NSP 'dogged by factional splits'

Ms Hazel Poa (standing, second from left), with (from left) NSP member Lim Tean, president Sebastian Teo and party member Mohamed Fazli Talip during a recent walkabout in Tampines East. Ms Poa is the third NSP secretary- general to resign this year.
Ms Hazel Poa (standing, second from left), with (from left) NSP member Lim Tean, president Sebastian Teo and party member Mohamed Fazli Talip during a recent walkabout in Tampines East. Ms Poa is the third NSP secretary- general to resign this year. In quitting, she said "unlike in other political parties", the NSP president is the party's de facto leader.ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG

Clash between old guard and newcomers behind the loss of 3 leaders, say ex-members

A clash of cultures between the old guard and the newcomers. A flawed power structure that limits the

role of the secretary-general. And an ineffective dispute-resolution mechanism.

These are the reasons cited by former party members and analysts as to why the opposition National Solidarity Party (NSP) has lost three secretaries-general this year, and four since the 2011 polls.

The latest to depart is acting secretary-general Hazel Poa, who quit the party on Wednesday because she disagreed with the NSP's decision to enter into a three-cornered fight with the Workers' Party (WP) in the single-seat MacPherson ward just a week after saying it would not contest there.

Ms Poa is the third NSP secretary-general to resign from the party this year - after lawyers Tan Lam Siong and Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss quit in July and March respectively. Mr Goh Meng Seng served as secretary-general from February 2010 till June 2011 before giving way to Ms Poa, whose term ended in 2013. She took up the post again after Mr Tan quit.

Former members painted a picture of a party dogged by factional splits between the old guard, who are reluctant to give up battlegrounds they have cultivated, and newer members like Ms Poa, who believed in a united opposition cause.

Said former NSP member Syafarin Sarif: "The thinking is that when somebody gives way to you, you should reciprocate. It's not something they can give up just like that - it's a lot of blood, sweat, tears, money and time they devoted (at Marine Parade and MacPherson)."

The NSP had given up the two constituencies to avoid three-way fights with the WP, even though the latter had offered to give up MacPherson if the NSP did not contest Marine Parade. WP chairman Sylvia Lim said the NSP had rebuffed its offer. But the NSP said it had initiated contact with the WP and did not get a response.

That the WP spurned the second all-parties meeting to decide on battlegrounds could not have gone down well, said an opposition party leader who asked not to be named.

The NSP was started by businessmen in 1987 and old-timers like its former president Yip Yew Weng still form a majority within the Central Executive Committee (CEC).

As the leader of another party observed: "Some of them still have a towkay mentality, concerned with face-saving and 'yi qi' and grand overtures. When I give you this, you reciprocate with that. So when they said they were willing to step away from Marine Parade, they thought (WP leader) Low Thia Khiang would be on the same towkay wavelength - that he would generously give them MacPherson. But when WP didn't, they felt like they had been wronged."

Though it has tried to attract new talent, the departures, first of Mrs Chong-Aruldoss and now Ms Poa, both former Reform Party compatriots who joined NSP months before the 2011 polls, point to a resurgence in influence of more conservative old-timers. Some also cited the party's power structure as a reason for its current state of affairs.

In her resignation note on Wednesday, Ms Poa said "unlike in other political parties", the NSP president is the party's de facto leader, while the secretary-general performs the role of spokesman.

Mr Tan, who may contest the next polls as an independent, said unlike other parties, "power flows from the president" at NSP.

"The fact is that the president is the one with overall control over the party, and the secretary-general basically performs some of the roles of the president by virtue of authority granted by him," he said.

"Certainly (the non-traditional party structure) had its constraints on my role as the secretary-general to decide on matters."

Yet others cite the way the CEC resolves controversial issues as the problem. Lobbying was common, with the NSP president rarely making any executive decisions and only stepping in as a tiebreaker.

A former NSP council member said former non-constituency MP Steve Chia was thus persuaded by party stalwarts to call a vote on whether the party should contest MacPherson, and that they would back him to be fielded there.

Political analyst Derek da Cunha said the change of heart on MacPherson "probably had to do with personalities within the NSP's CEC who wished to contest in the upcoming elections".

He added: "This whole thing puts NSP in a poor light, dramatically putting focus on the view that it is a party driven largely by the interests of various personalities within it."

The latest resignation looks to have affected the party's plans: It is not holding outreach activities this weekend but members will meet today to discuss preparations.

But Mr Chia put up a brave front for the NSP. Yesterday, he posted on Facebook that he had completed a run in the ward. When asked if he will be contesting in MacPherson, he replied: "Yes, we will be committed to the residents of MacPherson."

•Additional reporting by Walter Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2015, with the headline 'NSP 'dogged by factional splits''. Print Edition | Subscribe