Mr Low Thia Khiang succeeded Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam as Workers’ Party chief in 2001. Eight years earlier, Dr Chee Soon Juan took over the Singapore Democratic Party from Mr Chiam See Tong.
No transition was smooth.
In both style and substance, Mr Low and Dr Chee are hardly political heirs to the opposition veterans who once inspired and mentored them.
Instead, Mr Low seems to have taken a leaf out of Mr Chiam’s book, focusing on specific policy issues rather than condemning the system as a whole. In 2006, Mr Low succeeded Mr Chiam as unofficial leader of the opposition in Parliament.
Dr Chee, on the other hand, appears to have more in common with Mr Jeyaretnam. Both are strident in their criticisms against laws that, in their view, “disempower” people and “diminish” the electoral system. Over the years, the four opposition leaders have developed their own distinctive styles of politics. What best describes each approach? How have they succeeded, and where do they fall short?
Zakir Hussain finds out.
SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE
LOW THIA KHIANG, 51
>> 1988 Tiong Bahru GRC 42.2%
>> 1991 Hougang 52.8%
>> 1997 Hougang 58%
>> 2001 Hougang 55%
>> 2006 Hougang 62.7%
>> Nurturing the ground
Mr Low has “focused a great deal on nurturing ties at the local level” even as he presents himself as a check on government, says academic Dr Gillian Koh.
The Hougang MP, who first entered Parliament in 1991, has meals in his constituency market, accepts wedding invitations and attends wakes.
His Hougang Constituency Committee organises celebrations at major festivals, parties for residents, and pulls together aid for needy residents. The focus on local needs saw him up his vote share by close to eight percentage points in the 2006 General Election.
>> Staying low-key
Mr Low has declined most media interviews in his 20 years as opposition MP.
In 1994, when then-senior minister Lee Kuan Yew singled him out as a “good MP” and “the only one worth listening to”, his only comment to the media was to thank Mr Lee, and say: “I think it is not for him to judge. It is for Singaporeans to judge, especially my constituents, whether I am good or worth listening to.”
The flip side of his low-key approach? Detractors say it has not dented the ruling PAP’s dominance.
>> Bread and butter rather than human rights
Since Mr Low took over the Workers’ Party in 2001, the WP has become more focused on bread and butter issues, rather than issues of freedom and democracy. In Parliament, issues he has raised include increases in the goods and services tax, the rising cost of living, and the Mas Selamat escape. He has been careful to get his facts right.
>> Building up the party
Mr Low has attracted more professionals to join the WP, like law lecturer Sylvia Lim.
“Together with Sylvia Lim, he appears to be very slowly but steadily building up a political party that is respected by Singaporeans, avoiding anything that could derail it,” says political blogger Gerald Giam.
Some WP members have left, unhappy with the pace of change and attempts to regulate members’ conduct online. But the party retains a solid team at its core.
>> Watchdog role
Mr Low sees his role as one to scrutinise government policies and Bills, and to reflect the views of the man in the street “in a rational and responsible manner”. As he put it: “I play the role of a watchdog to check whether the Government has delivered its promises or has short-changed the people.”
He is “sharp and quick in pouncing on loose statements from the front bench”, notes PAP MP Charles Chong.
CAN the mixed record of opposition politics over the past 40 years shed light on its future?
Observers note that where electoral results are concerned, the accommodative approach of Mr Chiam and Mr Low has held up better than the combative politics of Mr Jeyaretnam and Dr Chee.
But the various styles – and their results – are likely to remain for some time yet.
“So long as the Group Representation Constituency system is intact, and the PAP continues to believe Singapore would be better off without an institutionalised parliamentary opposition, realpolitik needs to be appreciated,” said Associate Professor Hussin Mutalib of the National University of Singapore’s political science department.
“Such a system favours opposition politicians and parties that ‘ride’ the mainstream political wave…rather than confront it head on.”
“This is not the ideal, but so long as voters cannot devise an ‘alternative politics’…they will have no other viable choice but to work within the status quo in the foreseeable future,” he said.
MP Charles Chong takes a different view, noting that voters here “appear put off by extremism”.
“Alternative views expressed in moderate and sensible ways seem to have greater appeal to an increasingly sophisticated electorate, compared to extreme positions and silly antics,” he said.
There will always be those against the establishment regardless of what it does, and there will always be those who are pro-establishment.
“The party that can win the broad middle ground will invariably do much better than those who can appeal only to the two extremities,” he added.
All four schools, however, share one common goal: Breaking the PAP monopoly and establishing a multi-party democracy.
Said Dr Russell Heng, associate senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: “All four are people who dare to lose and, somehow, we have never celebrated that.
“They also have a certain doggedness which seems to be a rare thing among opposition figures, which is why the opposition is weak.
“These four have kept at it.”