Singapore GE2020: With new leaders and new parties, a much-changed opposition gets ready for battle

The Workers' Party is facing its first election with a new secretary-general since 2001.
The Workers' Party is facing its first election with a new secretary-general since 2001.PHOTO: PRITAM SINGH/FACEBOOK

SINGAPORE - With its two stalwarts now either retired or playing  reduced roles, and with an influx of new parties forcing a reshuffling of the pack, the opposition enters the upcoming electoral contest having gone through its biggest overhaul in decades.

The Workers' Party (WP), the largest opposition force and the only one with Parliament seats, is facing its first election with a new secretary-general since 2001, with Mr Low Thia Khiang having handed the reins in 2018 to Mr Pritam Singh. It is also unclear if the party's biggest personality will contest the election after suffering a fall that landed him in hospital earlier this year.

For the first time since 1976, there will also be no candidate named Chiam on the ballot, as both opposition veteran Chiam See Tong and his wife Lina Chiam are sitting out the contest.

At the same time, there has been an influx of new parties since the last elections, with Dr Tan Cheng Bock's Progress Singapore Party (PSP) the most significant newcomer.

A record 12 opposition parties could be vying for seats in the 2020 General Election. They are:

- WP

- PSP

- Singapore People's Party (SPP)

- Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)

- National Solidarity Party (NSP)

- People's Power Party (PPP)

- Singapore First (SingFirst)

- Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA)

- Reform Party (RP)

- Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)

- Peoples Voice (PV)

- Red Dot United

 
 
 

The crowded field of political parties and a decision to proceed without their traditional pow-wow also mean that multiple seats could be headed for three-cornered fights.

Add to the mix the looming uncertainty caused by the global pandemic, elections taking place without the excitement of rallies and an election lead-up that was disrupted by the circuit breaker, and observers say the opposition is heading into the coming elections less prepared and less coordinated than the last one.

LEADERSHIP RENEWAL

Outgoing Aljunied GRC MP and former WP chief Mr Low is currently recuperating from a head injury, and it remains to be seen whether he will take part in the next electoral contest. The 63-year-old, who is the longest-serving opposition MP, sustained the injury after a fall at home on April 30, and was warded in the intensive care unit of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin posted a photo of him with Mr Low yesterday showing the opposition leader was recovering well.

And there is talk of a broader change of guard across the party, with MPs like Mr Chen Show Mao and Mr Png Eng Huat expected to retire.

Mr Chiam has also stepped away from politics after more than four decades, relinquishing his post as secretary-general of the SPP last October. This is the first election in 24 years that the SPP is heading into without Mr Chiam, 85, at the helm. Mrs Chiam, 71, who took over the Potong Pasir contests from him in the past two elections, will also not be fielded this time.


For the first time since 1976, there will also be no candidate named Chiam on the ballot, as both opposition veteran Chiam See Tong and his wife Lina Chiam are sitting out the contest. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Dr Felix Tan, associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said that this time round, a lot of the parties have a strong focus on newer leaders taking the reins. He cited WP chief Mr Singh, 43, NSP secretary-general Spencer Ng, 41, and SPP chairman Jose Raymond, 48, as examples of leaders from the new generation.

"For those parties that started to hone their new leaders earlier, like the WP with Pritam Singh, there's been a longer lead time of sorts," he added.

He also noted that the SDP has been placing chairman Paul Tambyah at the forefront of its activities, with much less of a reliance on secretary-general Chee Soon Juan.

Associate Professor Bilveer Singh, from the National University of Singapore's (NUS) political science department said, however, that the new leaders are entering the fray at a challenging time. "It will be interesting to see if the younger leaders can bump up the image of their parties. But they are coming at the wrong time. I think Covid-19 will overwhelm everything."

IMPACT OF COVID-19

The pandemic has already had a palpable impact on the campaign with political parties having to adjust their usual campaign practices from previous elections, due to campaigning guidelines released by the Elections Department last week.

These include the lack of physical rallies, made up for by allowing candidates running in every constituency to have broadcast opportunities on national television.

More importantly, all the platforms and issues that the parties were intending to campaign on will likely now have to be set aside.

Dr Singh from NUS said that most of the issues that dominated headlines before the pandemic struck, such as the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council saga and the issues surrounding the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), including PV chief Lim Tean's four Pofma notices, are unlikely to be on the minds of voters this time round.

 

"Fortunately or unfortunately, Covid-19 has closed every major issue. They'll be voting on Covid-19. This is a Covid-19 election. All other issues are secondary. In a crisis, where got time? Maybe some NGOs will start talking about equal wage and environment, but for the majority of Singaporeans it's about bread and butter, about life and death."

Opposition sources say there is currently no consensus on how parties should attack the issue. While the opposition parties have shown they are willing to criticise the Government over the timing of the election, there has yet to be any sharp attacks on the handling of the pandemic - especially from the larger parties.

Prof Singh said that attacking the Government's response to the pandemic will not necessarily resonate with voters.

"Generally, compared to the region and the world, we have done well. We perhaps dropped the ball in some areas like late masking and the dorms, but in general we have done well. Digging into the reserves was a very good move. It's very populist, but it's populism rightly placed at the right time," said Prof Singh.

Dr Tan of SIM Global Education said basic issues affecting the daily lives of Singaporeans, beyond just Covid-19, must also be addressed if the parties want to reach voters.

"Unfortunately, a lot of issues will revolve around Covid-19, but there should be a focus on GST (Goods and Services Tax) rise, education, housing and transportation. These shouldn't take the back seat. Covid-19 is not something that we can solve in the short term, and there's only so much that we should pursue," he said.

"At the end of the day, most Singaporeans will gravitate towards the bread-and-butter issues, and these are affected by government policies which are within our range of control."

MORE MULTI-CORNERED FIGHTS?

Traditionally, the opposition parties have all come together ahead of the electoral contest to discuss and come to an agreement about where each party will contest. These horse-trading talks are meant to help them avoid three-cornered fights, which usually end up favouring the incumbent by splitting the opposition votes.

This time round, the mass talks are not happening, replaced instead with smaller direct talks between parties which have clashing claims in constituencies.

 

While some progress has been made, there are some three-way contests looming.

For example, PSP and RP have both staked claims to West Coast GRC, while PV and SDA both have their eyes on Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. The newly created Marymount ward has also drawn the interest of the DPP and the PSP, with DPP secretary-general Hamim Aliyas and PSP member Ang Yong Guan bumping into each other during their walkabouts on Sunday.

It remains to be seen whether the parties will come to an agreement to sort out the overlapping claims.

Dr Tan from SIM Global Education said: "With the increased Non-Constituency MP quota of 12, everyone is vying for a chance to get into Parliament by that path. Some might feel that the best way in is not necessarily to win, but to lose by a small margin."

IMPACT OF PSP AND NEWCOMERS


(From left) Progress Singapore Party's Michael Chua, Kumaran Pillai, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Kayla Low and Dr Ang Yong Guan chat over breakfast at Mayflower Market and Food Centre on June 19, 2020. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Founded by Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a former People's Action Party (PAP) MP, PSP was launched in August last year to much hype due to its secretary-general's star power. In March, the PSP laid claim to 15 constituencies in its first electoral outing.

It was a clear show of force for a new party to announce it would contest nearly half of all seats at its first outing. And while it has since scaled back its plans, the party said it still intends to contest 24 of the 93 available seats.

 

Dr Tan Cheng Bock was MP of Ayer Rajah for 26 years, a ward which is now part of West Coast GRC. He also ran for the country's presidency in 2011, emerging a close second to eventual winner Tony Tan. The party has also been publicly supported by Mr Lee Hsien Yang, the estranged brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. It is not yet clear what role Mr Lee Hsien Yang will play.

Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University (SMU) said that if Dr Tan Cheng Bock can assure voters that PSP is more than just him, then the party will live up to its billing as the party to watch in this coming election.

"In webinars, Dr Tan has been very deliberate in having his colleagues take the lead in fielding questions from the audience. He is aware that the party must be larger than him. But we will get to see more of him when the campaign trail starts," said Prof Tan.

WHAT ARE THEIR CHANCES?

While opposition leaders publicly express confidence, sources say many are concerned about its chances.

PPP chief Goh Meng Seng said he is quietly confident this time round, but at the same time warned that the opposition does not yet have its tactics right - noting that the different parties have not been pulling in the same direction.

"There's now a jobs crisis due to the economy, and a health crisis due to Covid-19. Usually when there's one of these, people will vote for the PAP. But this double blow has brought doubt over their leadership," he said.

"I guess voters will be in a dilemma while voting, and there's a potential for votes to swing either way. Yes, there might be an advantage to the opposition, but we must be tactically careful."

 
 
 

Prof Tan of SMU said, however, that the "flight to safety" that many assume will take place in a crisis cannot be taken for granted.

"Even if the Government has done well in the crisis, this does not necessarily result in a landslide support," he said, citing the example of 2011 when the PAP government did well in dealing with the global financial crisis, but still turned in one of its worst electoral performances.

Prof Tan added: "We are not going into the storm this time. We are already in the eye of the storm. So this may not work in favour of the ruling party because the societal gaps have been shown. Some voters may feel that the PAP did not measure up in certain areas."