Importance of parties should not be overlooked

A text message came to my mobile phone earlier today: “R u already taking up candidacy?  I want to broker u to a reputable party. Interested?”

This is exactly the kind of opposition politics that I have  been speaking up against for the last few years. I will never want to be “brokered” and any candidate who is, is not worth my vote.

I do not know which party the text message referred to, though I don’t think the sender was referring to the Workers’ Party or the Singapore Democratic Party for two reasons: Firstly, these two have clear belief systems and they are thus not likely to take all and sundry — as implied by “brokering” —  under their wings; secondly, leaders of both parties have had regular communication with me; if they wanted me to join them, they would have contacted me directly long ago with no need for intermediaries.

To me, there is something rather tawdry about party-shopping and candidate-hawking. Some people think the party label is not important, especially in one-party-dominant Singapore with an unlevel playing field that weakens all opposition parties. Deposing the PAP is all that matters. If a donkey stands for election promising that, whatever its party, it deserves our vote too.

I, however, see differences among parties. They have divergent philosophies and strategies, and it is precisely their respective credoes that give them meaning and earn them respect from voters.

Even then, parties have varying degrees of clarity. The Workers’  Party and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) have proven records (whether you like their record or not) of representing their beliefs. The rest have not, or are too young to have established it.

It is the parties without a well-defined belief system that are more open to taking in brokered candidates. I suppose, all they ask of anyone considering joining is whether he shares one point of commonality: hating the PAP.  But these would be the parties that trouble me the most. What exactly are they going to speak up about should they get elected? That is why I said at the beginning: candidates who are brokered aren’t likely to get my vote. Ditto with candidates who party-hop, ditto with parties that take on these candidates.

* * * * *

The SDP has probably the clearest credo. Some would use the term “the most principled”, others would say “the most radical”; but there is no doubt that people generally know what the party is about, even if its electoral record over the past two elections has not been impressive. Its internet reach is also the best, though it is as yet unproven how internet reach translates to public support.

The Workers’ Party also has a clear credo, albeit a far more centrist one. Detractors might call it “too situational” or “PAP lite”, but at the same time, it does appear this party has the most momentum of all opposition parties as far as popular support goes, so they must surely be doing something right. On the other hand, political observer Terence Chong pondered:

However, in chasing the middle ground, the WP cannot, at least for the moment, afford to alienate the more progressive and liberal constituencies that have been supporting it all this while. This is probably why its manifesto had some progressive things to say about the laws on politics, information and civil liberties. Yet the manifesto’s silence on sexual orientation is precisely the kind of juggling that the WP has to perform in order to remain kosher to social conservatives. And herein lies its future dilemma, will it jettison its progressive and liberal appeal in order to burrow deeper into the middle ground?

— Terence Chong, Straits Times General election blogs, 17 April 2011, Courting the middle ground and young. Link.

Yet, despite the SDP’s relatively truculent position on many issues that may have put off a lot of Singaporeans conditioned by our well-known climate of fear, it still came in second after the Workers’ Party in a poll conducted by the New Paper, late March 2011. Based on a chart on the SDP’s website (Link), I see that about 43 percent of polled participants said the Workers’  Party was “credible” or “very credible”, while about 23 percent said the same for the SDP. For both parties about 45 – 50 percent were “neutral”. While the credibility score for the SDP  is distinctly lower than for the WP, it should be noted that it is still higher than that for all other opposition parties, including the National Solidarity Party and the Singapore People’s Party. The latter is the party of Chiam See Tong, the longest serving opposition member of parliament.

What this poll points to is something I have argued for years: credo clarity is important.

* * * * *

Like all parties, the SDP is trying to offer voters as many candidates as it can. Tan Jee Say, former Principal Private Secretary to Goh Chok Tong when he was Deputy Prime Minister, and grassroots leader and former Ministry of Defence psychiatrist Ang Yong Guan have thrown their lot in with the party.

At the press conference introducing the candidates, Tan Jee Say mentioned that prior to joining the SDP, he had been in contact with Goh Meng Seng, secretary-general of the National Solidarity Party (NSP). Goh floated the idea that Tan join the NSP’s team to contest Tampines group representation constituency. Tan however declined, saying that he did not want to stand against National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan, whom he knew as a friend.

At some point in his self-introduction, Tan also dropped several more names from the cabinet, saying he knew them well.

During question time, a reporter from the Straits Times asked him how he expected to be able to perform his duty as an opposition parliamentarian should he be elected, if he did not feel up to questioning or debating his friends robustly. Tan’s reply was something about the election itself being the first phase, but by the time it came to the second phase, it should not be difficult.

I wasn’t taking notes, since I wasn’t planning to write about the press conference, so I don’t have a record how exactly he said it, but it struck me as rather strange this business of first phase and second phase, and to be very honest, I wasn’t convinced. I do not know if the Straits Times journalist was impressed with that reply either.

Not long after, I had a chance to ask a question of my own. I chose to follow up on the Straits Times’ reporter’s question. Did he (Tan Jee Say) choose to join the SDP, I asked, because the party was focussing on constituencies which were free of his PAP friends, or because he truly believed in SDP’s credo which is anchored to civil liberties?

Tan’s answer veered dangerously off the road. He began by saying that he was also offered a chance by NSP to contest his former boss Goh Chok Tong in Marine Parade and how that too was not do-able. It was an answer that seemed to indicate that constituency-shopping figured more strongly than subscription to SDP’s core beliefs. A wheel then came off the vehicle when a few sentences in, he said, “All manifestoes are the same”, [correction: “Most of them are the same”] and that was when I changed my mind. I now felt I had to write what I heard and what I thought.

When one says that all manifestoes are the same, is one saying parties don’t matter? How can a candidate forget that his job was to represent his party? Does Tan see his own credibility as greater than the party’s, such that he is his own man first and an SDP candidate second?

Am I imagining this? I don’t think so, for earlier he had said about his own party,

‘It has got a softer image, to the credit of Dr Chee. He has changed, he has improved, he has learnt his lesson,’ he told a packed room of journalists and party supporters as SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, who was seated to his left, winced visibly.

— Straits Times General Election website, 22 April 2011, ‘Perception of SDP has changed’. Link.

Oooh, I said to myself, it would be a gross mistake to underestimate the value of SDP’s proud history of protest in creating its brand value as we know it. The party draws its greatest strength from its principles. Yes, it is a steep uphill climb to win broad support for perceived-to-be-abstract things like civil rights, but without the right to dissent and to express that dissent through freedom of speech and assembly, all the best alternative economic or social ideas count for nothing, because they will simply not be heard, or ignored.

It took several more sentences before Tan must have realised his vehicle was careening down a ravine, for he quickly declared that yes, he stood by the party’s credo. “Human rights are basic rights.”

* * * * *

The SDP faces a familiar problem as it tries to bring more people on board: dilution, mixed messages and what I call the diva danger. And yet a party cannot grow if it does not make an effort to attract more people, so I am happy to see the SDP facing this problem, not because I mean it ill, but because it is a sign that it is beginning to grow.

Nor, however critical I have just been about Tan’s first press conference as a candidate, should you think it’s all hopeless. His alternative economic ideas were impressive, and anyway, a true measure of a person is how fast he adapts, not whether he was born perfect. Opposition politics is a hard slog in Singapore and anyone who takes it on deserves respect. And for every one of them, it’s nothing but a steep learning curve.

But as it grows, the SDP has to do what the Workers’ Party long ago learnt it had to do, and which today is a huge asset: work out these issues internally and get everyone to sign on to the party manifesto and party discipline. Never forget that soloists do not make a government or even a shadow government. It takes a team that truly shares the same vision and knows how to pull together. Opposition politics will get nowhere without strong, coherent parties.

24 Responses to “Importance of parties should not be overlooked”


  1. 1 Paranoid 23 April 2011 at 05:10

    I am always very worried when anyone makes an argument with an excessively moralistic undertone. Unfortunately, Tan Jee Say is one of them.

    And while I don’t really want to bring religion into the debate, I can’t help but feel paranoid about having him in the parliament.

    In that sense then, I would think that Lim Boon Heng was a better MP given how he was able to cast his religion aside, and evaluate the pros and cons of having the casinos. I’m not saying that the pros and cons of having the casinos were fully debated, since many have pointed out that the casinos seem to be promoting more vices. But that is not the same as simply rejecting the proposal just because it’s against one’s religious teachings.

    Going by Tan’s introductory speech though, I have my doubts concerning his ability to cast aside his religious belief.

  2. 3 wongyy 23 April 2011 at 06:30

    I liked the map with the the degree of clarity v. age of parties. Maybe YB can include the ruling party in the matrix?

  3. 4 Zhi Xiang 23 April 2011 at 06:32

    I might disagree with SDP’s strategy of civil disobedience (not because I think it is always wrong to break the law, but because it accomplishes little). However, I am impressed by its willingness to stand up for its principles even when they are not popular – for example civil liberties and gay rights.

    I truly hope Tan Jee Say didn’t pick SDP simply because of the constituencies it was contesting. That would be very disappointing indeed.

    • 5 prettyplace 23 April 2011 at 18:15

      I think YB would like to add PAP on the map but just wouldn’t know where to place the party.

      Its a moving target. Moves according to required perception. Its a nice advantage for being in power for so long.

      • 6 J 24 April 2011 at 09:12

        We would need another dimension: What the party stands for vs what they claim they stand for.

    • 7 K 24 April 2011 at 13:19

      With regards to the point about civil disobedience accomplishing little, one should bear in mind that it is in fact through civil disobedience that SDP managed to attract some of the most hardworking and talented volunteers into the party. These are the ones who have been instrumental in resurrecting SDP’s image.

  4. 8 Amos Eng 23 April 2011 at 09:25

    Beg to differ on three counts.

    Prior to the publishing of its GE2011 manifesto, the Workers’ Party credo, in my impression, was an ambivalent one, somewhere between a rock and a hard place. I believe this resulted in a wave of exodus from the party after the 06′ campaign – Goh Meng Seng, James Gomez, Chia Ti Lik, to name a few. Sure, new members have now made up the numbers, but did they do so on basis of the party’s ambivalent principles, or because of its public perception that it is the party most unlikely to be targeted by the PAP, as opposed to the lightning rod that is the SDP?

    Secondly, I think you give both WP and SDP wee too much credit for candidate selection. The truth is – we live in a electoral system where the there are simply not enough opposition candidates. Which other democracy in the world has this problem? Every opposition party would openly welcome willing candidates, with reasonable academic credentials and basic adherence to the party’s principles. In this respect, however, one would have to give more credit to candidates in the SDP than to any other party. There’s just more risk standing with Dr Chee Soon Juan than anyone else.

    Thirdly, Tan Jee Say is right. There is really not much difference between the opposition’s stance on many key areas, such as affordable housing, smaller classrooms, more welfare for the poor, more political space etc. Perhaps you are looking too much through the lens of gay rights.

    Finally, we do not (yet) live in a democrary. It is a dictatorship with general elections. The immediate purpose must be to diminish the hegemony of the PAP, not to pretend to push ideologies of individual parties. In this respect, perhaps the opposition here should learn from Pakatan Rakyat in Malaysia. Unite to take on the ruling party, then iron out your differences later.

    • 9 Mack 24 April 2011 at 01:57

      I am tired people moaning that we are not a democracy. Everyone has one vote, and the polls are not rigged. How is it not a democracy?

  5. 10 Tan Tai Wei 23 April 2011 at 10:43

    Maybe it’s somewhat like what happened those years when all were united in wanting independence from the British, and/or non and anti communists united to defeat the communists?

    Then, subsequent to the commmon enemy’s defeat, differences amongst the victors began to play up?

    So, maybe the hope is that after the stranglehold of PAP hegemony is relaxed sufficiently, then particular opposition affiliates may begin to “fine tune”, say, the sort of “freedom” and “social justice” they want.

  6. 11 yawningbread 23 April 2011 at 11:00

    Watch this video. Gives you a sense of how important parties are from the angle of logistics.

    http://www.razor.tv/site/servlet/segment/main/specials/General_Election/62630.html

    But whether parties can get the donations and volunteers they need to succeed once again depends on the party’s ability, though messaging of its beliefs and mission, to attract passionate support.

    • 12 Paranoid 25 April 2011 at 03:57

      On a side note, I do agree with most of the points Tan has raised in his paper. It might be good to have him inside the team even if he turns out to be a religious conservative. Diversity is always good.

      I’m just being paranoid.

  7. 13 Jason 23 April 2011 at 12:01

    To Paranoid,

    I think your post borders on a smear campaign.

    Where in the speech did Tan Jee Say mention his religious beliefs in opposing the casinos? And the casinos were opposed by many groups, not just the Christians.

    • 14 yawningbread 23 April 2011 at 12:47

      That’s true, I was there when Tan Jee Say spoke about the casinos. At no point did he mention religion. I myself have doubts about state promotion of gambling.

      • 15 Zhi Xiang 24 April 2011 at 06:42

        But the moralistic terms he used to criticise the casinos strongly suggests that his objections are religious in nature. People who are against casinos because of the social problems they would cause would simply refer to those problems. Instead, Tan Jee Say’s main concern seems to be the creation of supposedly immoral jobs like croupiers and dealers.

        To be fair, Tan chose to join the SDP, which is one of only two opposition parties that supports the repeal of 377A, so that counts against the idea that he is a religious conservative. However, that might also be because he simply didn’t do his “due diligence” before he joined the SDP (as Vivian Balakrishnan recently claimed).

      • 16 Paranoid 25 April 2011 at 03:50

        To be fair to Tan, I went to look at his paper on “Creating Jobs and Enterprise in a New Singapore Economy – Ideas
        for Change” (http://theonlinecitizen.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/New_Economy_-_Jobs_and_enterprise_Singapore_15_Feb_11.pdf), and also at the TOC’s report on the panel at which he presented the same paper (http://theonlinecitizen.com/2011/02/foreign-worker-policy-and-casinos-will-%E2%80%9Cbreak-up%E2%80%9D-society-%E2%80%93-tan-jee-say/). It might just be that there wasn’t enough time for him to elaborate on his criticisms of the IRs at the SDP press conference. Here’s the TOC’s report on the panel:

        “As for the casinos, Mr Tan recalled a trip to Las Vegas where he was told that one in five families have a problem gambler.
        He estimated that currently 45-50% of visitors to the casinos were locals, far more than the estimated 10% when the levy was introduced, (Singaporeans had to pay $100 per person to enter the casinos) a clear sign that the levy isn’t working.”

        I must say that I was pleasantly optimistic about his critiques up till this point, as these were based on rational, empirical support.

        But it went downhill from then on. When asked about the potential economic gains from the IRs (including the retail and tourism receipts), “Mr Tan did not deny there is a multiplier effect. However he asked if Singapore should go into something that is not “morally good” for society.”

        I will give credit to TOC for putting the “morally good” argument in inverted commas. In fact, it suggests that there is something inherently problematic about Tan’s argument.

        Looking at his paper, the same kind of moralistic arguments are peppered in between empirical facts in his critique of the IRs.

        For example, Tan wrote that, “[the IR] is the wrong kind of industry for Singapore’s long term good. Economic development is more than just about generating jobs and income growth. There is a moral purpose as well, otherwise we might as well turn Singapore into a prostitution hub or a distribution centre for drugs which will bring us untold riches.”

        I shudder to think about the kind of “morally good” legislations Tan might promote at the expense of individual liberty. And I believe that Alex Au shares the same beliefs as I do with regards to individual autonomy and liberty, unless of course he has updated his views on this (see https://yawningbread.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/how-to-fight-human-trafficking-ban-the-term-sex-work/).

        I’m sorry to say that my opinion of Tan, thus far, remains the same as my first impression of him. But I’ll updated my view as we go along. I wouldn’t give too much credit to his joining of the SDP though. People join a particular organization for many different reasons. Just because Josie and gang joined AWARE doesn’t mean that they truly believes in AWARE’s mission and vision. Hopefully he will really stand by SDP’s credo, as he said he will, that “Human rights are basic rights.”

    • 17 Paranoid 24 April 2011 at 04:59

      Hi Jason,

      I sorry if I didn’t put it across in a more politically correct manner.

      Yes, I am aware that the casinos were opposed by many groups. And they oppose the casinos for very varied reasons, some substantiated with empirical facts, others with their religious beliefs/ morality.

      Yes, Tan Jee Say did not mention his religious beliefs in opposing the casinos. Neither did he mention any empirical facts for his opposition. All he did was to contrast the supposedly “good jobs” of being educators, and the “bad” jobs of being croupiers and dealers.

      Now, as a secularist, I do not see anything bad about working as a croupier and/or dealer. It’s a job. It’s not stealing or murdering. And from that, I opine that his opposition to the casinos is grounded in his moral beliefs. It didn’t help that I also happened to read somewhere that he is a staunch Christian. So I may be biased in that sense.

      But in any case, I’d rather any potential member of the parliament justify their position with empirical data rather than by being excessively moralistic about it. =) Hope that helps to clarify any misunderstanding.

  8. 18 YiC 23 April 2011 at 13:45

    [quote]In this respect, perhaps the opposition here should learn from Pakatan Rakyat in Malaysia. Unite to take on the ruling party, then iron out your differences later.[/quote]

    You must be quite foolish to believe that will work, because it takes one crook to bring down an entire party. The risk increases proportionately to the number of members.

    Even if it’s a small crook, be sure that the PAP will blow it out of proportion and use the opportunity to crumple the opposition.

    Crooks can appear within the PAP too. But because it’s a big team, one or two crooks can’t do too much harm. Besides, it has the media on its side to “play down” the matter.

  9. 19 prettyplace 23 April 2011 at 18:39

    I still think the green light came from elsewhere and after what GCT said about keeping to himself, things will slowly fall into place soon.

    I think parties are very important and their credo’s even more. However, Mr Tan was right in going phase by phase.

    There is another important factor Dr Chee, himself. I honestly think you can throw anything at him and he’ll be able to handle it very well.
    His experience and politicking has improved tremendously over the years.

    It is the right move to get both these heavyweights in first, regardless where they stand. All members now get extra lime light.

    I am sure Dr Chee will be able to congenially iron out the differences later. I feel if Mr Tan & Dr Ang would not have been allowed in WP, at this eleventh hour.

    So how were his economic outlook, you mentioned it was good, how to hear more.

  10. 20 Mah 23 April 2011 at 21:09

    The PAP has indeed a lot of levers to pull. Besides the Growth Dividends, upgrading of housing estates, etc, etc, now there’s the latest:

    GE: Zainul Abidin Rasheed could be next Speaker of Parliament

    A strategy to win Malay votes?

  11. 21 choon hiong 24 April 2011 at 03:32

    at first i felt uncomfortable when jee say commented he will like to avoid fighting with friends he knows but find it quite convinced when he continued that because singapore politics have not matured to a stage where politicians fight can still be friends.

    then of course the pertinent thing is why he choose SDP… is it over SDP liberal ideas, or simply because of some marriage of convenience… like fielding him to a GRC that can avoid his friends… i am not that convince by his answer but neither do i find such a uncomfortable flaw in that…

    from the way i see it… people join in associations or parties even if certain fundamentals are not iron out… i take in the instance of my involvement in Anti-Death Penalty….. frankly i myself am not too sure about removing death penalty for murderers… i am only keen for removing of mandatory so that judge can have discretion but some of my friends are going for total abolition.

    then i also ponder about whether any political party need a clear distinction to sell themselves so that it can attract voters… but then the funny thing is this: it will only work if all of us do not mind more than a three corner fight… that means for every SMC or GRC: PAP, SDP, WP, NSP, RP should actually fight each other in every SMC or GRC so that voters can decide which ideals appeal to them more… should they choose a conservative, a liberal one, a socialist one but this is not the case… somehow from the ground, voters are telling the opposition i dun really care what your values are, but i do care about bread and butter and please avoid a three corner fight.

    i felt that time need to be given… values are like of certain religious convictions and need time for people to be educated, debated… for the hack of it… i used to homo-phobic and my views were changed not because i decided to abide by SDP principles but by a whole string of things like films, books, friends that slowly mould my view points.

  12. 22 patriot 25 April 2011 at 04:40

    YB,

    Perhaps your memory did not serve you well, you are mistaken in your sequence (and subsequently the meaning) of Tan’s answer to your question on whether he had chosen to join SDP based on SDP’s constituencies of contest or if he truly believed in SDP’s credo.

    Tan did begin by saying he was offered by NSP to contest in Marine Parade where his former boss GCT is in, to which he said that he would not do so out of respect for his former boss. Then he proceeded to directly answer your question, saying (quoted in verbatim) “I believe in the SDP’s credo, human rights. I think that’s basic.” His point about the parties’ manifestos being similar was made AFTER his declared support for human rights before economic objectives, may I add. I leave it to the good readers of your blog to decide on Tan’s intended meaning – see video link below.

    The way you described Tan’s answer and your thinking is that Tan first talked about parties’ manifestos being similar, realised his mistake and then declared he is for human rights. This sequence of statements is plain wrong and thus, imo, invalidates your accompanying reasoning.

    I will not read too much into this media conference, which incidentally I thought is excellent in terms of presenting the SDP candidates amidst an engaging and relaxed atmosphere.

    Anyway, thank you for the helpful map and highlighting the need for party discipline and coherence. In a way, you are thinking ahead of our time. What we need right now is not just NPP but also pro-Singapore parties/individuals, their policies and the people’s awareness and willpower to change.

    patriot

    YB’s question and Tan’s answer at 09:00 mins @ http://www.razor.tv/site/servlet/segment/main/specials/General_Election/62816.html)

    • 23 yawningbread 25 April 2011 at 10:39

      Yes, you are right about the sequence. I stand corrected. I was misled by my own scribblings during the session, and somehow I put one above the other.

      For the record, this was what Tan said with respect to the SDP’s credo:

      “I believe in the SDP credo — human rights. I think that’s basic. You know, as a student of politics, the values of the French Revolution — liberty, equality and fraternity — these are three basic qualities. Why [did] people over the centuries fight for [them]? You look through history, not just in Asia where there’s violence, bloody revolutions. You go back [to] English history, French history, battles have been fought on the streets. So there have been cries starting from the first french revolution 1789 — liberty, equality and fraternity. Liberty is the first thing. Man wants to be free. So human rights are basic rights too; that is why I believe in the credo. You cannot subsume all these rights. You cannot compromise these rights just because you want economic growth. What’s the purpose of economic growth when there is no freedom or no liberty?”

      It is precisely because he said the above that I have since been careful about all the internet chatter I’m hearing.

  13. 24 Evariste 27 April 2011 at 12:17

    I like the SDP’s principles (though I would prefer an intricately thought out social welfare system that would prevent the bloatedness issues that many western nations face), but I feel it has to be more innovative when it comes to civil disobedience tactics.

    I suppose you have to try something — but you have to be provocative (and not cliched), and make it easy for passersby to nucleate around your provocation.

    I am uneasy about some of the factions within the Opposition, such as those who seek to vote against the PAP because of discontent with foreign workers or something, or even have more harmful ideas about restricting economic freedom. but I of course tolerate their presence within the opposition coalition because we do not have the luxury to be picky.


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