STATE OF THE SLATES

Opposition parties get set for contest

The Workers’ Party team for Aljunied GRC at the nomination centre in the run-up to the General Election in 2011. The party has seen a surge in the number of people wanting to join its ranks after it gained nine seats in Parliament – including two
The Workers’ Party team for Aljunied GRC at the nomination centre in the run-up to the General Election in 2011. The party has seen a surge in the number of people wanting to join its ranks after it gained nine seats in Parliament – including two Non-Constituency MP seats – in the 2011 GE and the two subsequent by-elections.PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES FILE

Opposition parties are traditionally even more coy than the PAP about their new faces, but clues have emerged from walkabouts and the new members appointed as office holders. Insight explores some likely new candidates

POLITICAL observers often say that the academic or professional credentials of opposition candidates are not a make-or-break factor.

This is because, "while many voters might not expect sterling credentials from opposition candidates, what they do expect are candidates who are consistent, predictable and who play a steady hand", says political scientist Derek da Cunha. Indeed, opposition veteran and observer Wong Wee Nam reckons it is "heart for the people" that counts.

But this time around, some parties are reckoning that this "discount" is not enough, and are not only casting a net for fresh faces, but better-quality ones, too.

They are targeting more professionals and businessmen compared to the past, when it was a case of taking anyone who knocked on the door.

At this stage of organising the slates, the opposition is traditionally coy about naming names, but a check by Insight found new faces already on the ground.

In the case of the Workers' Party (WP), which has constituencies to run, the weekly Meet-the-People sessions of its Members of Parliament have become the training ground for likely candidates.

The other parties, meanwhile, have been trotting out potential candidates at grassroots events, forums and walkabouts.

 

Among these election hopefuls are quite a number of lawyers, doctors and businessmen - professions more often associated with People's Action Party candidates.

Then again, the success of the different parties in attracting new members has varied widely.

The WP, for instance, has seen a surge in the number of people wanting to join its ranks after it gained an unprecedented nine seats in Parliament - including two Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) seats - in the 2011 General Election and the two subsequent by-elections. The NCMP seats are given to the opposition candidates who poll the highest percentage of votes among the also-rans.

The WP's poll success has allowed the party to develop a more formalised recruitment process than before, where it can now try out people as volunteers first, before choosing only the best and most dedicated as members, say party members.

For the majority of the smaller players, though, the last four years has sometimes seemed like a game of political musical chairs, with members leaving to join other parties or form new parties.

This year alone, the National Solidarity Party (NSP) had three members jump ship to join the Singapore People's Party (SPP), and two others leave to help set up the nascent People's Power Party (PPP).

The SPP, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and Reform Party (RP) have also seen members switching teams in the past four years.

All of the parties, however, say they have amassed a creditable slate of new candidates.

Though unwilling to name just who, they are quick to attest that these new faces have been put through the paces.

Says Tan Jee Say, secretary-general of new party Singapore First (SingFirst), one of two new parties to surface: "We've done quite a bit of training. They've had walkabouts in areas they may be fielded in, and we've also trained them in public speaking, and brought in a lawyer to teach them how to avoid defamation."

Parties have also been intensifying visits to the constituencies they are eyeing, giving potential candidates exposure to potential voters.

Insight takes a look at those who are known so far.

The opposition front runner

With its success in the last election, the WP has a clear edge over the other opposition parties, and has used this advantage to attract more professionals, including doctors, lawyers, academics and corporate high-fliers.

Two of them, in fact, spoke at a rally during the Punggol East by-election in 2013: National University of Singapore sociologist Daniel Goh, 42, and law firm partner Dennis Tan, 44, of boutique shipping firm DennisMathiew.

Since then, both men have regularly donned party blues at grassroots events and weekly Meet-the-People sessions.

Professor Goh, who is also the president of the WP Youth Wing, is a familiar face in Ms Lee Li Lian's Punggol East constituency.

And Mr Tan, who sits on the board of the WP Community Fund, assists Aljunied GRC MPs Chen Show Mao and Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap at their weekly resident feedback sessions.

Two other businessmen have been sighted at these sessions and at WP's grassroots events.

Mr Leon Perera, 45, an Oxford-trained research and consultancy firm boss and former civil servant, also helps out at Mr Chen's Paya Lebar division. Mr Firuz Khan, 48, who runs a chocolate factory overseas in Wales, has served in the youth wing's council and was back recently to speak at the youth wing's Labour Day debate.

On the management committee of the WP Community Fund are at least two doctors - a urologist and an oncologist - and another shipping lawyer.

Traditionally, the WP has not been averse to fielding newer members. NCMP Yee Jenn Jong, who contested Joo Chiat during the 2011 GE, for example, joined the party only shortly before the polls.

If the party is tight-lipped about its likely candidates, it is even more guarded about which constituencies it is eyeing.

But those close to the party say it will most likely continue with its strategy of gradually inching outwards from its current Aljunied GRC-Hougang-Punggol East stronghold.

They also expect the party to contest the same areas as in the last election. Based on current electoral boundaries, this means East Coast GRC, Moulmein-Kallang GRC, Nee Soon GRC, Sengkang West, Joo Chiat and Whampoa.

Renewing the ranks

Apart from the WP, two other opposition parties stand out for their success in going about refreshing their ranks: the SPP, helmed by opposition veteran Chiam See Tong and his wife Lina Chiam, and the SDP, led by Dr Chee Soon Juan.

While both parties have seen members leave in the past four years, they have had infusions of fresh blood - although sometimes these "new faces" are defectors from rival parties.

In 2012, the SPP was rocked when six key members left abruptly over differences with leadership style and direction. Two, assistant secretaries-general Wilfred Leung and Benjamin Pwee, joined the DPP.

But recently, the SPP took into its ranks former NSP central executive committee members Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, 51; Ravi Philemon, 46; and Bryan Long, 37. The trio joined the party after Mrs Chong-Aruldoss lost her bid to become NSP president earlier this year, while Mr Philemon and Mr Long were also ousted as council members.

Mrs Chong-Aruldoss, who contested Mountbatten SMC on the NSP ticket in 2011, has said she will contest the same ward on an SPP ticket. She has been holding regular walkabouts there.

Early last year, the party introduced three young candidates aged 30 and below to its central executive committee. They included party assistant secretary-general Loke Hoe Yeong, who is an associate fellow at the European Union Centre, a think-tank set up by NUS and Nanyang Technological University.

The others are private tutor Arbind Tiwari and human resource consultant Adeline Chan.

Since then, the party has kept mum on its plans. SPP chairman and NCMP Lina Chiam did not reply to Insight's request for comment.

Meanwhile, the SDP appears to have surmounted the high-profile departure of some members - academic and activist Vincent Wijeyasingha, one-time presidential hopeful and former civil servant Tan Jee Say and psychiatrist and retired army colonel Ang Yong Guan - after GE 2011.

The party was the first, and remains the only, one to have already formally kicked off its election campaign - in January - and has since amped its public outreach, launching policy proposals and manifestos covering topics from town council management to economic growth.

During the unveiling, party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan was flanked by election veterans as well as potential candidates like NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine professor Paul Tambyah and entrepreneur Jaslyn Go.

While the party's leadership did not want to comment on likely candidates, Prof Tambyah had earlier told The Straits Times that he intended to run in the coming election.

Ms Go, SDP's assistant treasurer, had also been unveiled as a potential candidate in Yuhua SMC in the lead-up to the last election in 2011, though she was not fielded eventually.

The party has also attracted general practitioners Tan Lip Hong and Leong Yan Hoi who, along with Prof Tambyah, are part of SDP's healthcare advisory panel. Dr Tan and Dr Leong wrote a critique of the Government's MediShield Life plan.

An observer close to the party said that both men are also potential new faces for the GE slate.

Also attracting new people is the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), made up of the Singapore Justice Party and Singapore Malay National Organisation.

This is despite its result in the Punggol East by-election in 2013, when chairman Desmond Lim Bak Chuan obtained 0.6 per cent of the vote - setting a record for the lowest percentage recorded in elections since independence.

The party has worked hard to bounce back, notes Mr Lim. He tells Insight that his party has new candidates who are "quite diversified".

Those he has been introducing at walkabouts include IT professional Aloysius Chan, 29, paralegal Elle Chen, 31, and Mr William Lim, 38, self-employed. The party also has a team of shadow town councillors who speak to residents about estate matters and ways to further improve Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, he says.

The "councillors" who have tagged along during walkabouts include operations manager Tan Jui Koon, 44, and Mr Lim Kim Soon, 61, formerly the executive secretary of the Hokkien Huay Kuan.

"They are a team of people currently being trained and groomed in preparation to be of service to the people when the opportunity arises," Mr Lim says.

While he was reluctant "for strategic reasons" to say more about other new candidates SDA has in store, he disclosed that the party was in the midst of training them in areas such as public speaking, engaging residents, and on hot topics such as town council management.

"The signal I want to send is that we have new faces and new blood, and the SDA no longer works on a personality basis, but through collective leadership," he says. "There is party rejuvenation; we didn't just die off after the last election."

The question marks

LIKE the WP, the NSP was a major player at the last GE - of the opposition parties, it fielded the largest number of candidates: 24.

But right after the polls, its secretary-general Goh Meng Seng quit.

His departure seemed to spark an exodus, with star candidate Nicole Seah among at least eight others who eventually left the party.

Party president Sebastian Teo, dismissing concerns about the party's viability, says "only a handful" of those who left, such as Mrs Chong-Aruldoss and Mr Syafarin Sarif, a consultant at a research and consulting firm, were active members. He adds that the party is still recruiting members, and has thus far attracted a management professional and an IT communications executive who could be potential candidates.

"They have joined, but whether they want to be in the front line to be candidates is another thing," he tells Insight.

For now, the party's secretary-general, lawyer Tan Lam Siong, 53, is its only "confirmed" new face.

Over at RP, secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam cites "the pressures and difficulties of earning a living and the general squeeze on real incomes" as a reason why party members found it tough to be active in the wake of the 2011 hustings.

"People find it hard to maintain commitment between elections," he says. But things have turned around with the election looming, and there has been renewed interest from new volunteers as well as the return of some of those who helped in past elections. Some of them, he says, may be potential candidates.

While he is reluctant to reveal his slate of candidates - saying he was "badly burnt" at the last hustings when those named as candidates used their raised profile as a springboard to move to other parties  - he says they hail from all walks of life.

New parties, familiar faces

The next GE is likely see three more opposition parties on the ballot papers: new parties SingFirst and the People's Power Party, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which was dormant during the 2011 polls.

This would bring the total number of opposition parties to nine, up from six last time.

But voters may experience deja vu. SingFirst is led by former SDP candidates Mr Tan and Dr Ang - both of whom had contested Holland-Bukit Timah GRC.

The PPP, whose registration as a political party is pending, is led by former NSP secretary-general Mr Goh, while the DPP's secretary-general, Mr Pwee, was formerly from the SPP.

Still, all three parties are introducing new faces, too.SingFirst's other likely candidates include its vice-chairman Tan Peng Ann, 66, a social entrepreneur and retired army colonel; assistant secretary-general Winston Lim, 48, an architect; and treasurer David Foo, 51, a chemist.

So far, the party's members are mostly men in their late-40s to mid-60s. But Mr Tan promises a diversity of candidates. He says that among the likely candidates are some in their 30s.

But he laments the paucity of women candidates: "We wish there were more ladies."

The DPP, meanwhile, introduced seven new faces at a congress in February this year. But one of the seven - businessman Frankie Low, 52 - has left DPP to rejoin RP.

Mr Pwee says he will "definitely" stand as a candidate, alongside party compatriots Hamim Aliyas, 50, Juliana Juwahir, 40, and fellow ex-SPPer Mr Leung, 39.

The others are project coordinator Abdul Malik Rahmat, 55; customer service agent Firdaus Samad, 31; call-centre operations staff member Noraini Yunus, 47; Internet start-up company Temasys vice-president Nadine Yap, 46; Edwin Fernandez, 50, who is senior vice-president of a global logistics company; and Keelat theatre ensemble artistic director Gene Sha Rudyn, 46.

Mr Pwee says there have been three more new faces since, all from minority races. While declining to name them, he says they are "an educated tudung-wearing Malay lady, a Malay professional from the corporate training line, and a Singh who is running a social enterprise".

The former government scholarship holder adds: "We are discussing internally which of our credible slate of teammates will also step forward to join us, and where."

Meanwhile, the PPP's Mr Goh has also indicated that he will contest. He declined to reveal the identity of any others, but says they will mostly be familiar faces.

Others, like human rights lawyer M. Ravi, have also said they will join in the fray.

However, with many parties being so coy, opposition veteran Dr Wong warns: "I really don't know why they are keeping quiet. They should be exposing their candidates now. You need to give people a face to look at."

But regardless of exposure - or not, as the case may be - with more opposition parties, and fresh, higher-qualified candidates, at least voters won't be complaining about a limited line-up.

yuenc@sph.com.sg

waltsim@sph.com.sg

yanliang@sph.com.sg

ziliang@sph.com.sg