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.
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?
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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.
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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.