You’d be surprised how many people forget a simple thing like the statement in my title. Over the last four days, I’ve had to repeat it to four different persons.
In all four cases, the conversation topic that came up was the public outburst by Goh Meng Seng, Secretary-General of the National Solidarity Party (NSP) over which party should contest the 4-member Moulmein-Kallang Group Representation Constituency: the NSP or the Workers’ Party. This was apparently one of the unresolved issues from two opposition party pow-wows held recently to divide up the constituencies in order to avoid three-way fights in the coming general election.
I’ve seen a lot of online hand-wringing about how a 3-way contest will be suicide for opposition parties. Last I heard, neither NSP or the Workers’ Party seem prepared to give way.
Frankly, I do not know the latest state of play; for all I know, by the time this post is published, it might have been quietly resolved. The Workers’ Party might have agreed to give way for any number of reasons. The purpose of this article however is to argue that there are also good reasons for it not to give way, and crying “opposition unity” misses the point.
Actually, I wasn’t even going to write about this issue for the simple reason that Yawning Bread’s raison d’être is NOT to carry news, but commentary. That being the case, I have no intention of following the ins and outs of these negotiations as to which party stands where. The plan was simply to wait until Nomination Day to find out. But when I saw how pervasive this anxiety was — at least among the one-hundredth of one percent of Singaporeans who discuss politics online — the anxiety itself became comment-worthy.
Diehard anti-government types already think I am half-crazy to have said in an earlier post that there is nothing wrong with 3-cornered fights. Now I am going to argue why the Workers’ Party should field a team in Moulmein-Kallang, especially if NSP is so keen to contest it, provided the Workers’ Party has enough potential candidates to do so.
It’s like this:
Low Thia Khiang, as leader of the Workers’ Party, has one supreme long-term mission: to make it the party of government. The first step in that plan must be to make it the leading opposition party. When there were more constituencies than available candidates, it was easy for opposition parties to get along and parcel the wards out. But now, when the field gets crowded, when the Workers’ Party itself has attracted more potential candidates than before, his first task must be to ensure that it is the Workers’ Party candidates who get into Parliament.
Low’s job is not to help the NSP send its members into Parliament, it is not to help the Singapore Democratic Party send its candidates to Parliament. Quite the reverse. If necessary, his job is to block them from getting into Parliament if he is at all to achieve the short-term goal of making the Workers’ Party the leading opposition force.
Let’s take three different scenarios for the coming general election:
Wildly optimistic. The Workers’ Party wins two Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) and maybe three Single-Member Constituencies (SMC), all in straight fights, yielding a harvest of 12 to 13 members of Parliament. It is extremely unlikely that any other opposition party will do as well. The Workers’ Party will be well on its way to becoming the leading opposition party. But as the name suggests, it is wildly optimistic.
Breathtakingly good. The Workers’ Party wins one GRC and one or two SMCs. That yields them about 7 seats, leaving two more to make up the minimum nine opposition members per the formula for the new Parliament. It won’t matter much which other opposition parties get these two, because the Workers’ Party will still be far ahead as the leading opposition party. I assume these two will be NCMP seats, because I consider an outright win by any other party to be slim. Even so, it would be ideal if the Workers’ Party scores well enough as “best losers” to pick up these two NCMP seats as well. That would give them nine persons in the legislature, shutting out other opposition parties.
Realistically pessimistic. The Workers’ Party only wins one SMC. No other party scores an outright win anywhere else — i.e. my 86:1 scenario that I wrote about in an earlier post. There will then be eight NCMP seats to be filled. It is in this scenario when the Workers’ Party needs to be ruthless. They need to ensure that it is they who are “best losers” in enough places, such as Aljunied, East Coast or Nee Soon, to pick up most of these NCMP seats, in order that they still become the leading opposition party in Parliament. Hence, the strategy of spoiling other parties’ chances is also a valid one — provided the party has enough potential candidates and the confidence that even in a 3-cornered fight, they can clear the 12.5 percent vote score to avoid losing their election deposit. The chances of these spoiler candidates winning is very low, but they will help the party’s candidates elsewhere to become “best losers”.
It’s like in chess: sometimes you sacrifice a pawn or two to let your bishop or knight move ahead.
So you throw in your minor candidates to fight a hearty 3-cornered fight. They block other opposition parties from becoming “best losers” and the young candidates gain experience and exposure for the future.
It is not Low’s job to lead the amorphous “opposition” to victory. It’s his job to lead the Workers’ Party to victory. In politics, one needs to be focussed to succeed.
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What can NSP do?
Again with the proviso that they have enough candidates and money to spare they can use exactly the same battle plan. They can send spoiler candidates into Aljunied and East Coast and deny the Workers’ Party an easy ride to NCMP, let alone outright victory.
It’s mad, you might say. MAD. Mutually Assured Destruction.
No, it’s not. It’s called Democracy. Let voters choose among the parties. If voters want to destroy one party and push the other ahead to be the leading opposition party, what could be a more legitimate result?