Tan Cheng Bock yet to decide on role in opposition coalition, says small window to effect political change

Dr Tan Cheng Bock said in a Facebook post that he "may only have a short time to mentor a team to work for the good of the nation". PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Former veteran People's Action Party (PAP) MP Tan Cheng Bock says that at the age of 78, he has just a "small window of opportunity" to effect change in Singapore politics.

On plans for a proposed opposition coalition which he has been invited to lead, he wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday (July 29): "I think I must help but in what capacity, I have not decided."

On Saturday, seven opposition parties met to discuss the possibility of forming a coalition to contest the next general election, to be held by 2021. Dr Tan attended as an observer.

The proposal, announced by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), has sparked speculation on such an alliance's prospects and whether such a gambit would work with voters.

On Sunday, opposition politicians said opposition unity is something they have been trying to attain for a while. For one thing, it allows the smaller parties to stand under a more prominent unified banner. But issues remain to be ironed out, including personality clashes and differences in approaches to politics.

It is unclear if the proposed coalition will include Singapore's two biggest opposition parties - the Workers' Party (WP) and the Singapore People's Party (SPP). Both were invited to the meeting but did not go.

The WP remained non-committal on Sunday, saying it is "going through a leadership transition and is focused on organisation building to better serve Singaporeans".

In April, Mr Pritam Singh took the helm as WP secretary-general, succeeding Mr Low Thia Khiang who was party chief for 17 years.

SPP chairman Lina Chiam told The Straits Times the party's priority is "intensive ground engagement to understand the feelings and sentiment of Singaporeans". But, she added, "we are open to having a conversation with Dr Tan Cheng Bock to hear his views and thoughts about the future of Singapore".

The last opposition coalition to be formed here was the Singapore Democratic Alliance, in 2001. It later fractured and faded away.

Mr Goh Meng Seng, chief of the People's Power Party which was at the meeting, said on Sunday it is "premature to say this coalition will definitely be formed as there will be a lot of issues to be discussed and sorted out".

In his post, Dr Tan alluded to possible concerns. He noted that the seven parties had not landed a parliamentary seat in the past decade and said he had advised them to put Singapore's interests ahead of their party's interest to do better.

"To be fair, many from the seven parties stood in past elections because they believed they acted in Singapore's best interests. But I think some may also need to stand down and serve from the backroom if it is for the good of the country."

Political observer Derek da Cunha had earlier written on Facebook that "mixing with this particular crowd - which in the pecking order of non-PAP parties rank as third, fourth and fifth raters, will not do anything for (Dr Tan's) reputation".

To this, Dr Tan responded, also on Facebook: "I believe the men and women I met yesterday were more than willing to make way for better men and women who would stand in their place. They have guts. They have put themselves out there."

The former MP of 26 years and presidential candidate added that he "may only have a short time to mentor a team to work for the good of the nation". "I want to put my last years to good use. I want to pass all that I have acquired and learnt in the political arena to the next generation."

The opposition announcement has drawn a mix of reactions across the political spectrum.

Some, such as PAP activist Nelson Goh, 43, who formerly served in Dr Tan's constituency as a grassroots leader, expressed surprise that the opposition parties invited a former PAP politician to lead the grouping. He added: "We should look at the history, performance and conduct displayed by these parties over the last two decades."

Former SPP candidate Ravi Philemon said: "Opposition unity is something that has been spoken about for a very long time.

"Personally, I think the way to go forward would be if SDP would invite Dr Tan to lead that party, while the other existing party members take a back seat and allow him to move things forward. I think many other opposition parties which are not in the coalition would be more amenable to joining such a venture, rather than a loose coalition."


MANY ATTEMPTS AT OPPOSITION COALITION

Former People's Action Party (PAP) MP Tan Cheng Bock has been invited to lead a proposed opposition coalition. The last opposition coalition to be formed here was the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) in 2001, which later fractured. The opposition here traditionally comes together in the run-up to a general election to try and avoid multi-cornered fights.

JULY 2001

Four opposition parties banded together to form the Singapore Democratic Alliance: The Singapore People's Party (SPP), National Solidarity Party (NSP), Singapore Justice Party (SJP) and Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS). It was led by opposition veteran Chiam See Tong. But the NSP pulled out of the alliance in 2007, and the SPP in 2011.

OCTOBER 2001

Some members of the opposition parties met to hammer out last-minute deals. Only the single-seat ward of Bukit Timah saw a three-cornered fight in the November election - between the PAP, SDA and independent candidate Tan Kim Chuang.

DECEMBER 2005

Opposition leaders held a closed-door meeting to discuss possible cooperation in election strategies, and sources said they came to a unanimous decision on which constituencies each party would contest ahead of the 2006 general election, which saw no three-cornered fights.

MARCH 2011

Opposition parties met twice to try and resolve constituencies that were heading for three-cornered fights. In the end, the only three-cornered fight during the general election in May was in the single-seat ward of Punggol East between the PAP, Workers' Party (WP) and SDA.

SEPTEMBER 2011

Former presidential candidate Tan Jee Say said he aimed to work on uniting opposition parties and building a coalition for the next general election. The SPP, NSP and Reform Party (RP) said they were open to the idea, but it failed to take off.

AUGUST 2015

Opposition parties met to try and avoid multi-cornered fights. During the September election that year, there were three-cornered fights in three single-seat wards. These were between the PAP, SDP and independent candidate Samir Salim Neji in Bukit Batok; between the PAP, WP and NSP in MacPherson; and between the PAP, RP and independent candidate Han Hui Hui in Radin Mas.

SEPTEMBER 2015

Four opposition parties - the NSP, People's Power Party, Singaporeans First and RP - met soon after the general election to explore the possibility of a coalition. However, the proposed alliance stalled after several rounds of talks over two years.

JULY 2018

Seven opposition parties met to discuss the possibility of forming a coalition to contest the next general election, to be held by 2021. They invited Dr Tan Cheng Bock to lead the proposed coalition.

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