Opposition: Soul-searching for smaller parties

Much soul-searching is in order for the seven non-Workers' Party (WP) opposition parties that contested GE2015, all of which will have zero representation in the 13th Parliament.

However, political analysts say the parties' collective future is not necessarily bleak - if they manage to carve out their own niche, and cast aside wounded egos for a more united opposition front.

Still, of these seven parties, political observers see most of them disappearing unless they manage to groom a stream of charismatic new leaders and go beyond being just mere vanity projects for their incumbent leaders.

As political observer Derek da Cunha bluntly notes: "One can only hope that some personalities from the minor opposition parties can put aside their ego and vanity and announce that they will disband and exit the political scene."

Associate Professor Hussin Mutalib of the National University of Singapore says: "Small, fringe parties without either brand names or high-profile charismatic leaders cannot survive, let alone succeed in Singapore, given the Republic's political climate and small size."

After all, five of these seven parties were founded, or are being run, by leaders who had once belonged to another opposition party.

Prof Hussin foresees only "two or three" opposition parties remaining relevant going forward, including the WP and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which have built up for themselves a brand identity.

SDP chief Chee Soon Juan appears to be aware of this in his remarks last week, when he mooted the possibility of both parties "working closer together to present a more coordinated opposition strategy and message at the next GE".

But Prof Hussin foresees this being difficult, saying it will hinge on three factors: Dr Chee accepting a lesser leadership role or public profile; their ideologies being tweaked to accommodate a joint manifesto that "they both can agree with"; and the SDP to continue recruiting candidates of the calibre of medical professor Paul Tambyah.

Elsewhere, renewal is crucial for parties like the Singapore People's Party (SPP) and Reform Party (RP) which, beyond their founders, have little political identity.

Central to the SPP has been Mr Chiam See Tong, who was MP for Potong Pasir for 27 years until 2011, while the RP is being touted as late opposition figure "J.B. Jeyaretnam's party".

For the record, the scorecard for GE2015 is: SDP (31.23 per cent of votes in contested seats); Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA, 27.11 per cent); SPP (27.08 per cent); National Solidarity Party (NSP, 25.27 per cent); People's Power Party (PPP, 23.09 per cent); Singaporeans First (SingFirst, 21.49 per cent); and RP (20.60 per cent).

The seven parties' vote share in their contested seats amounted to between 20.6 per cent and 31.23 per cent - considerably lower than the 30.06 to 41.42 per cent range of the five opposition parties, excluding the WP, in GE2011.

Opposition leaders were visibly shell-shocked by the pummelling, saying there was a seeming disconnect between reality and the signals they got from the electorate.

SIMILAR CAMPAIGN ISSUES

But what they had perhaps ignored was that the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) had been recalibrating its policies towards the left, which had helped to quell anger.

Yet the increasingly crowded field of small opposition parties largely had similar manifestos and campaigned on the same issues.

These included population and retirement, while trumpeting that they will act as "checks and balances" - something Prof Hussin describes as an "overly touted slogan".

He tells Insight that the opposition must "now be seen to offer slightly new and fresh ideological and political platforms that are equally as relevant and feasible as those propounded by the PAP government, while also being more humane and caring to the populace".

Former Nominated MP Eugene Tan concurs, saying: "Voters have shown they have very little tolerance for opposition parties that are unable to justify their place in the political landscape."

He adds: "Many of these parties are content just getting the 20 per cent-30 per cent protest vote when they need to go beyond getting the anti-PAP vote, to getting votes that are affirmatively for them, their manifesto and their beliefs."

Indeed, to Prof Hussin, what the recent election showed was that with more opposition parties comes a greater propensity for a lack of collaboration. This, in turn, dilutes the strength of the ideological challenge they need to distinguish themselves from the PAP.

Despite the challenges ahead, he says the future for the opposition is not necessarily a daunting one.

After all, there remains a public desire for credible opposition voices, and a sense that some effective opposition is needed for better policies, he notes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline 'Soul-searching for smaller parties'. Print Edition | Subscribe