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

INSIGHT SATURDAY

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.

New Paper: Here’s a tip for better service

Columnists

By Glenda Han

IT’S good that there’s so much emphasis on making Singapore a top tourist destination.

It’s a land where different Asian cultures have fused, where shopping is good and relatively cheap. It’s safe and clean, communication with the locals is hardly a problem and service is near excellent.

Excellent service? I would like to think so. But we usually find compliments of good service coming from the well-heeled or from tourists at big hotels, expensive restaurants, the Zoo or the Underwater World in Sentosa. More so after the Singapore Tourism Board formed a Service Quality Division in February 2003 to improve service standards in tourism-related sectors.

Elsewhere, I don’t think the frontline staff are rude. But they don’t make an impression either. The experience in Singapore would be more enjoyable if excellent service extends across all sectors, in particular the food and beverage line.

I have often wondered if we should advocate tipping to raise the service level. The service charge of 10 per cent charged by the establishments usually does not go to the service staff. So there is little reason for them to provide a level of service worth commending.

If waiters are tipped directly, they are likely to be more attentive and conscious of their behaviour towards customers. They understand that if customers are pleased with the service, the tip may be more rewarding. With a tangible relationship between their tips and their service level, would they not feel motivated to provide their best?

Unfortunately, in Singapore, waiting on tables is one of the most challenging and difficult lines to be in.

Waiters come into contact with all sorts of people. They must be able to interact with customers well, and even put up with a few nasty and unreasonable ones.

Yet waiters are not given the respect or income they deserve.

As waiting on tables is not seen as a ‘real’ job but often treated as a vacation or casual job, establishments usually have a difficult time recruiting and retaining waiting staff.

Only when the employees take their vocation more seriously can the negative perception change.

With tipping, the amount a waiter earns would potentially be greater and this increase in wages would be a big motivational factor leading to higher job satisfaction.

And a higher level of respect for the work will come only when those who do it take pride in it.

When that happens, staff turnover will inevitably go down.

It’s wrong to think the establishments will face a 10 per cent drop in revenue, as one of my friends pointed out, if the service charge is taken out of the bill. The prices on the menu should take into account the costs as well as the profits needed to run the business.

And customers tend to revisit establishments where they find the service to be impeccable.

Our courtesy campaigns have been running since 1979. Now I think it’s time for more pragmatic solutions to try to cultivate a more genial attitude.

The direct and immediate interaction between the waiter and the customer means both parties induce and influence each other’s behaviour.

And our behaviour usually rubs off on others. If you feel good because a member of the service staff has been nice to you, wouldn’t you want to be just as nice to the next person?

Perhaps it’s time to do away with the 10 per cent service charge, so that people get used to the idea that there is more to great service than just a smile.

With a spillover effect, Singapore may not only have excellent service and but become a truly gracious city as well.

The writer owns a restaurant and was part of the Workers’ Party team which contested in Ang Mo Kio GRC in the recent General Election. For feedback, e-mail tnp@sph.com.sg

Channel NewsAsia: Singapore’s political parties take stock, gear up for next polls

SINGAPORE VOTES 2006

By S Ramesh

SINGAPORE: Political parties have taken stock and are gearing up for the next election.

The Workers’ Party wants to build up its pool of candidates, while the Singapore Democratic Alliance wants to merge its component parties.

For the ruling People’s Action Party, it will be an all out effort to continue getting a strong mandate in future elections.

Speakers from the four political parties which contested the recent general election acknowledged there is now greater public acceptance of party politics in the country.

“An endorsement of this was seen on Tuesday when the Prime Minister made his swearing in speech and he says this election we have heard the people, we will do something about cost of living, we will look at health care costs. So we make no apology for canvassing the national agenda,” said Sylvia Lim, Chairman for the Workers’ Party and Non-constituency MP.

When asked what the Workers’ Party would do for workers, Ms Lim said, “We will canvass outside of these organisations for issues that matter to workers, not necessarily to their union leadership but to workers themselves, for instance, in our manifesto you will see proposals for unions to be more indepedant and we have also proposed unemployment insurance to take care of workers who may be out of work.”

One of the key issues at the Institute of Policy Studies’ post-election forum was the future of opposition parties in Singapore come the next general election.

And some political analysts feel it would make good sense for the opposition parties to cooperate electorally and put up a good fight against the ruling party.

For its part, the Singapore Democratic Alliance wants to review the current arrangement, where its four component parties campaign on different platforms.

“We are proposing also that in the next general election five years from now, only an SDA party. We don’t want a coalition of parties, in other words there is a likelihood that the NSP may dissolve as well and then we have just one SDA party to contest just like the Workers Party and SDP. The work has to start now and not five years later to be able to be a party to contend with in the next GE. If we don’t do that, then we will be out of the running because it takes a lot of time and effort from members to contest the next GE,” said Dr Vincent Yeo from the Singapore Democratic Alliance.

For the PAP, the recent general election threw up challenges.

Ms Indranee Rajah said the competition was good and the party’s getting ready to take the next step.

“The electorate has different views on certain things. But if we are able to reach them, if we are able to say “ok”, this is the scenario, we will take it in our stride and we will offer you the right things which we hope you will agree with and which we hope reflect what people think on the ground, then we would deserve the mandate that is given to us. That’s our challenge and I don’t think we have any hesitation in taking it on, and we hope we will have a strong mandate in elections to come,” said Indranee Rajah, MP, Tanjog Pagar GRC.

And one way the PAP hopes to achieve this, is by making sure people feel that their lives have improved. – CNA /dt/ct

Posted in 2006 06. Comments Off on Channel NewsAsia: Singapore’s political parties take stock, gear up for next polls