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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Singapore General Elections 2011 - debriefing - embracing the opposition?

In my last post, I talked about the rise of the Workers' Party (WP), even though it seemed to be aspiring to be more than the bread-and-butter party that it has always been. In doing so, it somehow connected with the electorate and won six seats out of the available 82 Parliamentary seats up for contest. In recent events, it has also taken two Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP) seats, giving it a whopping eight seats in opposition to the People's Action Party (PAP).

In a twist of fate, the WP also saw the resignation of stalwart Eric Tan, the party treasurer, because the party had not selected him for one of the NCMP seats. Though I believe that the WP will overcome this setback, I'm amused that this news came after I had remarked in my last post that I didn't see any signs of disunity in the party.

The mainstream media has focused on the WP's resurgence as an indication that the political tide is shifting towards a stronger opposition movement in Singapore. Looking at the General Elections results, where the PAP won only 60.14% of the vote share, there might be some truth to that claim. But I don't think that was the case.

Chiam See Tong and his Singapore People's Party (SPP)
Chiam See Tong as Captain Singapore
Like the WP's Low Thia Khiang, Chiam See Tong took a huge gamble by running in a group representation constituency (GRC) at Bishan-Toa Payoh. His team was up against Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng's slate, which also included Education Minister Ng Eng Hen.

Alas, his SPP team won only 43.07% of the vote in Bishan-Toa Payoh, thus failing to capture the GRC. Some would say that the odds were in Mr Chiam's favour, from his own immense popularity to the backlash against DPM Wong in the Mas Selamat escape. Having government scholar, Benjamin Pwee, might also have helped Mr Chiam's team gain some intellectual cred.
But notice how I keep referring to Mr Chiam and not the SPP. I think that was the main weakness for this slate. The SPP has been wholly defined by the personality cult built around Chiam See Tong. After all, the party was established for him when he left the Singapore Democratic Party. Since then, Mr Chiam has been singularly responsible for the party's actions, including trying to include the Reform Party in the Singapore Democratic Alliance and, when that failed, pulling the SPP out of the alliance. These culminated in the leadership feuds that saw Mr Chiam standing victorious – but alone.

So I think it didn't help the party's image when a feeble Mr Chiam campaigned for the election. After his stroke, he has been unable to project himself physically. Though his mind is still sharp, his voice is frail. Listening to his speeches at the rallies was painful, because one couldn't help but be reminded of all that this man had achieved in politics before his stroke.

Thus, Mr Chiam's 27-year run in Parliament is over, and the SPP's sole representative in the legislative body is Mr Chiam's wife, Lina Chiam, who took the NCMP seat for her loss in Potong Pasir. This too doesn't bode well for the SPP, if her televised appearances and rally speeches are anything to go by. I hope a miracle will happen that will transform Mrs Chiam from a crutch for her husband to a gleaming pearl in the opposition benches, and thus restore the SPP's reputation.

Kenneth Jeyaratnam's Reform Party (RP)
The Reform Party
Another opposition party that is built around a personality cult is also one of the newest political parties in Singapore. The RP was founded by veteran opposition politician, J.B. Jeyaratnam. After his untimely passing, his son, Kenneth, took over the party leadership. Since then, the party has been run in a way that it is a reflection of the man's thinking and beliefs.

Like the SPP, friction arose in the RP's top leadership, which resulted in a mass resignation of nine members only two months into 2011. This obviously was not a good omen since everyone was certain that this year was going to be an election year. Up till that point, I thought that the RP had built up quite a good platform and reputation as a beacon for change in Singapore. But now, I see the RP only as a vehicle for Kenneth Jeyaratnam's personal political ambitions.

Disclosure: I had joined a RP walkabout in a housing estate in late January. That was how I met Tony Tan, who was then planning to run on the RP's slate in that area, Kumar Appavoo and Jeannette Aruldoss. (I don't think any of them remembers me now.)

It is hard to believe how the RP could rebuild in time for the elections, and the results apparently show it to be the case. Somehow, it was able to field 11 candidates in two GRCs, but its Ang Mo Kio team, which was reportedly assembled just before Nomination Day to challenge Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's PAP team, was clearly not up to the task. Its "A team" in West Coast, led by party leader Kenneth Jeyaratnam, could only garner 33.43% of the vote there.

Unless the RP is able to rebuild itself around a platform rather than a personality, I don't see how it will be able to succeed politically, even with the association of the familiar Jeyaratnam name.

The National Solidarity Party (NSP) and its Nicole Seah factor
Nicole Seah as Wonder Woman
Like the SPP and RP, the NSP was defined by a personality cult during the election campaign. Unlike those those two parties, though, the NSP's personality cult was built not around a leader, but a young, eloquent and rather fetching candidate. It is no wonder then that the PAP's Goh Chok Tong remarked that "NSP" stood for "Nicole Seah Party", much to the consternation of the party's leaders.

As soon as Ms Seah burst onto the political scene, her popularity went nowhere but up and up. She came across as an articulate politician who could think as clearly as any PAP candidate. Her youthful exuberance came across in her photographs, videos and speeches. And, of course, she was easy on the eyes, much to the delight of many male (and maybe some female) voters.

How popular did she become? Her Facebook page eventually gained more likes than PAP strongman, Lee Kuan Yew. In a creepy development, some people became enamoured with a picture of her wiping off her perspiration!

Of course, there was also the Tin Pei Ling factor. Ms Seah was part of the NSP team that stood in Marine Parade, where Ms Tin was also fielded as part of the PAP slate. It was a no-brainer when comparing the video interviews of both of these young female candidates. Ms Tin came across as an automaton who didn't know how to respond to questions that weren't part of the script. Ms Seah, on the other hand, spoke in a calm and composed manner like a seasoned politician in a way that showed her intelligence clearly.

It was also refreshing to watch such a young person speak so forcefully against the ruling party. In an Asian society, that would be akin to a young upstart rebuking a senior person – it's just not done. But Ms Seah connected with her audience and spoke to their disillusionment with the PAP. As a result, her attacks on the PAP were not seen as a sign of disrespect, but as a voice for the oppressed. In the end, her team won a respectable 43.36% of the vote in Marine Parade.

And what of the rest of the NSP? Really, what of it? It boasted government scholars Tony Tan and Hazel Poa, who were from the RP. It had veteran politicians like Goh Meng Seng leading the charge. It came close to getting an NCMP seat through Jeanette Aruldoss. But you won't hear of these party achievements, because the party was overshadowed by Nicole Seah.

Mr Goh has talked about rebuilding the party and rethinking its strategy. I look forward to its development. I think the NSP has the potential to become a pillar in the opposition camp, together with the WP. But it needs to figure out how to break away from its unexpected personality cult around Ms Seah.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)
Singapore Democratic Party logo
One opposition party that turned its image around successfully during the elections was the SDP. Once upon a time, following the departure of its founder, Chiam See Tong, the SDP was defined by the antics of its leader, Chee Soon Juan. His attempts to bring about democratic change through protests failed to sway the populace to his side.

But in what could be regarded as a complete break from that era, the SDP kept Mr Chee to the background and campaigned on a platform of reform (some may say it was more about reform than the Reform Party!). Its strategy was not only to point out where the PAP had gone wrong, but to bring up bold proposals to propel Singapore forward politically and, surprisingly, economically.

Indeed, the biggest change for the SDP was to talk about improving Singaporeans' livelihoods economically. The biggest one was Mr Tan Jee Say's proposal about shifting Singapore's economy fundamentally from manufacturing to services. It was such a huge change in mindset that the PAP itself could not wrap its head around it, forcing it to wax eloquent about manufacturing.

Unfortunately, the SDP was not able to find its support. Its most popular team in Holland-Bukit Timah could only get 39.92% of the vote there. I think that this was because the party had forgotten a fundamental facet of Singapore politics: the need to connect personally with the voters. Its proposals were probably too lofty for the average voter to comprehend. The SDP did not work the ground in the constituencies that it contested. And so the voters didn't know who these people were until it was time for the elections.

But regardless of these setbacks, I think that the SDP has found its footing once again and is embarking on the correct path. As its candidate Michelle Lee implied, it would be dark days ahead if the party returns to it being used by Mr Chee for his own "democratic" ambitions.

The Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA)
Once believed to be a force to be reckoned with, the SDA is nothing more than a joke today.

And that remark sums up my thinking about opposition politics in Singapore. I don't think Singapore has reached the stage yet where the electorate is embracing the opposition wholeheartedly. Singapore politics is still defined by basic bread-and-butter issues and candidate popularity. The average voter is still a simple minded person who likes to be entertained but also desires familiarity.

If they want to replicate the WP's success in Parliament, then the opposition parties need to get their act together and actively portray themselves as champions for the common man, instead of aiming for lofty goals. Connect with the people personally, and they could go far politically.

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