News analysis

GE2020: Tan Cheng Bock's PSP needs to regroup after fruitless electoral debut

Even before a single vote was cast and before he had any notion of whether he would be returning to Parliament, Progress Singapore Party (PSP) chief Tan Cheng Bock was already talking about succession in the party leadership.

At his last press conference of the campaign, he had made clear that his party - just a year old and on its first electoral outing - would not "run away" regardless of what happened.

Dr Tan stressed that the party must have an internal succession plan, though he added that it must not be rushed.

With the results this morning, which saw the PSP not winning a single seat in the next Parliament, the succession question has become more urgent.

The PSP's A team barely lost the much anticipated West Coast GRC contest with 48.31 per cent of the votes, and the party put up a positive showing in the other three group representation constituencies and five single-member constituencies it contested, averaging almost 40 per cent.

"They've done respectfully well wherever they were contesting and this shows there is some following for its message in Singapore, which is good for democracy here," said Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore's political science department.

However, he noted the "immense showing" was driven mainly by Dr Tan's personality, and that leadership renewal is imperative, given that the 80-year-old is unlikely to continue leading the party for a long time due to his age.

Much has been said about the PSP and its reliance on Dr Tan's personality in drawing attention and support to the party, especially evident during the nine-day campaign.

Dr Tan had spent a good part of his time on the campaign trail lending his presence to PSP candidates outside of West Coast GRC. He had explained that he wanted to use his presence to help the candidates by giving their campaigns a boost and more "prestige".

On party walkabouts from Nee Soon to West Coast, crowds gathered and scenes of supporters cheering were common. But it was mostly chanting of Dr Tan's name rather than the party's name, showing the extent of Dr Tan's star power.

It has also been observed that during walkabouts, supporters flocked towards the man with gifts like flowers and pineapples, and seeking photographs and autographs. The party had also dangled Mr Lee Hsien Yang, the estranged brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as a possible candidate to increase the party's draw, though he was not fielded in the election.

Progress Singapore Party's West Coast GRC candidate Hazel Poa arriving at the party headquarters early this morning. PSP's A team lost the contest in the GRC with 48.31 per cent of the votes. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Progress Singapore Party's West Coast GRC candidate Hazel Poa arriving at the party headquarters early this morning. PSP's A team lost the contest in the GRC with 48.31 per cent of the votes. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

But that also meant the other candidates tended to fade into the background.

Yet Dr Tan has often acknowledged that the party needs to go beyond him to thrive.

He pointed to some of the younger candidates - PSP fielded two candidates in their 20s - as a sign that the process was already under way.

Singapore Airlines pilot Terence Soon, who was part of the Tanjong Pagar GRC team, is 29, and law undergraduate Choo Shaun Ming is 23 - the youngest candidate on the ballot this time.

That succession is such a key issue for the party is in part because of parallels between the PSP and the other party whose identity was closely tied to its leader: Mr Chiam See Tong's Singapore People's Party (SPP).

Despite the 85-year-old Mr Chiam's political achievements, observers noted that he was never able to nurture potential proteges, leading to the SPP's stagnation. The SPP has since started to rebuild, with new chairman Jose Raymond, 48, and secretary-general Steve Chia, 49, leading a smaller contingent into the just concluded election.

A positive example of a party's leadership succession would be the Workers' Party, whose former chief Low Thia Khiang, 63, handed over the reins in 2018 to Mr Pritam Singh, 43, while he was still a sitting MP in Aljunied GRC.

Mr Low built a following not for himself, but for the ideals of the party, giving voters an assurance that even when he is gone, the party will still thrive. He subsequently retired ahead of yesterday's polls.

The PSP started off with much hype, amassing a huge membership in a short time. If it can be more than one man, it will have a lasting place in the local political landscape.

Had the party won a constituency, the challenge of regrouping might have been easier. The party's MPs would naturally be poised to take over leadership of the party and could use the grassroots or parliamentary presence to raise their profiles.

This may now have to be achieved through the Non-Constituency MP scheme, though Dr Tan and his right-hand man Leong Mun Wai, 60, have both said they would not take up the position if offered. It remains to be seen if the other three members of the West Coast GRC team - Ms Hazel Poa, 50; Mr Nadarajah Loganathan, 57; and Mr Jeffrey Khoo Poh Tiong, 51 - will take it up and whether they can use it as a springboard to continue growing the party.

Early this morning, after the election results were announced, Dr Tan again stressed his party would return.

"I think the movement I've created will grow. We are not deterred by this disappointment," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2020, with the headline Tan Cheng Bock's PSP needs to regroup after fruitless electoral debut. Subscribe