Straits Times: Watching, waiting for a second awakening

>> THINKING ALOUD

BY PAUL JACOB
Deputy Political Editor

THE People’s Action Party has had its sights trained on the Workers’ Party (WP) for some time now.

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s remarks just last week, in the opposition-held Hougang constituency, was but the latest salvo fired.

On the face of it, the critique of the party, the approach that its leaders take and their performance in Parliament suggest that the PAP will continue to spare no effort to win back the ward that has been in opposition hands since 1991.

I’d like to suggest another theory.

For the longest time, critical though the ruling party’s leadership has been of the opposition here, the presence of Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang and the long-serving Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong has been described as being the kind of opposition that Singapore can live with.

Both MPs – Mr Low is in his 17th year and Mr Chiam is now 24 years in Parliament – have been lauded by their PAP opponents for having carved out a route of responsible, credible and non-confrontational opposition politics.

They received kudos for having worked within the system.

If such compliments have been embarrassing, I for one can scarcely recall anyone from either Mr Low’s or Mr Chiam’s camp disagreeing with or distancing themselves from that notion.

Indeed, by his own admission, Mr Low is comfortable in having a role which is to serve as no more than a check on the Government – and not to be an alternative to it.

“Since the Government has been elected to do a job and to deliver its promises to the people, it should be given the opportunity to perform and to prove its worth. I play the role of a watchdog to check whether the Government has delivered its promises or has short- changed the people,” he told The Straits Times in April.

This was shortly after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, interviewed by the newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, spoke about the standard of parliamentary debate and noted, among other things, that opposition MPs seldom debated in direct opposition to the Government.

Mr Chiam did not speak as much now, and Non- Constituency MP Sylvia Lim – who is the WP chairman – spoke carefully and seemed restrained, he observed.

As for Mr Low, PM Lee said the WP secretary-general seldom debated the core substance of policies and seemed more keen on catching the Government on its shortcomings, “so as to embarrass it”.

In fact, as PM Lee and others also noted, the Nominated MPs have created much more buzz.

PAP organising secretary (special duties) Ng Eng Hen, who is also the Education Minister, followed up PM Lee’s comments with a similar critique of Mr Low in the party’s newsletter in June. SM Goh, speaking on Mr Low’s own Hougang turf last Saturday, was the latest to deliver a blast.

Such comments and criticisms mirror the increasing chatter online in recent months against the WP for what is arguably its muted performance in Parliament and on the political scene since its stellar showing at the 2006 General Election.

That success translated into Mr Low’s re-election by a wider margin, Ms Lim’s entry into Parliament as Non-Constituency MP, and a weight of expectation that the party would build on its strong showing and be able to engage the PAP in a more concerted fashion, providing alternatives to policies and weighing in on big issues.

Remarks of the kind that Mr Low have made about where he sees its role have drawn strong criticism from among expectant Singaporeans and non-PAP fans.

They want to see sparks fly and appear attracted to a more combative and confrontational style. The preferred outlet for their political angst is increasingly the Internet where the WP lacks a significant presence.

This means that the likely beneficiary of this disappointed crowd is the likes of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and some of those in its leadership, like Dr Chee Soon Juan – notwithstanding his bankruptcy and the legal action against him.

I don’t expect that this situation sits well with the PAP.

While I’ve never believed that it has been concerned about the SDP per se, I would be surprised if it has not been perturbed by the kind of politics it advocates – especially given the PAP’s known preference for opposition politics of the sort that Mr Low and Mr Chiam have provided.

But if the WP comes to be regarded by the PAP’s own critics as being no better than its political appendage, and with Mr Chiam being seen as an ageing opposition icon – relatively inactive, with no clear successor and seemingly content to operate within the boundaries of Potong Pasir – then where will such voters turn to fill their void?

An all-PAP Parliament is not an impossibility given the right conditions and circumstances. But I do not think it will sit well with the electorate of this day and age. Nor, I daresay, with the PAP itself.

Solution?

I’d light a fire underneath Mr Low and the WP. Early.

I’d want to prod them into demonstrating the political muscle they suggested they had after their showing at the polls in 2006. Mr Low cast that election as a referendum on the future of the opposition in Singapore and asked voters to signal that they wanted opposition politics to stay.

Mr Low tends to keep his cards close to his chest and is not one to show his hand. And as he demonstrated in 2006 when the PAP threw considerable firepower and incentives in the attempt to win back Hougang, he will pick his moments and can respond aggressively when he needs to. As will residents there.

It will be interesting to watch and see if the recent PAP salvos produce a second WP awakening.

Or will Mr Low and the party choose to remain in their present comfort zone and risk others stepping in, by default, to fill any void that is then generated?

pjacob@sph.com.sg

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