Sunday, April 18, 2010

Time for opposition to mend fences

Apr 17, 2010

Rather than engaging in spats, opposition should work to win over voters
By Kor Kian Beng

AT A time when they should be focusing on fighting the coming general election, some opposition parties have chosen instead to air old dirty linen and engage in infighting.

A 17-year-old feud between Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong and his former protege Chee Soon Juan, and a one-year-old spat between Reform Party secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam and former chairman Ng Teck Siong have been playing out in the open for all to see.

Add to these the split within the Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS) - which has already resulted in a string of court cases - and one wonders what is ailing the opposition.

True, the Workers' Party and the National Solidarity Party are not mired in conflict. But with other key parties and leaders engaged in public wars of words, it is no wonder some voters are thinking of the opposition as fragmented and divided.

Few would argue with the notion that an opposition is needed to provide checks and balances against the People's Action Party (PAP) government, or to act as a spur.

Singapore needs an opposition capable of fielding candidates for Parliament possessed of not only the necessary credentials, but also the maturity to know how to work with others towards a common goal, and when to let bygones be bygones.

Yet this was not what was indicated when the Chiam versus Chee saga resurfaced last month following Dr Chee's interview with Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao. It sparked a rebuttal from Mr Chiam's wife and an exchange of letters between her and Dr Chee in the press.

The row centred on Dr Chee's role in Mr Chiam's dismissal as secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in 1993 and his eventual exit from the party in 1996. Dr Chee said that he did not drive Mr Chiam out; that he had in fact tried to persuade Mr Chiam to stay on.

Mrs Lina Chiam insisted that Dr Chee was indeed key in ousting Mr Chiam. She said that despite the central executive committee's initial attempts to make Mr Chiam stay, it held a disciplinary hearing in August 1993 where it decided to expel the opposition veteran. Mr Chiam later joined the Singapore People's Party and then became the chair of the Singapore Democratic Alliance.

Mrs Chiam, who said she was speaking with Mr Chiam's approval, also noted that Dr Chee had written to the Speaker of Parliament to tell him of the expulsion, and asked for the necessary action to be taken.

As for the Reform Party spat, this was triggered by an interview given by its secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam to the Today newspaper last week.

In that interview, he claimed that the party had been 'drifting' and 'rudderless' for a number of months before he became its secretary-general. The insult prompted its former chairman, Mr Ng Teck Siong, to take to the Speakers' Corner to give his side of the story.

Mr Ng, a close ally of Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam's for many years and who co-founded the Reform Party with the latter in 2008, also rubbished Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam's claim that his father wanted one of his two sons (the other is Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam) in politics.

The mainstream media has been accused of playing up any form of infighting within opposition ranks. But the media is hard-pressed not to report statements made by key opposition leaders about one another. Silence would be construed negatively. If leading members of the ruling party had a public spat, the media would report on it for sure.

Every important organisation - and certainly a political one - will have its share of infighting and leadership tussles. But those which want to be elected representatives must demonstrate decorum in how they conduct their private spats.

The spats also show that these opposition parties are unable to impose party discipline on members and confine disagreements to closed doors. In fact, in some cases, it is the leaders themselves who are at odds.

It is also a sad indictment of the state of the opposition that the quarrels appear to be over differences in personality, not differences in policy.

The fallout from the recent squabbles could be far-reaching, if they are not resolved decisively ahead of the next election.

First, an opposition in disarray would not be able to showcase its candidates to good advantage. Whatever gains the opposition scored recently with the induction of better-educated candidates into its ranks would simply be wasted.

Second, unless the parties can resolve their differences and cooperate, there is a risk of more three-cornered fights emerging to split the opposition vote.

Third, infighting saps energy and resources better put to winning votes.

With a general election expected soon but not immediately, the opposition leaders have some time to mend fences and work together. This will not be easy, given the differences in personalities and the long history of some of the disagreements. But if they want to make any headway with voters, they must work hard to find common ground.

The coming polls represent an opportunity for the opposition to present itself to voters as a credible force. It has managed to attract the better-educated to be potential candidates. The increase in single-seat wards gives some opposition members a better chance of wresting a few single seats from the PAP. Changes in election rules make it easier for opposition candidates to enter Parliament as Non-Constituency MPs.

Voters would be disappointed if opposition leaders cannot set aside their differences to unite and take advantage of the opportunities opening up in the electoral landscape.

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