Lessons from the mess in the Singapore Democratic Alliance

It’s quite obvious by now — mid November — that 2010 will not see a general election. That being the case, history will probably record that the chief political party story for the year would be the wretched infighting within the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA). The Reform Party too is involved in the fracas.

The instability within the SDA was largely inevitable, but the involvement of the Reform Party was not, and even now, it isn’t clear to me what good they see in letting themselves get dragged in. If anything, flirting with one or more partners shows up their weaknesses. There is still a little time to correct course, but I wonder if they will seize the opportunity.

The curtains to this drama went up in the middle of this year, but it has taken a while for the bits and pieces of the story to come out. Only recently has it become clear (at least to me) what is going on. I suspect many others are still a little confused, judging by questions I get from political researchers — “What do you think is going on in the SDA and why?” — so let me tell you the story as far as I have managed to deduce it.

There were two dramas running in parallel, but incidents occurring on one track influenced and often exacerbated developments on the other. I shall refer to the two dramas as (1) the SPP battle of succession, and (2) the Chiam-Jeyaretnam tango.

First, however, for the benefit of readers who are not very familiar with the scene, here are the dramatis personae:

The SDA is a loose alliance comprising three parties: SPP, the Malay-based PKMS and the Singapore Justice Party (SJP). These parties pooled together their resources so that they could field teams of candidates for Group Representation Constituencies (GRC). However, at the last general election, none of them won except Chaim See Tong in Potong Pasir Single-member Constituency.

Chiam is the leader of the SPP and also the chair of the SDA. Because he stood for election in Potong Pasir under the banner of the SDA, technically, he is the SDA Member of Parliament for Potong Pasir, not the SPP’s.

The Reform Party is not a member of the SDA, but in the middle of this year, explored the possibility of joining.


The SPP battle of succession

This was the inevitable conflict. Ever since Chiam See Tong suffered a stroke, it was obvious that his political career had entered its final phase.   Would he stand for election again in Potong Pasir? Would he retire? If so, who would be SPP and SDA’s candidate for Potong Pasir?

Desmond Lim had for a long time been perhaps the most visible other personality from the SPP and had been a key figure in running Potong Pasir Town Council. When, in the middle of this year, Chiam decided he would contest a GRC in the next election, the question of who would succeed him as the SDA/SPP candidate for Potong Pasir arose. Eventually, Chiam decided that his wife Lina would be the one. If Desmond Lim was ever disappointed, he has been polite about it, but soon enough, he was frozen out of Potong Pasir’s management, and one suspects that his relationship with Lina Chiam is not good.


The Chiam-Jeyaretnam tango

Around the same time that this was happening, Kenneth Jeyaretnam made an approach to Chiam See Tong about the possibility of the Reform Party joining the alliance. The proposal included restructuring the alliance at the same time.

It appears that Chiam agreed in principle with the idea but failed to consult his partners in the SDA sufficiently. When the Reform Party followed up Chiam’s in-principle acceptance with an 11-point proposal, someone inside the SDA leaked it. To devastating effect too, because what the eleven points would amount to was virtually a takeover of the SDA by the Reform Party. The leaked letter painted the Reform Party as a bunch of arrogant upstarts.


Further developments

It soon became apparent that there was huge resistance within the SDA to any merger with the Reform Party; Chiam has been unable to bulldoze the idea through. One can surmise now that Desmond Lim has been leading that resistance, with the support of the other two component parties of the SDA — PKMS and SJP — who might have been piqued that either they were not consulted at the very beginning, or their views were not taken seriously.

But Desmond Lim himself is from the SPP, and Chiam then took action to remove him as Secretary-General of the SDA. Exactly what SDA’s constitution says about the procedure for this I do not know, but what has emerged is that even the procedure is now in dispute. Lim says that only the council comprising all three component parties can sack him, but I can imagine the SPP saying that since he was SPP’s nominee for the Sec-Gen position, the SPP can withdraw him at any time.

Whichever way it is, the Straits Times reported that the SPP has set up a five-man disciplinary committee to “investigate recent actions and remarks” by Lim.

The rift between Mr Chiam and Mr Lim began in May over plans to let the Reform Party join the SDA – which includes the Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS) and Singapore Justice Party (SJP). It led to Mr Chiam’s decision at an SPP meeting last month to remove Mr Lim as his party’s nominee to the SDA and to name a replacement.

Mr Lim responded in a statement accusing Mr Chiam of ‘selling out’ the SPP and SDA to the Reform Party. He said Mr Chiam did so by not consulting or getting the agreement of SPP and SDA leaders to bring in the Reform Party.

On Nov 2, at a meeting of SDA member-parties, the leaders of the PKMS and SJP rebuffed Mr Chiam’s decision to remove Mr Lim as SDA secretary-general. They also rejected Mr Chiam’s proposal to let the Reform Party into the alliance.

These developments led to the Reform Party withdrawing its application to join the SDA.

— Straits Times, 16 Nov 2010, Party panel to probe actions of Chiam’s ex-protege

My best guess is that Lim will either be kicked out of, or resign from the SPP. Chiam seems determined to tie up with the Reform Party, which has indicated that while the SDA proposal is off the table, it (Reform) will be prepared to consider a direct tie-up with the SPP. If further talks between Chiam and Jeyaretnam succeed, it is likely to mean that as soon as Parliament is prorogued, the SPP will quit the SDA to wed Jeyaretnam’s party in unseemly haste. But where would that leave Lim and the rump of SDA comprising only PKMS and SJP?

* * * * *

Two mysteries

There are two mysteries: Why is Chiam so keen on contesting a GRC? Why is the Reform Party so keen on tying up with Chiam? Both these impulses were the starting points for the mess that has followed.

Chiam could well have chosen to retire from politics. It would still have paved the way for a succession battle for the Potong Pasir seat, but it would not have complicated the issue. By choosing one last throw of the dice in a GRC, Chiam exposed his greatest failing in his thirty years in politics: his complete inability to find good people and build a party. Twice he has failed — the first time with the Singapore Democratic Party that spurned him — the founder — in 1994, and now the SPP, left in tatters after an internecine fight. Chiam seems to be the kind of politician that is ultimately a loner, unable to attract talent and unable to trust and elevate enough lieutenants to create a sturdy party base.

That failure to build a party meant that his hope of standing in a GRC notwithstanding, he had no one to stand with. It made the embrace of the Reform Party irresistibly seductive. I wonder if he knew there would be objections from his SDA partners, and if he tried to slip a fait accompli past them by not consulting them fully.

Equally mysterious is why the Reform Party was interested. Here was a party that took the plunge and announced six candidates far in advance of an election — with more in the wings, it suggested. Six is more than enough to make a GRC team. Why did they feel they needed Chiam?

The only reason most of us can think of is that they wanted to ride on Chiam’s name-recognition and gentlemanly appeal. But this then suggests:

  • They have no confidence in their own vote appeal;
  • They are impatient to win at their first try, perhaps doubting that they have the stamina to try again after one attempt.

These two corollary findings are quite negative, aren’t they? Which is why their move to court Chiam stumped me; I thought they were smarter than that. They should have realised that courting Chiam would project these unflattering perspectives.

I would have much preferred the Reform Party to stick to what it does best:

  • Presenting themselves as a fresh new alternative to the tired old politics of before;
  • Developing a more thorough policy program — the exact opposite of Chiam, who has never been known for any coherent program — and convincing voters through that.

Instead the whole fiasco has tainted them. Courting Chiam looked opportunistic. It undercut the fresh image they were developing for themselves. The brusque and demanding eleven points showed them as uncivil and disrespectful, and even too full of themselves.

Fortunately, there’s still time yet for the Reform Party to call off the whole thing and look within themselves for their own growth and future success.

* * * * *

Unlike in business, political parties cannot grow through forced or incompatible mergers and acquisitions (in fact, not even in business!). In business, bricks, mortar and patents may be assets, but in political parties, it’s almost all a question of human capital. The management of human capital and ideas is key to success. Better then for parties to grow organically, staying true to principles, attracting and cultivating talent.

Moreover, no one person has enough time to attend to all  issues. No one person has enough knowledge or experience. No one alone has enough wisdom to make the right decisions all the time. The good leader is the one who knows his own limitations and is able to attract and retain the loyalty and dedication of  people cleverer, more knowledgeable or more experienced than himself.

If we hope to see a two-party system in Singapore, then as voters, we must elevate one consideration over all others: support should go not to the angry or eloquent critic of the present order, but to the party with a leader who builds a viable team. Who is capable of putting together a cohesive government-in-waiting.

14 Responses to “Lessons from the mess in the Singapore Democratic Alliance”

  1. 1 yuen 17 November 2010 at 23:18

    what do you mean by “learn lesson”? if you mean “improve due to experience”, I guess no lesson has been learnt; if you mean “get clearer picture of everything”, I guess they have established that they still dont know how to organize themselves democratically; if you mean “getting punished”…

    yet, given the rather sour mood among the people over immigration, floods, house prices, YOG, gang fights, etc, the parties might do very well in the next election, after which some policy changes would be made and more new plans to “remake singapore” would be formulated

    I have lived nearly 30 years here and “learnt the lesson” that the place operates on this kind of dynamics…

  2. 2 alex tan 18 November 2010 at 00:17

    “There are two mysteries: Why is Chiam so keen on contesting a GRC?”

    Chiam has openly declared that he is keen on taking a GRC because he wants to use his position as a 26 year MP to bring more Opposition Members into Parliament.

    Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC is a very strategic location and, on assessment, the only GRC where the Opposition could most likely win. There will be flow-over votes from area around Toa Payoh Lorong 8 because the residents there have seen for themselves there are no repercussions for voting the Opposition.

    The Reform Party is an exceptional team with probably the highest number of candidates with Ministerial qualities aside from the Workers’ Party. An Alliance with Reform Party is critical to victory Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.

    Following the badly damaged reputation of Wong Kan Seng due to Mas Selamat’s escape, along with the unrepentant PAP’s policies especially on rising housing price and influx of foreigners, along with the rise of independent news platform like The Temasek Review, along with the rising success of Change in countries like Japan Australia UK US and Malaysia, Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC has never ever been easier to take.

    The Alliance with Reform Party must take place if we hope to see any Change in this coming General Election. The team formulated will best fit Singaporeans’ expectations of a Credible and Competent Opposition.

    vote for Change, vote the PAP out

    Alex Tan

  3. 3 hahaha 18 November 2010 at 10:00

    There is a PAP mole in the alliance.

  4. 4 auntielucia 18 November 2010 at 10:53

    Hahaha! Poor Mr Chiam! After 26 years only to lose in a GRC? That’s gratitude for you from the vacillating voter…

  5. 5 atans1 18 November 2010 at 11:35

    I tot that even worse than leaked letter (I mean Chiam had agreed to it) was KJ’s petulant response after the rejection.

    I lost my respect for him after his response. Interestingly his response also confirmed the things that others had been saying abt their interactions with him.

    I agree with yr comments on how RP should move on. They don’t need Chiam if they are in long=term.

  6. 6 KiWeTO 18 November 2010 at 11:35


    Great analysis.

    I have to disagree with your perspective that businesses can grow through mergers and acquisitions though. Many business study cases (no references!) have studied this method of growth, and found them to be value-destroying rather than value creating in more than half the cases (perhaps researcher bias?).

    In any organization, political or economical, human capital(which I have issues with the the use of the name ‘capital’ itself) is the reason why it grows and prospers. Without the humans, there is no need for an organization!

    As for the Reform party – not much reform going on if they believe they need to rely on a pillar of opposition to bring credibility to their reform ideas; but that is just arguing about the viability of various political strategies.


  7. 7 Bill 18 November 2010 at 12:04

    hmmmm…Mess? this is not a mess, its just a good old fashioned political punch up.

    The early years in the PAP was characterised by all sorts of infighting. There’s nothing here, man. Move on.

    Wanna know what a mess really is? Quite a number of Sporeans think that the serial no. behind the electoral ballot provides the ruling party with access to your vote. And that somehow with this information, the ruling party will destroy you and your family if you vote for the oppostion. People who propagate these fears are messed up!!

  8. 8 Alan Wong 18 November 2010 at 12:25

    Why can’t all the opposition parties set aside their personal differences and for once work towards the common good to deal with their common adversary ie. PAP first ? At least win some seats first to present an effective opposition voice and give PAP MPs a run for their monies.

    The other alternative is for them to continue squabbling among themselves and at the end win none of the seats during this golden opportunity ! But is this what they are aiming for ?

  9. 9 Alan Wong 18 November 2010 at 12:34

    Just to add :

    For heavens sake, don’t just contest for the sake of contesting. If 2 or more opposition parties wants to try their luck for the same seat, let it be a warning that many frustrated voters may be prepared to vote for PAP instead since these opposition parties will give voters the impression that they are not prepared to sacrifice or compromise their self interests.

    Let’s unite for a common cause !

  10. 10 cy 18 November 2010 at 12:40

    although organic growth may be the best, but M&A can propel a party to greater heights too. don’t forget PAP right wing faction rode on the left wing faction,then discard it. KJ may be taking a leaf out of this history and Chiam is just going along to leave a legacy for himself and singapore.

    If they are 2 willing parties,you can’t blame RP for having demanding conditions.

  11. 11 Ops Man 18 November 2010 at 16:25

    3rd question :

    Why is Chiam so keen to tie up with Kenneth Jeyaretnam?

    Considering that ..

    1. KJ is a political newbie.

    2. Chiam and JBJ had never saw eye to eye.

    3. It was reported by Desmond Lim that SDP and Socialist Front had agreed in principle to join SDA. If Chiam really wants opposition unity, wouldn’t taking in SDP and SF into the SDA be a more viable option than dragging out the RP alliance / Desmond Lim feud?

    Yes, I’m also inclined to suggest there must be a PAP mole somewhere in this saga.

  12. 12 Helix 20 November 2010 at 01:24

    If there are so many disgruntled voices regarding PAP’s policies, can’t the opposition party then put forth some viable new model? So far, I don’t hear much substance from the opposition party either. If I don’t read wrongly, certain guy even propose a socialist model for our country. As far as I can see, PAP’s dealing with economy is better than the opposition parties. The opposition parties only know how to tell people that there are so many poor people that need help but the ministers are drawing huge pay package but never care about these people. I think it will be better if they can propose some replacement model that may help to amolierate these problems. Don’t tell us how we should draw from the reserve and simply just give away. We will never follow a socialist model!

    What does the opposition party represents? Small government? Big government? What will be the economic policies? What tax? Reduce GST or increase GST? If reduce, what other source do you want to derive the tax revenue from? If you don’t agree with the present education system, then you have to label what our present system is? Elitism? prove it! And come out with an alternative.

    So far, i don’t see opposition parties investing much effort on alternative models.

  13. 13 atans1 25 November 2010 at 06:05

    There is a gd reason to tie up with Chiam. Being the new kid on the block, they have to take on the PAP in areas where other parties have not “chopped”.

    Tough to win.

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