Straits Times: Opposition plans battle formation

Insight

Opposition parties are starting to rally their troops amid talk of an earlier-than-scheduled election. Aaron Low, Jeremy Au Yong, Kor Kian Beng and Sue-Ann Chia look at the tactics, targets, people and places that could shape the strategies they adopt.

ON MONDAY night, laughter emanated from the Workers’ Party (WP) headquarters in Syed Alwi Road as members mingled with curious Singaporeans keen to find out more about the opposition party.

The occasion was its weekly open house, and WP chief Low Thia Khiang was seated at a table talking to one of the visitors, a university student.

He was flanked by two central executive committee members – deputy treasurer Ng Swee Bee and organising secretary Lee Li Lian.

Clearly in a jovial mood, he remarked: “Wow, (it’s been) so long since the last election and people still come down to our open house.”

There are fewer visitors these days than was the case immediately after the May 2006 polls, but talk of an early election appears to have sparked the public’s interest in the opposition.

The parties themselves have also begun stepping up preparations.

But Mr Low remains relaxed amid the speculation that polls will be held earlier than the February 2012 due date.

One reason for his calmness, say party sources and observers, stems from his belief that preparations are well in hand.

The WP has canvassed the heartland regularly, with members going on constituency walkabouts and door-to-door visits weekly.

They have also been spotted on their “Hammer outreach” – selling the WP newsletter, The Hammer, in areas such as Bukit Panjang, Bukit Timah and Yishun.

The WP, which had the best showing among opposition parties in the 2006 polls with 38.4 per cent of the vote share, remains the opposition party to watch at the next election.

But Mr Low, well known for his reluctance to speak openly to the media about its plans, continues to keep his cards close to his chest. “We are everywhere. Our party goes around Singapore,” he tells Insight, when asked how the WP is seeking to expand its turf.

“The PAP has accused us of being a fly-by-night opposition. But we have been doing our work since 2001 and the last GE. We go around to convince people that the political system needs checks and balances.”

His remarks were a reference to the People’s Action Party’s first assistant secretary-general Wong Kan Seng who, during the 2001 General Election, described the opposition as “fly-by-night” operators who popped up only at election time.

But the WP has kept up its visits to the constituencies that it contested in 2006, including the neighbouring wards – just in case electoral boundaries change.

Will they return to fight in these areas?

“We are looking at the previous constituencies. That is quite natural,” says Mr Low. But there could be surprises as informal negotiations between parties to slice up the electoral landscape have already started with WP targeting new areas, such as Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC and Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.

The rest of the opposition are not sitting still, with several also making moves to stake their claims on constituencies.

Places to watch

ONCE again, the “hot spot” is expected to be Aljunied GRC – if it remains intact on the electoral map.

It provided the closest contest in the 2006 election, with the WP’s “A” team led by chairman Sylvia Lim securing almost 44 per cent of the valid votes. It took on the PAP’s five-man team helmed by Foreign Minister George Yeo.

The contest provided Ms Lim with her ticket to Parliament, as the top loser gets to be a Non-Constituency MP.

With such a showing, the party is certain to stage a Round 2 contest in a bid to increase its margin there.

“I think they should go back there and I hope they will. If not, whatever they have done there will be wasted,” says political observer Eugene Tan.

“Also, people will perceive it as a lack of strategy if you move at every election – unless the voters have decisively said they don’t want you there.”

But it will be a different WP team that heads to Aljunied GRC, as two of the five original members are not around: Mr Goh Meng Seng has switched to join the National Solidarity Party (NSP), and Mr Tan Wui Hua is working overseas.

Despite the change in line-up, analysts expect it to remain the WP’s main challenger for a GRC, with Ms Lim leading the charge.

The other constituency to watch is Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, helmed by Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng.

It was uncontested in the last three general elections, but at least three parties are now keen to vie for it.

Opposition sources say the escape of terrorist leader Mas Selamat Kastari from detention last year is an issue they intend to play up. But whether this issue will resonate with the ground is another matter.

Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) chairman and Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong has been the first to make public his intention to gun for the GRC.

It borders the single-seat constituency that he has helmed since 1984.

Sources close to the SDA say Mr Chiam hopes there will be a “spillover effect” of his popularity in Potong Pasir to voters in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. If he does take on the team led by DPM Wong – whose one and only contest was when he entered politics and stood in the 1984 polls – it will be a match not to be missed.

The other party which has targeted the GRC is the WP. It says it has been working the ground there for some time now. So, too, has the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

Insight understands that Mr Chiam has informed the WP’s Mr Low of his intention to contest the GRC.

Should Mr Low relent, the trade-off with Mr Chiam’s SDA will be for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.

The SDA has “first claim” among the opposition parties to Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC as its team stood there in 2006. And sources say that SDA secretary-general Desmond Lim, who led that team, does not want to give it up, having invested time and effort working the ground there.

The WP – which is likely to contest again in Aljunied GRC and East Coast GRC – is believed to be scouting for at least one more GRC. This is because the party may not head back to contest in Ang Mo Kio GRC and take on the constituency led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

With possible changes to the electoral boundaries, a new GRC may be created in the north that could absorb two single-seat constituencies – Nee Soon East and Nee Soon Central.

The WP had contested unsuccessfully in both in 2006. If a new GRC is indeed formed there, it would provide the WP with the third GRC that it seeks.

While the action seems concentrated around the north-eastern parts of Singapore, a contest could also emerge in the west – particularly in Jurong GRC.

The five-member GRC is anchored by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Lim Boon Heng, and includes Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

The NSP, sources say, is interested in the GRC, which was not targeted by any opposition party in 2006.

It will be in addition to the NSP’s regular sparring ground: Jalan Besar GRC and Tampines GRC.

One issue that the NSP aims to exploit in Jurong GRC is the belief that residents, particularly in the Bukit Batok ward, may be upset that no by-election was held following the death last year of their MP, Dr Ong Chit Chung.

The Government said there is no requirement under the law for a by-election to be held in a GRC unless all members vacate their seats.

As for showdowns in single seats, the two opposition-held wards of Hougang and Potong Pasir are expected to see the fiercest fights.

The WP’s Mr Low will aim for his fifth win in Hougang since 1991.

And it is widely speculated that Mr Chiam’s wife, Lina, will step up to the plate in Potong Pasir should he move to helm a GRC team to contest Bishan-Toa Payoh.

People to watch

MR CHIAM is said to be cobbling together a “team of veterans” for his GRC bid. Names that have been tossed up include accountant David Chew, medical doctor Wong Wee Nam and lawyer S. Kunalen.

Mr Chew contested first in Paya Lebar in 1988, under the banner of the SDP, which was then led by Mr Chiam. He garnered almost 48 per cent of the valid votes. He however faded away, and did not contest again till 1997, when he stood in Jalan Besar GRC. The SDP team won close to 32 per cent of the votes.

The other two men entered the fray in 1997, Dr Wong under the banner of the NSP in Hong Kah GRC (getting 31 per cent of the votes); and Mr Kunalen with the SDP in Aljunied GRC (winning 33 per cent of the votes).

Among the trio, only Mr Kunalen is still active in the opposition. He is a member of the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) – one of three parties under the SDA – which is led by Mr Chiam.

The fifth candidate is likely to be drawn from the Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS), another constituent party of the SDA. Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC requires a Malay minority candidate.

Why is Mr Chiam, who suffered a stroke last year, letting go of Potong Pasir to gamble on a GRC?

Having been in politics for 33 years and an MP for 25, the decision to leave Potong Pasir would not be an easy one.

A source close to SDA puts it this way: “He could stay on in Potong Pasir and probably have a good shot at winning, but how long more would he have? Another term, at most, if his health permits.”

To Mr Chiam, it is his last big gamble. “The opposition currently holds two seats. If I win a GRC, it will more than double the numbers, and it could lead to more in the following election,” he says.

Insight dropped by his Meet-the-People session on Thursday, which happened to be his 74th birthday.

As he blew out the candles on his cake at a celebration with members and helpers at a coffee shop later, a stronger-looking Mr Chiam could have made a birthday wish – to grow the opposition.

With new faces likely to join the opposition, such a wish may just come true.

One name on many lips now is that of former NTUC Income chief executive Tan Kin Lian, who a few months ago expressed interest to contest either the presidential or parliamentary elections.

Mr Tan made the headlines last year as an activist on financial issues linked to the sale of structured investment products.

Besides organising regular rallies and educational talks at the Speakers’ Corner, he also advised investors and wrote letters to government agencies calling for more oversight on such investments.

Sources close to Mr Tan say he is considering running in the next General Election. To do so, he could join the WP, which is seen as having the best brand name among opposition parties.

But will the party take him in? WP’s Mr Low does not give a straight answer.

“That’s putting the cart before the horse,” he says, when asked by Insight.

Mr Low could be wary of taking in a candidate who may not follow the party’s agenda or leadership, some speculate.

As one source close to WP puts it: “Their visions may not be aligned.”

Another option for Mr Tan would be to join the SDA. Sources say SDA members have sussed him out, but he is non-committal as he is also sought after by other opposition figures.

He also has option three – being an independent.

He could go solo in a single seat, but this is tricky as he would have to negotiate with opposition parties, which usually contest single seats, to avoid three-cornered fights.

Mr Tan declined to speak when Insight called him.

Another name that pops up is that of the late Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam’s older son, Kenneth. He has made speeches at events organised by opposition parties, in particular, the SDP, in memory of his father. Some within the opposition hope that he will join their cause.

But they should not hold their breath. “Kenneth is more interested in preserving his father’s legacy than entering politics,” says a source.

Mr Ng Teck Siong, a close ally of the late Mr Jeyaretnam and now chairman of the Reform Party (RP), also dismisses such speculation. The former opposition MP’s two sons – Kenneth and Philip – will not follow in their father’s footsteps. “Philip is definitely not interested in politics. Kenneth is back in London with his family,” he says.

Another source of opposition candidates could come from the online world. Sources say some parties have approached bloggers like Chia Ti Lik, Ng E-Jay and members of the sociopolitical website, The Online Citizen (TOC).

Indeed, Mr Chia was a former WP member, while Mr Ng has written for the NSP newsletter.

Trends to watch

WILL opposition candidates from different parties band together to contest a GRC?

WP’s James Gomez, part of its Aljunied GRC team in the last election, says: “There is talk between party members of forming a mix-and-match GRC. We are so used to thinking party-centric, this is a new model. But both can co-exist.”

Whether such cooperation will come about depends on current party leaders.

A possible scenario, say sources from various parties, is the NSP’s Mr Goh Meng Seng teaming up with Mr Tan Kin Lian, to form an alliance of five or six people from various opposition parties.

When contacted, Mr Goh insists nothing is confirmed. But he adds that it is better to stand under a party banner than as independents. “History shows that independents stand a higher chance of losing their (election) deposits,” he notes.

Opposition unity could also take the form of NSP returning to the SDA fold, which it left after the 2006 polls.

Another link-up between parties could be RP and SDP.

SDP looks to be at most a minor factor in the next election, as its key leaders are bankrupt and will be unable to contest.

Members who are eligible to stand include its assistant secretary John Tan, and treasurer Jeffrey George.

Political observers believe the WP will remain the party to watch in the next election.

“Like it or not, the hammer is the most recognisable symbol after the lightning,” says law lecturer Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University.

“How well they do will depend on whether they are able to bring new candidates and raise the calibre of candidates.”

WP’s Mr Low’s reply? “There are more faces, but as to who and where we field them, I prefer to leave it to Nomination Day.”

aaronl@sph.com.sg
jeremyau@sph.com.sg
kianbeng@sph.com.sg
sueann@sph.com.sg

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Posted in 2009 03. Comments Off on Straits Times: Opposition plans battle formation
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