Candidates: New-old and the new-normal

Mr Png Eng Huat (holding sign) and Mr Daniel Goh of the Workers' Party at the Fengshan hawker centre earlier this month.
Mr Png Eng Huat (holding sign) and Mr Daniel Goh of the Workers' Party at the Fengshan hawker centre earlier this month. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

The People's Action Party's slate of new faces and the opposition's likely new candidates are on two ends of a great divide.

The PAP's is a story of continuity. Even as party leaders speak of new blood and renewal, the faces joining its ranks still come from a formula that has served the PAP well: former civil servants, business high-fliers.

In previous elections, the opposition was at times seen as a "misfits corner", attracting people from outside the system, but a new breed has emerged.

Call it the new "normal" - career people and academics now make up the ranks of the opposition.

The PAP line-up could be termed "new-old"; many new faces but based on the old paradigm of Singaporeans who succeeded within the system and now want to do their part for their country.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan says "they very much fit into the mould and expectations that Singaporeans have come to expect of a typical PAP candidate".

"While there has been the effort to portray them as success stories of the Singapore system, we have not yet got a sense of how different they will be and how will they be able to contribute to aspiration for greater political diversity", adds Associate Professor Tan.

The line-up now includes top guns from the public sector like former chief of defence force Ng Chee Meng and former second permanent secretary at the Ministry of Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat. Private sector heads like Mr Saktiandi Supaat, executive vice-president at Maybank, are also regular features.

The party's sterling slate is to be expected, says political science professor Bilveer Singh: "The PAP has the best political machinery, access to the best brains, leaders and experienced individuals."

But the opposition this time around is likely to offer up candidates who can hold their own, including young professionals who feel politics is a force for much- needed change.

The Workers' Party (WP) has built on the Chen Show Mao effect - referring to its high-flying corporate lawyer MP - by attracting professionals who have succeeded academically and in their careers.

They include tenured National University of Singapore sociology professor Daniel Goh - who has said the Marxist-conspiracy arrests in the 80s helped spark his political awakening - and Mr Leon Perera, an Oxford graduate who runs his own consultancy.

Academic and medical doctor Paul Tambyah, meanwhile, is joining the Singapore Democratic Party for the coming polls.

"This is unprecedented, showing that getting good people is no longer a PAP prerogative. This is good for Singaporeans and Singapore's future as we have good alternative leaders emerging," says Dr Singh.

The WP is likely to field 28 candidates, half of them fresh faces. But it has not formally introduced candidates and is likely to confirm them only on Nomination Day.

Other parties have said they are in no hurry to show their hand. The Singapore Democratic Alliance plans to wait for Parliament to be dissolved and the Writ of Election issued, while SingFirst will wait until Nomination Day.

The PAP's new style of introducing candidates early is a boon for the opposition, says Prof Tan. They can adjust slates depending on how best they think they can take on PAP candidates.

Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat disagrees: "The boundary changes, and overlapping claims over seats, has caused the opposition to rethink its strategy, hence the delay in announcing candidates.

"This will put them at a disadvantage. Citizens need time to analyse these candidates."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2015, with the headline 'Candidates: New-old and the new-normal'. Print Edition | Subscribe