What use for opposition unity when coalition politics beckon?

A constant refrain from the People’s Action Party (PAP) each election is that voters should give them a thumping majority. Having too many opposition members in parliament will mean that they get distracted and unable to govern far-sightedly. During the 2006 general election campaign, Lee Hsien Loong famously said, in the event that voters returned more opposition members of parliament, “Their job is to make life difficult for me so that I screw up and they can come in and sit where I am, here, and I am going to spend all my time — I have to spend all my time — thinking, what’s the right way to fix them, what’s the right way to buy my own supporters over? How can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?”

More opposition means gridlock — goes this thinking. Singapore will revert to a city of slums.

As tiresome as this argument is, from the opposition-supporters’ side, there is an equally tiresome one. It is the constant call for opposition unity.

Firstly, it is not likely to happen. Secondly, it has no use. Yet, in one form or another, this yearning keeps cropping up. Time to put it under the microscope.

This call tends to come from a segment of the electorate that is angrily against the PAP. They can be called the  ‘Anything but PAP’ crowd. Analyses of past voting patterns indicate that they are quite numerous, comprising 20 – 30 percent of voters.  They can see that no individual opposition party has (yet)  the strength to win a majority in elections on its own. Naturally, they believe that an alliance among them would maximise their chances, while three-cornered fights in constituency battles would be their worst nightmares.

For them, party platforms are not important. They just want the PAP out.

There are indications that this group tends to have more older voters, perhaps from an era when politics was one of Love the PAP or Hate It. Younger voters are more likely to be floating voters.

Despite the older age profile, and presumably the gradual shrinking of the cohort, I find it strange that this unrealistic hope continues to have such a high signature. Okay, perhaps not so strange since in Malaysia, the leading opposition parties have managed to come together under the Pakatan Rakyat umbrella, and what happens in our northern neighbour inspires many older Singaporeans. But it is also important to see that there are important differences between the political landscape there and in Singapore.

Differences from Malaysia

The two opposition parties with solid vote-banks in Malaysia are Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). They are both racially/religiously-identified, which makes it extremely difficult for either of them to grow beyond their identity-base. For this structural reason, it makes sense to go into a marriage of convenience through the brokerage of Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan.

In Singapore, no opposition party has such a structural ceiling. In theory, every one of them should be able to win voters over purely on their platforms and programs without appealing to race or religion. The need to get into bed with other opposition parties, in order to reach a block of voters they cannot otherwise reach, is much less.

Also, if one war-games the likely ways future elections turn out, an alliance of opposition parties will show up as one of the worst paths to take. Yes, electoral pacts to avoid three-cornered fights makes sense (for now), but alliance, no. Hammering out a coalition pact takes up a huge amount of time and resources, which will be better spent working the ground. Inevitably, it will also dilute an opposition party’s message.

A future of coalitions

But more importantly, look at the pie chart at the top.  That is a conceivable result from a future general election. The PAP fails to win a simple majority in parliament by a whisker.  In such a scenario, what government can be formed? The ‘Anything but the PAP’ crowd may still dream of an alliance of all opposition parties, but seriously, the most likely scenario is for the PAP (shown in white) to search for a coalition partner among the opposition parties.

I would argue that such an outcome would best reflect the will of the people: they get a mostly-PAP government softened by the demands of coalition politics. The policies and priorities espoused by the chosen coalition partner gets a chance of implementation. Such an outcome may not satisfy the ‘Anything but PAP’ folk, but I can see many more Singaporeans welcoming it.

Here’s another scenario: In a post-Lee Hsien Loong period, the PAP splits despite having a slim majority because of either irreconciliable policy differences or personal ambitions. This is suggested by the diagram at left. Once again, coalition partners will be sought.

Of course, it will mean that supporters of opposition parties not chosen to be the PAP’s coalition partner get frozen out. But if they are effective in parliament, regularly critiquing policies and decisions from a consistent angle, they can win supporters over time for their point of view.

The rise of values politics

Recently, a political scientist drew my attention to something she had observed: increasingly, political debate in Singapore is driven by values — different values held by different segments. The two poles are what we can loosely term the  ‘conservative’ and the ‘liberal’. However, we must use these terms with care and avoid importing American associations with these words, because the actual values people hold are quite specific to the Singapore context.

Each polar group is a mixed collection. In my view, the conservatives could be described as those who, somewhat turned off by recent directions Singapore has taken, tend to prefer a pullback to a Singapore of before, a time and place of more certainties. As they speak, you can hear between the lines a yearning for a more Malayan type of society (i.e. one with distinct Chinese/Indian/Malay communities and cultures, and somewhat romaticised race relations), moral order, family stability and economic security. A slower pace of change would be nice too. Globalisation and its effects — immigration, culture change, evaporation of community boundaries, a breakdown of hierarchies — feel threatening.

Liberals, also turned off by recent directions, tend however to prefer a push forward rather than a pullback. Like liberals in other countries, they value individual autonomy, choice, and respect for diversity. There is little hankering for the Singapore of old, in fact there is considerable welcome extended to the idea of a cosmopolitan, world-culture Singapore. They are less uncomfortable with change, messiness and ambiguities.

Where the two groups appear to be similar is in their criticism of the failure of PAP’s social policies, particularly, the very weak social safety net. Yet even here, I suspect that if one looks closely enough, the criticism by the two groups emerge from different sources. The conservatives see the PAP’s failure in this regard as a breach of contract. They expect to be looked after; it is their conception of how an orderly universe should work. By not providing, it is the PAP that is failing to deliver its side of the bargain. The liberals, for their part, see the PAP’s failure as a moral one.

Am I making too fine a distinction? I don’t think so. The difference between these two groups precipitates the moment we ask what rights and social safety nets should be extended to foreigners in Singapore. The conservatives will want a clear distinction between what is enjoyed by Singaporeans and what (less) is enjoyed by others, since it is Singaporeans who are parties to the contract. The liberals make much less of this distinction, because the moral case is not diminished since even foreigners are humans.

The point I am trying to make here is that when criticism of the PAP comes from at least two opposite directions, if not more, it won’t be fructuous to bleat on about opposition unity. Opposition parties will serve Singaporeans better by articulating clearly where they stand and what alternative policies they propose. That way we can have a genuine debate about what we ought to collectively do, rather than let politics remain hostage to our emotions about the PAP.

25 Responses to “What use for opposition unity when coalition politics beckon?”


  1. 1 PAP sure win again 11 October 2012 at 11:01

    In Singapore elections, either a party wins big or lose big. And a party can have good chance to win big only if it contest 100% of seats as one party! And which is PAP and will most likely remain so. Anyway, what motivation is there for PAP MPs and members to form a split PAP faction, you tell me?

    So a coalition or even a non PAP government in Singapore will never arise unless the opposition is united as one party to contest 100% of seats at elections. But looking at the situation and at the rate things are going, what do you think? Is there a “LKY” type of figure among the opposition to unite them as one?

    • 2 No LKY please 11 October 2012 at 13:29

      LKY is from a bygone era.

      I have full faith for Chen Show Mao to be our PM. But first, if scenario 1 happens, the opposition has to unite to completely cut-off the PAP. This is the only way to get rid of Lee Hsien Loong and put Chen Show Mao up as PM. This unity is important. Mr Au should know better, unless he thinks Lee Hsien Loong should still remain as PM.

  2. 3 yuen 11 October 2012 at 11:14

    >They just want the PAP out.
    I am not sure that’s quite true of the 40% who voted opposition last year; they want to teach PAP a lesson and humble it; do they really want some other party to run the place? I think only a small part of the 40% actually have that kind of confidence

    opposition unity is more or less forced on them by the high election deposit: in any 3-corner fight, the chance of one opposition party getting <12.5% is high; usually, the weaker one withdraws

    the situation might change if the government decides to reduce the deposit, or if the opposition become even more successful in fund raising, i.e., making things easier for them might also make things harder for them

  3. 4 Singaporean 11 October 2012 at 11:41

    I am not optimistic about opposition’s future.

    Let’s look at them:

    WP – it is really not an opposition party. It remains silent on most issues and is there to just legitimize PAP’s rule. It doesn’t even harbor ambition to govern.

    SDP – Most vocal but very thin presence on the ground

    NSP – I hate GCT but I think he is right that NSP = No Substance Party

    RP / SPP – they don’t have any future

    So what options do Singaporeans have. Very simple – either like PAP or migrate. There is no third option.

    • 5 yuen 11 October 2012 at 14:56

      I believe you confuse two things

      for the opposition parties, their mere existence is an achievement in itself; being able to find enough candidates to field a few GRCs (with payment of deposit – for a 6 member GRC it is nearly the price of a Toyota Corolla) is a big achievement; getting a few elected is a really big achievement (you just ask any WP supporter); they dont have to do anything else

      ability to form an alternative government? why do they have to achieve that much when voters praise them just for being able to exist, to stand up to PAP, to show guts, etc

      • 6 octopi 11 October 2012 at 23:23

        The opposition party is not the master of its fate. Not entirely. The GRC win in the last GE is down to two things: the gahment screwing up, and the people getting sick of the gahment screwing up. These two things are not down to the opposition party. Of course they are improved as well.

        So if things go further down this point, then opposition will have to grow and develop. And indeed you think about it this way: in the last elections, the opposition wasn’t brought in as alternative government. Maybe it wasn’t even brought in as an alternative voice. It was brought in to grow and develop and plant a seed.

        Right now the PAP has a strategy which is working very well. It is “we will steal all the headlines for ourselves”. We don’t hear very much about the Worker’s Party because the PAP are in the news for all kinds of reasons – sex scandals, racist comments, national conversations. It’s a little hard for the WP to whack them because it would then sound like scoring cheap political mileage. If they are smart, now is the time to do a lot of stealth work and research like hell so that they have a vision to articulate, they have real alternative plans. Then we’ll see what the WP comes up with next. Now the PAP is moving very fast and it’s very hard to shoot a moving target.

  4. 7 Reasonable Reader 11 October 2012 at 12:24

    What Oppo needs is team of 20 to 30 pple, each capable in eyes of voting public, to be minister. The other candidates can be “grassroots” communicators. I recall TJS mentioned this earlier. That may motivation for him to rent place for “policy discussions” and motivation for PAP to disrupt any such efforts.

    All these “sex scandals” of late have one purpose – to scare those with ministerial potential from joining the Opposition – step out of line and we will spare no effort in digging up your past – your tax returns, your business disputes, your sex life, etc, etc. Even if one is not convicted in the end, your reputation will be in tatters ‘cos of the consistently negative media exposure. Guess who controls the media in Singapore?

    • 8 Lye Khuen Way 11 October 2012 at 20:16

      I hold the same view that the recent spate of sex scandals were calculated to distract us and also send a message to would-be opposition candidates that being a commoners can be so relaxing……

      In fact, the Amy Cheong blow up, looks fishy to me.

      Just what is the whole PAP rank and file up to?

      There were more hard core racist cases which went on to the “let us move on ” routes and which apparently were not brought to the PM’s sttention.

  5. 9 Anything but PAP 11 October 2012 at 13:10

    Hey Alex,

    I think you have forgotten to mention about a large group of people working in GLCs, statutory boards or civil service who voted for PAP out of fear of losing their jobs. We should try to tackle this group first.

    I think there are more young people who vote “anything but PAP”. Have you done any survey to support your claim?

  6. 10 gentleaura 11 October 2012 at 14:37

    Alex, in your analysis, however solid, falls short in a few key areas. One of which is the electoral system.

    Comparing political systems 1:1 without comparing the electoral system is like comparing Apples to Oranges.

    In this aspect, you have forgotten to mention the impact of the electoral system we have….the dynamics of the FPTP and GRC system has in play.

    The rigidity of these 2 systems either ensures a binary all or nothing result as hinted by the first poster.

    Unlike other countries, you may win a 45% margin and a coalition is in the works. Not the case in Singapore. You may even gain a 49.99%, but still have no representation in parliament and the respective constituency.

    I don’t know enough to comment about our northern neighbour’s system (integrity of how the voting process is in reality carried out aside) as you have aptly used in your article, but I think there are differences.

  7. 11 reservist_cpl 11 October 2012 at 14:41

    Fructuous…I learned a new word today, thanks Alex!

  8. 12 asperifoliate 11 October 2012 at 16:57

    I know your brief description of the two poles of the opposition was meant to be a general, broad-brush one, but I wonder if I could ask you to clarify a minor point of terminology. By ‘liberal’ do you mean the sense in which the word is used in the American context, or in the classical sense it’s used in Australia and the UK?

    I ask because in the US at least the different sense of ‘liberal’ are generally in opposite political camps. (Of course, I suppose it is naive to think that in any post-PAP era, we would necessarily have left behind the deep acrimony that characterises US politics.)

    • 13 octopi 11 October 2012 at 23:04

      Ask for what you read again what he wrote you know already.

    • 14 yawningbread 12 October 2012 at 00:40

      While, as I said, the values that might constitute the “liberal” (used as a term of convenience) end should be deduced from the Singapore context, it seems to me that there are more similarities with the American usage. There is hardly any constituency here that is arguing the libertarian point of view.

      • 15 asperifoliate 12 October 2012 at 17:00

        Oh I don’t know, I seem to see quite a few trotting out the ‘We should be self-reliant, we must’nt depend on the government / Caring for those who can’t support themselves should be sustained by the community and FAMILIES / Big government is suspicious and destroys community/family bonds as well as entrepneuralism’ line. Both pro and anti PAP, as well as those who are putatively ‘neutral’ (ugh).

  9. 16 politicalwritings 11 October 2012 at 17:35

    There’s no such thing as an ‘opposition’ party. That’s the BS PAP has been feeding us for the past 50 years– that they are the ‘ruling’ party, everyone else is ‘opposition’.

    Notwithstanding the above, if PAP fails to gain an outright majority, then it is also possible for a minority coaltion govt to be formed. Not necessarily a coalition with the PAP alone.

    Third, ‘opposition unity’ is not the main thing. They need to merge. There is a reason why two or three-party systems emerge. Simply put, the weak parties get devoured. The question is, how much longer do those loony parties have? How much longer before their old-timers quit politics, like Sin Kek Tong? How long before they realise that it’s not worth their trouble running or joining a party with no hope of entering Parliament? When that happens, they will fold up, and we’ll be left with 3-4 parties with sizable support and distinct political philosophies.

    Fourth, there is a need for ‘opposition’ alliances to reach segments of voters they can’t reach. WP has a very different focus from SDP, for instance. The former draws its support mainly from heartlanders. The latter appeals more to the liberals– those concerned with human rights, gay rights, anti-death penalty, anti-ISA, anti-censorship, etc. While the two parties share a common bloc of voters (ie the anything but PAP crowd), if they were to combine their forces, they would be able to reach segments of the population they currently do not appeal to.

  10. 17 fpc 11 October 2012 at 17:40

    rubbish. it is talk like this that give PAP the chance to govern without delivering results over the past 20 years. PAP is too strong to be taken down alone and this has nothing to do with the age of the voters.

    it is to instill a system of checks and balances in the system even a system of checks on the opposition.

    All the election game has been tweaked to minimise opposition success so that the govt can proceed to extract wealth from people.

    PAP should thank you for writing this crap!

  11. 18 Norm 11 October 2012 at 18:03

    The bigger point is that we as an electorate should stop being afraid of different opinions in the name of “unity”.

    If I may quote from the Confucian Analects: “君子和而不同,小人同而不和”.

    The enlightened person is harmonious but not uniform. The small-minded person is uniform but not harmonious.

    True harmony (和) not only allows for differences of opinion but demands it. Superficial unity (同) is meaningless.

  12. 20 Tan Ah Kow 11 October 2012 at 20:04

    The clamour for opposition unity suggest a crutch mentality and a degree of denial in the electorate.

    First of all, the differences that exists amongst political parties are nothing but a reflection of the mindsets of the electorates. In a society differences exists there is no such thing as a “common” view. There will be segments of electorates that chimes with the PAP way, some the WP way, and some the SDP way, etc. Even setting as side the PAP way, it would be unrealistic to suggest that there is such a thing as a common “opposition” when the electorate themselves can’t agree the way forward, otherwise, we wouldn’t have WP supporters or SDP supporters or RP supporters, etc. if there was indeed a coming of minds amongst the electorates about what they expects oppositions should be, going by market forces, a singularly strong opposition party would have emerged. The opposition that don’t appeal to the market force would have been eliminated.

    Secondly, the crunch mentality, as eluded in my first point, shows quite clearly in the electorates. If the current crops of opposition are not able to display unity, why not just abandon the current parties and build one that they like or pressure the parties to come together. For example, in America, member of the Republican party and right wingers who found the party to soft, formed the Tea Party. So why don’t the electorate form a “opposition unity” party?

    So if there was no unity amongst the oppositions, whose fault is it? I would say blame the electorate not the political parties.

  13. 21 Will 12 October 2012 at 08:51

    The opposition seems to be eroding their chance with each passing day while the ruling party has been losing their goodwill built up over 40 years with each passing day as well. Net effect is a very apathetic baby boomer generation who will influence their children the same way. The PAP has not helped with their unpopular and questionable policies over the last 10 years. This is a time for effective leadership, not sailing a leaking high speed yacht.

  14. 22 Alan 12 October 2012 at 13:07

    Obviously the rousing support at WP’s rallies is already a good sign that things can change for the better even though it is not being translated into real representation of the electorate. But remember Rome was not built in one day.

    Good will eventually prevail over PAP’s evil as far as fair play is concerned. Just be patient.

  15. 23 ufo 12 October 2012 at 22:29

    The son never wanted the job. The father forced it into him. Once the father no longer around, the son will take what he has accumulated so far and join his big big boobs mistress somewhere sunny beach but not sin. Thats why he flooded sin with so many FWs and FTs – his farewell gift to sin.

    • 24 yuen 13 October 2012 at 09:06

      I am surprised YB let this comment through; it confuses rumour with fact

      the first daughter in law passed away in 1982 and it is natural to feel not ready for election in 1984; this is not the same as “never wanted the job”; encouragement from others (Raja was supposed to be the initiator) soon gave the little push needed to go head

      there is no evidence that a “big big boob mistress” exists; there have been rumous about another family member on this score however

      as the case of Donald Tsang shows, where a retired leader chooses to live is a sensitive issue; do you have evidence of someone purchasing property at a “sunny beach”? in any case, since dad stepped down at age 66, the next retirement is still some time away so I doubt preparation is already being made

      the importation of foreign workers is an even more sensitive issue; the government may have been too prone to take the quick way out and too pro-employers; to call this a retirement farewell gift is ridiculous

  16. 25 goop 13 October 2012 at 15:10

    Us liberals also wish for several things: minimum wage and the right to decent wages and a decent standard of living for EVERYONE. This involves curtailing pro-business policies that benefit only the top few and make our GDP look good when in reality the average person suffers.

    Anyway, I can’t wait for Lee Kuan Yew to drop dead. Drinks on the house at my small bar.


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