guard, Mr S. Rajaratnam.

Says the Tampines GRC MP, who was with the University of Edinburgh: “I timed the three-month fellowship so that I did not miss any Parliament sitting. I returned in October, before Parliament convened.

“I have a very strong and supportive team of grassroots leaders and we keep in touch regularly, through phone and e-mail messages. Requests from residents or problems raised were sent to me, and I replied to them promptly even while away.

“Residents knew I was still serving them during that period, given the close personal attention I gave to each request and problem sent my way.”

Two years ago, Parliamentary Secretary (National Development) Mohamad Maliki Osman spent spring in the United States as part of the Eisenhower Fellowship.

Former Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Umar Abdul Hamid also went away after being elected. The one-term MP pursued a master’s degree from 1994 to 1995 at Harvard University in the United States.

A PAP MP, who spoke on condition of anonymity, tells Insight that it is “not very nice” to go away for personal career advancement.

“It looks bad to get elected and then go off to pursue your own interests,” he says.

But political observers disagree.

Dr Terence Chong from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies says it is “perfectly all right” for people to take sabbaticals.

Mr Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University argues that such short-term absence is not a problem.

“Penny Low and Irene Ng have their fellow MPs in their GRCs to cover for them during the short absence. If anything, their absence may not even be noticed. Such is the luxury of PAP’s political incumbency and well-oiled machinery.

“I feel that a short-term absence in itself is not an issue if the ward is properly looked after. But the PAP still has to be mindful that they retain their presence on the ground.”

None of the MPs can beat the record set by Dr Chiang Hai Ding, 69.

The former Ulu Pandan MP spent eight of his 14 years as a parliamentarian overseas because he was also a diplomat – serving, among other postings, as Singapore High Commissioner to Malaysia for two years from 1971 and later ambassador to then-West Germany from 1978 to 1982.

He told The Straits Times in a 2001 interview that he left politics in 1984 because it was not fair to his parliamentary colleagues who had to help him take care of his ward.

He joked: “One of them was Mr Phua Bah Lee, whom other MPs used to call “Poor Phua Lee” because he was carrying a heavy load on my behalf at my constituency.”

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