The Straits Times says

Towards a 'First World' opposition

Not many political parties would mark their 60th anniversary - a significant achievement indeed - with the surprising news that the man at the helm will be stepping down. For a storied organisation like the Workers' Party, it is all the more startling because of the pivotal contributions of its secretary-general, Mr Low Thia Khiang. He said he would not be contesting the post next year.

That speaks of either his confidence in party leadership renewal, or of political shrewdness in weighing the relative electoral benefit in the timing of his move, or of both. Acting now will spur the party cadre to redouble efforts to emulate his grassroot touch - a key part of the WP's success in going from one Member of Parliament to nine over the years, making it the biggest opposition party. Delaying his departure could put the party at risk if he is made a bankrupt as a result of a $33 million legal suit that Mr Low and others are facing over a town council controversy.

To many voters, a disqualification on legal grounds of a long-serving opposition MP - Mr Low first won a seat in Hougang in 1991 and has never lost in an election since - would represent a regressive development. After all, opposition politics had borne a Third World image for many decades. Even this year, The New York Times still referred to the opposition in Singapore as little more than "frail invertebrates". That does injustice to the WP in particular, as it has steadily built its leadership base and following, as seen in electoral breakthroughs. With Mr Low leading the charge, the WP became the first opposition party to take a Group Representation Constituency. It did this not just once but twice in Aljunied GRC.

That is quite a change from earlier periods when the opposition played a nominal role. Then, political ructions and economic insecurities led voters to place their trust in a dominant People's Action Party. Given the PAP's success in developing Singapore, it is no surprise that it has won every election since Independence. That has typically driven the opposition to focus on pockets of discontent over particular government policies, and on the general need for checks and balances against overweening executive power. Refining the argument during the 2011 general election, Mr Low said Singapore deserved a First World Parliament, defined as one with a better balance of ruling party MPs and opposition MPs.

Numbers matter, of course, in a functioning democracy, but sound ideas and plans are critical if the WP aspires to "evolve into the next stage of forming a potential alternative government", as Mr Low put it. The WP under a new leader must also institutionalise principles and practices that can win the confidence of voters. Mr Low disliked combativeness but his successor must not shy away from compelling and thoughtful argument to take the opposition to a higher plane.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2017, with the headline 'Towards a 'First World' opposition'. Print Edition | Subscribe