I have long argued that for strength and durability, political parties need to be built around core ideas or principles. The corollary is that they should not be built around personalities. By this measure, I have had doubts for several years about the prospects for the Singapore People’s Party (SPP).
Many Singaporeans, including those associated with The Online Citizen, have lionised Chiam See Tong. But I think a longer perspective would yield a more mixed assessment.
For the third time, he stands at the centre of an internal party crisis. This latest one has six members resigning en masse from the SPP, including the former first and second assistant secretaries-general Wilfred Leung and Benjamin Pwee respectively. Today newspaper said “both [were] once widely tipped to succeed Mr Chiam”. The rest were organising secretary Ting Sze Jiang, head of the Malay-Muslim Bureau Mohamad Hamim Aliyas, head of the Women’s Wing Juliana Juwahir and head of the SME Businessmen Bureau David Tan.
In a statement e-mailed to the media, the six resigning members said: “We are all very sad and disheartened that the current CEC’s continued attempt to build team alignment and a consultative collective team leadership culture to move the Party forward and into a smooth leadership transition have failed, and deep long-term relationships (between) key CEC members have also quickly unravelled and broken down.
“We have all worked hard to try and create a new consultative collective team leadership for SPP moving forward, but failed. We are deeply sorry.”
Today understands that some of the differences in opinion resulted in friction with Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Lina Chiam, who ran and lost in the single-seat ward of Potong Pasir, formerly her husband’s stronghold.
— Today, 29 Jan 2012, Six make bitter break from Singapore People’s Party, by Lin Yanqin
One can read from this statement much about what caused their departure. The allusion to failing to build a “consultative collective team leadership” suggests that the Chiams were not prepared to cede iron-fisted control.
This is almost a replay of the break-up of the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) in 2010. The SDA then comprised the SPP, the Singapore Justice Party and the the Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS). But Chiam’s main antagonist was none other than SPP’s own Desmond Lim, who had for years been his right-hand man helping him run the Potong Pasir Town Council when Chiam was the member of parliament for the constituency. Desmond had a parallel job as secretary-general of the SDA, and over time, he began to complain bitterly that Chiam would not respect the confederal nature of the SDA, wanting to reserve all power to himself. In that crisis, Desmond had the support of SJP and PKMS.
Eventually, Chiam pulled the SPP out of the SDA.
In the early 1990s, Chiam was closely identified with the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which he had founded. But after an internal crisis in 1993, he left when he found that he had lost the confidence of his peers. The party’s other central executive committee (CEC) members had voted unanimously against him over a key motion. Chee Soon Juan has detailed the events in a series of articles, backed by references to press reports of the period (see The truth about Chiam See Tong’s departure Part 1 and Part 2). One report, of court testimony when Chiam sued the SDP, had this gem:
Mr Kwan Yue Keng, another CEC member had, in 1987 spoken up against “one-man shows” referring to Mr Chiam.
Mr Chiam replied: “Someone must lead. Who initiates? The leader.” He claimed credit for the winning “by-election effect” strategy.
Mr Ling retorted that it was actually the idea of Mr Mohammed Jufrie Mahmood (then) of the Workers’ Party.
Mr Chiam: “Who implemented it?”
Mr Ling: “The CEC.”
Mr Chiam: “Collective leadership is nonsense.”
Mr Ling: “You’re talking of dictatorship.”
— Straits Times, 4 Dec 1993, SDP split: Chiam against the rest
* * * * *
Coming back to the current crisis at the SPP, with the departure of six key members, the party congress ended with the election of eight previous central executive committee members into the new CEC. The closed-door congress was held on 29 Jan, with reporters noting that 25 – 30 members attended. Today newspaper quoted the prepared statement that Lina Chiam read to the media after the meeting:
Mrs Chiam said: “The OPC (Ordinary Party Conference) has proceeded to re-elect the remaining members of the CEC. The election of the office bearers will take place after the first CEC meeting. The OPC fully supports the leadership of the CEC.”
Several sources confirmed that at least eight people have been elected to the new CEC.
Besides Mrs Chiam, they include Mr Chiam; previous chairman Sin Kek Tong, and former CEC members Jason Leong, Ricky Toh, Yen Kim Khooi, Yong Seng Fatt and Han Jook Kuang.
— Today, 30 Jan 2012, SPP exodus triggered by an email: Sources, by Neo Chai Chin
The Straits Times calculated that the average age of this group was 58, and wrote:
Without a generation of young leaders in sight, party members and observers are now raising questions over the succession plans of its veteran secretary-general Chiam See Tong, 76, and the future of the 17-year-old party.
— Straits Times, 30 Jan 2012, No fresh blood in SPP leadership, by Tessa Wong and Andrea Ong
Like comic opera, the new CEC showed signs of fracture almost immediately. Sin Kek Tong, whose name was among those re-elected into the new CEC, was reported by the Straits Times as refusing to be included.
A stinging indictment of the turn of events came from party co-founder Mr Sin, who announced his retirement from party leadership last year. He said he would reject any new appointment.
‘I shall decline their offer for age and health reasons, and because I believe there should have been renewal of party leadership,’ said the 65-year-old, who was not present at yesterday’s meeting.
‘The Chiams should have made way for the new blood. The party is now facing a crisis with a lack of new leaders and a lack of direction.’
Benjamin Pwee then re-entered the fray, pointing out that electing Sin Kek Tong without him first agreeing to be nominated would cast the validity of the entire election in doubt. (Straits Times, 31 Jan 2012, Dispute over validity of SPP election, by Tessa Wong). S Kunalen, a former lawyer, who was at the party conference, then revealed that the new CEC was elected “en bloc” with all names on a single slate. The party’s constitution as published on its website does not say anything that would disallow that, but nonetheless it seems strange that that party would include someone who has no interest in being elected. I guess we will hear more in due course.
Actually, whether Sin was among the eight elected is not even clear. The Straits Times reported that he was.
The names of the remaining CEC members, including Mr Sin’s, were then read out at one go, and the cadres voted them all into the new CEC.
Said Mr Kunalen: ‘The proper rules were followed, and Sunday’s meeting was properly conducted.’
Besides Mr Sin, at least seven other CEC members were re-elected, including Mr Chiam See Tong and his wife Lina.
— Straits Times, 31 Jan 2012, Dispute over validity of SPP election, by Tessa Wong
But Today newspaper reported differently.
SPP member S Kunalan, however, said the CEC election was “validly carried out”.
He clarified that Mr Sin and Mr Jimmy Lee – who was also part of Mr Chiam’s Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC team last May – were not re-elected into the CEC.
“However, they may be co-opted into the CEC at a later date,” he said.
— Today, 31 Jan 2012, New twist to SPP saga: Pwee claims re-election ‘potentially null and void’ , by Lin Yanqin
This is going to keep SPP in the news for all the wrong reasons.
* * * * *
You might have noticed that the Straits Times reached me for a comment for Monday’s story (30 Jan 2012). Indeed, I told the reporter that such a crisis within any party does not augur well.
Our political system is one of cabinet government. To succeed, a party must be able to find enough leaders who can work together. This means an essential quality of a party leader is that of being able to work collegially with others despite differences of opinion from time to time. And since ambition is never far away in politics, a party leader must be able to suffer other egos as big as his own.
A good leader is one who never forgets that the mission is far more important than himself. It is the shared mission that attracts people and sustains their loyalty. Personality politics cannot take a party very far. Instead, it is more advisable to tend to core ideas and defining principles for the sake of a party’s future.