In its favour: Electoral and societal changes, more qualified recruits
By Kor Kian Beng
THERE I was, seated in one corner of a hotel ballroom two weeks ago, watching six opposition leaders doing their best to prove that their parties have what it takes to do well in the next general election.
They fielded questions and presented their parties' positions on a wide range of issues, from housing prices, income inequality and national service, to civil liberties, the Internal Security Act, the role of the mainstream media and defamation laws.
They took jibes at the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) over some government policies and for not responding to an invitation to send a representative to the dialogue itself, which was organised by sociopolitical website The Online Citizen.
Most of the 350-strong audience lapped it all up. The atmosphere was much like that at an opposition rally during a general election.
At the end of the 21/2-hour event, there were smiles, handshakes, high fives, pats on the back, and words of praise for the six panellists.
When I asked opposition veteran Chiam See Tong after the event for his view on how it went, he declared: 'The winds of change are here. People are fed up with the PAP.'
Looking and sounding confident too, when approached, were his fellow opposition leaders: Dr Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party; Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party; Mr Chia Ti Lik of the Socialist Front; Mr Goh Meng Seng of the National Solidarity Party; and Mr Gerald Giam of the Workers' Party.
There are a number of possible reasons for the sense of optimism among the opposition about its chances at the next polls - due by February 2012 but widely predicted to be held by June next year.
First, high property prices and a surge in foreigner numbers have caused dissatisfaction among Singaporeans, and are issues ripe for opposition exploitation.
Second, electoral changes in the form of more single-member constituencies and smaller group representation constituencies will lower entry barriers for the opposition in terms of campaign costs and resources.
Third, the opposition has a number of new recruits who are well-qualified professionals. They include the Reform Party's Mr Jeyaretnam, Mr Tony Tan and Ms Hazel Poa, the Singapore Democratic Party's Dr Vincent Wijeysingha, and Workers' Party's Mr Giam and postgraduate law student Pritam Singh.
Fourth, the lure of HDB upgrading as an electoral carrot has faded. When the PAP dangled this in the two opposition wards of Hougang and Potong Pasir in 2006, the tactic backfired.
Fifth, the electorate that the opposition has to woo is arguably better-disposed towards them. Half of the 2.31 million voters next year would have been born after 1965, as opposed to one-third in 2006. Although the PAP believed that post-65ers supported it during the last general election, there are also perceptions that this generation might be more open to voting for the opposition. This is because this generation would not have experienced first-hand how the PAP Government led the country through the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s and are viewed as having less attachment and loyalty to the ruling party.
Sixth, with an increasingly more tech-savvy population, the reach of the Internet would have become more pervasive than it was during the 2006 polls. The Internet not only gives the opposition parties their own channels to reach out to voters, but also provides an avenue for Singaporeans to seek more alternative viewpoints.
Lastly, the key opposition parties appear to be more at ease in working with one another and presenting a more united front to the voters and to fight the PAP.
One telling sign was the dialogue two Thursdays ago, which saw five opposition parties, except the Workers' Party, rolling out their top leaders to attend the event, with Mr Chiam's presence making the strongest statement.
The opposition patriarch, who rarely skips his Meet-the-People sessions on Thursday evenings, not even when he was recovering from a mild stroke in early 2008, made an exception two weeks go to join his fellow opposition leaders at the dialogue, where they interacted like war comrades, posed together for photographs, and hardly disagreed with one another in their replies to the audience.
Sources say negotiations are under way to strike new alliances among the opposition parties before the next general election.
If the proposed alliance pans out and coupled with the factors above, it can mean only one thing: The opposition has no excuse not to do better at the next polls.
To some, the test would be whether the opposition snags at least one GRC, or at the very least adds more single-seat wards to the existing two in Hougang and Potong Pasir.
To be sure, the opposition may yet fail to deliver, judging from its past record. It is one thing to look promising but another to garner more than 50 per cent of the votes necessary to send a candidate into Parliament.
The opposition's chances in the coming general election are probably as good as it will get. The parties must step up candidate recruitment and produce well-researched alternative policy proposals to offer in their election manifestos.
The opposition will have only itself to blame if it fails again to deliver the goods, especially if its failure stems from infighting. There is a limit to voters' patience.
[The PAP knows that the ground wants more opposition and it is likely that more will be voted in despite the PAP's best effort. In fact, if the PAP tightens the rules and raise the bar for the opposition and they got more candidates in anyway, the question in the minds of the electorate would be, how many more might have gotten in if it were not for the PAP changing the rules?
However, if the PAP loosens the rules and opposition MP get voted in, the counter-question would be, how many would not have made it if the PAP had not relaxed the rules. Thus the PAP can steal the thunder from the opposition's achievement, and seem magnanimous at the same time.
The increased number of SMCs may see the likes of Low Thia Khiang & Sylvia Lim getting into Parliament. This would be seen as a better alternative of Sylvia Lim leading an opposition team to victory over PAP in a GRC with a Minister at stake. The increase in SMC may well defuse challenges to the GRCs. After all, if you have a high-profile opposition candidate, do you field this candidate in an SMC against a PAP backbencher, or do you try to put together a team with members of varying credentials and strength and hope to beat a PAP team anchored by a Minister?
But even if the opposition goes after GRCs, they may be more likely to target smaller GRCs where the losses to the PAP would be smaller. Opposition may find it easier to put together a small team with strong candidates than larger teams.
So the PAP is controlling fluke results that may end up with losses to the PAP of too many Ministers and too many MPs, and to steal the thunder from the opposition if they do manage a fluke result.
That said, the opposition is showing signs of self-destructing. Despite the advantages that are emerging, they may well fail to rise to the occasion. But if they do, the PAP seems to be attempting to mitigate their success.]