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.
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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.
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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.”
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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.