Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What is the future of the opposition?

Jun 18, 2011

The watershed general election is behind them, but Singapore's opposition parties have no plans to disappear. The six parties tell Insight their plans for leadership renewal and for moving ahead

MORE than any other election before, last month's general election will be remembered in years to come as the one that kick-started political renewal - and not just the PAP's.

Even before the events of May 7, when the Workers' Party (WP) won in Aljunied GRC, many opposition leaders - just like those in the People's Action Party (PAP) - had already spoken about the importance of recruitment and leadership renewal.

But how have opposition renewal plans been affected by a new political landscape? How do the many different parties intend to keep going and who will form the new core? Can Mr Chiam See Tong and Mr Low Thia Khiang be replaced?

In the weeks since the watershed general election, opposition parties have announced plans on how they will move forward.

Some, like the Reform Party (RP) and the Singapore People's Party (SPP), issued detailed outlines on how they will remain active in the constituencies where they contested.

These include setting up branches, walking the ground and holding Meet- the-People sessions, even though they have not been elected.

These moves appear to be attempts to ensure that the accusation often levelled in the past, that opposition parties disappear between elections, no longer holds.

Assistant Professor Reuben Wong, a political science academic from the National University of Singapore, described the moves as an 'investment for 2016', when the next general election is due.

But political analyst Derek da Cunha notes that it is early days yet to say what will come out of the plans.

'Being active on the ground in between elections is easier said than done for parties that do not have a parliamentary presence,' he said.

And the initial enthusiasm of holding walkabouts and house visits could easily evaporate.

'Walking the ground takes a great deal of effort, is time-consuming and unglamorous,' he said, adding: 'Some parties may eventually do this very sporadically and be content instead with issuing regular press releases so as to show people that they are active.'

Only the Workers' Party (WP) emerged from the elections with any victories - in Aljunied GRC and Hougang. Taking the Non-Constituency MP

(NCMP) posts into account, it will account for eight of the nine opposition members in Parliament.

The other NCMP is the SPP's Lina Chiam, 62, who contested in Potong Pasir.

The four best-performing opposition parties at the May 7 elections - the WP, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), SPP and National Solidarity Party (NSP) - appear to have been relatively successful at attracting capable new people and each boasts its own 'star catches'.

Given the increased dominance of the WP, however, the question that arises is what future lies ahead for the other opposition parties. Small parties, such as the Singapore Justice Party, could fall away by the next general election.

Non-WP parties will need to adjust their positions, Prof Wong believes.

'The SDP, SPP and NSP need to better define what they stand for. The fundamental liberal values of the SDP might need to move closer to a centrist position to attract more broad-based support in the next general election,' he said.

'The SPP and NSP have broader- based platforms but need younger leaders for 2016 and beyond.'

One other option is for a consolidation among the non-WP parties as a way to challenge the WP's dominance.

But Dr da Cunha points out that while mergers are possible, it is also conceivable that more opposition parties could emerge ahead of the next polls.

'Do not underestimate the extent to which some individuals have an inflated sense of themselves. They just want to lead their own party and cannot see themselves working with or under anyone else,' he said.

Four under 40 in the next Parliament

Key leaders: Secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, 54, and chairman Sylvia Lim, 46

Potential leaders: Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong, 34; Aljunied GRC MPs Pritam Singh, 34; and Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, 35; and Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, 34

FOR a sense of who might succeed secretary-general Low Thia Khiang and chairman Sylvia Lim as leaders of the strongest opposition group, look no further than the four young people aged below 40 who will represent the Workers' Party (WP) in the next Parliament.

They are Aljunied GRC MPs Pritam Singh and Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap; Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong and Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam.

WP chief Low has steered clear of singling out a potential successor, but has claimed that 'the future leadership is in place and in position to move the party forward'.

On June 7, the party co-opted Mr Singh, as well as Aljunied GRC MP Chen Show Mao and NCMP Yee Jenn Jong into the central executive council, and gave larger roles to some younger leaders.

Mr Faisal is now an organising secretary - one of two in the party - taking over from Mr Yaw.

Mr Yaw is the new treasurer, and is assisted by Mr Yee as the new deputy treasurer.

Mr Giam and Mr Singh are the head and deputy of a newly created media team, while Mr Chen is a council member.

Leadership renewal has been a key focus for Mr Low since he took over as WP secretary-general from the late J.B. Jeyaretnam in 2001.

The WP's push to attract younger members to grow the party and shed the image that some have of it being the 'Low and Sylvia' party has borne fruit.

One sign of how seriously it views renewal was its decision to decide by secret ballot who from among its five candidates for East Coast GRC should take up the NCMP seat offered.

Mr Eric Tan, the 55-year-old WP treasurer and leader of the East Coast GRC team, wanted the seat, but Mr Low preferred Mr Giam in the NCMP role.

Not only would it add to his training, Mr Giam has also been the public face of the WP at a number of public forums.

The vote eventually went to Mr Giam. Mr Tan, a former banker, quit the WP that same day.

Mr Low did not want to comment on Mr Tan's resignation, but insisted that 'the whole party knows that renewal is an ongoing process'.


Can the SPP survive Chiam?

Key leaders: Secretary-general Chiam See Tong, 76, chairman Sin Kek Tong, 65, and vice-chairman Lina Chiam, 62

Potential leaders: Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC candidates Benjamin Pwee, 43, and Jimmy Lee, 35

THE May 7 election was widely billed as the last hurrah for Singapore People's Party (SPP) iconic leader Chiam See Tong.

The 76-year-old former Potong Pasir MP lost his bid to capture Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, and his wife Lina failed to retain the single-seat ward he had represented since 1984.

But in the aftermath of the election, he made it clear that he will not fade away and he expects to play a role as long as he remains healthy. Still, few political observers expect him to continue to play a leading role in the run-up to the next election.

The SPP is contemplating life beyond Mr Chiam, but has to contend with the fact that the party is, by and large, less known to the public than its leader.

Since its establishment in 1994, leadership renewal has been virtually non-existent. It has had the same chairman and secretary-general since it was set up.

Had Mr Chiam called it a day at any point before this year's general election, the party could just as well have dissolved. But things appear to be changing for a number of reasons.

The first is that it will continue to have a presence in Parliament, where Mr Chiam served for 27 years.

Mrs Chiam, the best performing opposition candidate at the general election, will take up the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) seat she was offered.

The second factor is the presence of younger, better-qualified members including former government scholarship holders Benjamin Pwee, 43, and Jimmy Lee, 35.

Ms Camilla Chiam, 35 - daughter of Mr and Mrs Chiam - has also joined the party as a volunteer.

Mr Pwee, a member of the SPP team which contested in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, has risen swiftly in the party.

On May 13, only days after the general election and just one month after he joined the SPP, he was co-opted into its central executive committee and appointed second assistant secretary-general.

He also has the task of spearheading its 'comeback GE2016 masterplan' and using the momentum the party had at the May 7 election to carry it through to the next polls.

The SPP is trying to secure commercial space to set up its party headquarters. This is likely to be in Sennett Estate, which lies in Potong Pasir.

It has been conducting Meet-the-People sessions at the void deck of Block 108 Potong Pasir Avenue 1, where Mr Chiam held his weekly sessions. They have also held at least one such session in Bishan.

Mr Pwee is behind the setting-up of a youth wing and a women's wing, and a move to register a $2 million charity linked to the party.

SPP chairman Sin Kek Tong, who plans to retire from the position before the year is out, said: 'I've known Benjamin Pwee only a short time, but so far so good.

'Of course, you really can't tell. But the way I see it, he and the people brought in by him will form the core of the party's leadership.

'They are very professional and I'm at ease that the party is in good hands.'

The party's long-term future, however, will depend on whether its new blood can stay the course the same way Mr Chiam did.


New members may force rethink

Key leaders: Secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, 48

Potential leaders: Civil society activist Vincent Wijeysingha, 41; investment adviser Tan Jee Say, 57; psychiatrist Ang Yong Guan, 56; academic James Gomez, 46; private school teacher Michelle Lee, 35; and theatre director Alec Tok, 46

A LAST-MINUTE influx of high- profile candidates helped the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) clinch a much-improved showing at the last general election.

But while this new blood was a boon to the party, it forced the SDP to grapple with a new challenge: how to integrate new members who have a more moderate outlook with an old guard who, more often than not, wear the SDP's liberal heart on their sleeve.

Its more prominent new members include those who contested the general election such as investment adviser Tan Jee Say and civil society activist Vincent Wijeysingha.

They are among a group tipped to play a bigger role. The central executive committee (CEC) election is expected in August and there is talk that some older leaders may want to make way.

Said CEC member Jufrie Mahmood, 61: 'I'm prepared to step aside to play a supporting role and to let younger or newer people who are more academically qualified take over.'

Party leader Chee Soon Juan said in the past that the SDP does not believe in a hierarchical structure and that members with leadership qualities will rise naturally.

Dr Wijeysingha was closely involved in drawing up the SDP's socio-economic proposals and co- opted into the CEC earlier this year as assistant treasurer.

Mr Tan's thesis on transforming the Singapore economy attracted the attention of voters at the general election and helped pull financial professionals into the party.

Dr Chee has said that the party is assimilating new members and placing them in roles for the 2016 election campaign: 'We will work together as a coherent unit to bring about democratic change in Singapore.'

But its 'establishment' types and professionals present, outwardly at least, a new and moderate face of the party. It is unclear how well they will integrate with others - both old and new - who cherish the SDP's old ways.

Some in the new guard, such as Mr Tan, Dr Ang Yong Guan and Ms Michelle Lee, have openly rejected the use of civil disobedience as a political tool.

There were calls to drop this approach during a question-and-answer session with Dr Chee at the SDP's May 14 thank you dinner for members and volunteers.

That prompted new member and SDP Yuhua candidate Teo Soh Lung to write a post on Facebook defending the party's right to protest: 'It is time that we question why we cannot stand at street corners with placards telling our fellow citizens and our government why we are so unhappy. It is time we reflect on our past and examine ourselves before we tell Dr Chee and those brave men and women to change their ways.'

Given these divergent opinions, it remains to be seen whether the SDP will be able to overcome the possibility of ideological fissures within it.


Party at a crossroads

Key leaders: President Sebastian Teo, 63, and secretary-general Goh Meng Seng, 41

Potential leaders: Former government scholarship holders Hazel Poa and Tony Tan, both 41; lawyer Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, 48; and advertising executive Nicole Seah, 24

THE National Solidarity Party (NSP) is at a crossroads now, after failing to win any seats at the recent polls despite fielding 24 candidates - the highest number among opposition parties.

National University of Singapore Assistant Professor Reuben Wong feels the NSP did well to attract new blood but will be more effective if younger leaders take over 'for 2016 and beyond'.

However, this may mean revamping the NSP's image as a 'Chinese male towkay' party. It also raises the question of who among existing leaders should make way.

Such questions could be addressed next weekend at an Ordinary Party Congress, when congress members - the NSP's cadre members - will elect new leaders and a central executive committee (CEC).

The congress has been brought forward from August, a sign that renewal is very much on the party's mind.

'The sooner the better,' said its secretary-general, Mr Goh Meng Seng. 'Speedy renewal will allow the new team to start work early for the next election.'

He had said previously he would take responsibility for the NSP's failure at the polls. It is up to the party to decide what future role he plays, he told Insight.

But he said he had met the two main goals he set himself when he took on the post: getting more people to join the party; and doing well in the election.

NSP has seen a 'substantial increase' in membership over the last two years, and people are still signing up, Mr Goh said. But he declined to say how many members the 24-year-old party has.

There has been talk that party stalwarts may step down, though the NSP has issued a directive forbidding members from speaking to the media on leadership issues.

But if Mr Sebastian Teo, its affable president, steps down, the party will lose a key unifying force. With no seats in Parliament, it faces challenges in getting exposure and recruiting members.

Mr Goh thinks it is likely the new CEC will focus on constituencies where the NSP did well, such as Marine Parade GRC and Tampines GRC.

The big question on many minds is whether the faction of English-speaking, highly qualified professionals who crossed over from the Reform Party earlier this year will form the new vanguard of the party.

Among them are candidates who emerged during the May 7 general election, such as 'scholar couple' Ms Hazel Poa and Mr Tony Tan, who contested in Chua Chu Kang GRC. Ms Poa seems the more likely of the two to take on a prominent role.

She hopes to organise seminars to discuss policies and get more young people involved, saying: 'I will put this on the table when the new CEC is formed.'

The NSP is also likely to bank on the popularity of Ms Nicole Seah, its youngest candidate, whose rise in popularity during the hustings took even party members by surprise. She won support for her eloquence and helped her team clinch 43.4 per cent of the vote in Marine Parade GRC against a People's Action Party team. Mr Goh has indicated that she may be given more responsibilities.

Mrs Jeannette Chong-Arul-doss, a lawyer and its candidate in Mountbatten, is also a contender for a leadership role. She said: 'I want to throw my weight behind the NSP and see it build on its success.'


An eye out for new blood from Day One

Key leader: Secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam, 52, former hedge fund manager

Potential leaders: Andy Zhu, 29, real estate agent

It may be a newcomer to the opposition scene, but the Reform Party (RP) recognised the need for new blood from Day One.

Established in mid-2008, the party set up a youth wing when former hedge fund manager Kenneth Jeyaretnam - son of the party's late founder J.B. Jeyaretnam - took over in April 2009.

The party grew from 20 members to nearly 100 - until February this year, when it was hit by an exodus of more than 20 key members, who said they found it hard to work with Mr Jeyaretnam.

Many left to join the National Solidarity Party. Real estate agent Andy Zhu is now the party's chairman. At 29, he is the youngest person to hold this post in the opposition camp.

He is also the youngest in the central executive committee, which also features two potential leaders in organising secretary Osman Sulaiman, 36, and member Kumar Appavoo, 43.

The party also beefed up its youth wing with two co-heads: engineering undergraduate Lim Zi Rui, 24, and financial adviser Gerald Yong, 25. Ms Vigneswari

Ramachandran, 29, who is pursuing a pre-school education diploma, is the deputy head.

The party is holding its conference early next month, when it will pick its new leaders.


Focus on renewal, courting more parties

Key leader: Secretary-general Desmond Lim Bak Chuan, 43, engineer

Potential leader: Harminder Pal Singh, 39, motivational speaker

THE Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) is today a pale shadow of its former self.

Formed ahead of the 2001 General Election by four opposition parties, the group is now left with its two weaker component parties holding the fort.

The National Solidarity Party (NSP) pulled out in 2007, and the Singapore People?s Party (SPP) of SDA founding chairman Chiam See Tong did so in March this year over internal differences.

Now, secretary-general Desmond Lim says he plans to step down once a suitable successor is found, hopefully within a year, in the wake of his poor showing at the May 7 polls.

Mr Lim lost his election deposit after securing only 4.5 per cent of the valid votes in a three-way fight in the Punggol East single seat ward; while the SDA team in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC won 35.2 per cent of the votes.

In the coming months, however, he plans to renew the ranks of the Singapore Justice Party (SJP), which he leads, to give new SDA candidates bigger roles ahead of the next election.

Four of the six SDA team members who stood in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC are in their 30s: team leader Harminder Pal Singh, 39; health-care firm director Tony Tan Keng Hong, 34; marketing executive Mohammad Shafni Ahmad, 33; and senior analyst Jeffrey Lim, 35.

Renewal is also under way at the Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS).

Former secretary-general Nazem Suki resigned on the morning of Nomination Day to mount an aborted bid to contest Tanjong Pagar GRC. He did so without the party?s consent and was replaced in the post by assistant secretary-general Mohd Az-Zahari Ahmad Kamil.

Mr Lim said he hopes to bring more parties into the alliance. One likely ally is the Socialist Front, which was set up last year but chose to sit out the May 7 polls.



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