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Can Singapore foster a coalition among opposition parties?

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THERE seems to be a sense of cautious optimism at a coalition-building of opposition parties to take on the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Out of the 12 rival parties, the majority currently prefer to play low-key instead of formally beating their chests to announce what may well be the first-ever major alliance here.

Previous attempts at getting the rivals together had proved to be wishful thinking because of contrasting political ideologies. However, in the wake of regional general election results, local opposition parties are trying to change that.

Perhaps the biggest inspiration came from the Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) shock win in Malaysia where the tables were turned on the incumbent Barisan Nasional alliance, which had ruled for more than 60 years. Other signs of a change in regional tides were the unpredictable political form of the ruling parties in Indonesia and Thailand.

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Singapore has been governed by the PAP for six decades since independence, too. And, creditably, the former trading outpost of the 1960s has been transformed into an advanced economy, which makes up a report-book that bolsters the PAP in every election.

CREDIBLE OPPOSITION COALITION

The thought-provoking question: Why can’t the multiple opposition parties get their act together? At ground level, there’s talk of poorly-defined policies, a dearth of public engagement, and disunity which have stymied their performance for decades.

Singapore Management University (SMU) law academic Eugene Tan, a respected political commentator, says: “There is no reason why we can’t have a credible opposition coalition. With Dr Tan Cheng Bock now back in the political arena, he may well be the catalyst and galvanise a fractious opposition. But, the key question is whether the opposition see that as the top most priority for them.

“If they don’t, then the stars are not aligned and the waiting continues. To be sure, you will still have an alliance of sorts in the coming GE but it would be more symbolic rather than a serious value proposition. Time is of the essence. The GE will be here before long and you can’t just cobble a serious coalition together and expect all systems go just with handshakes and an agreement.”

There has also been an abrupt silence since seven parties met in July last year to discuss banding together to contest the next election, which may well be held as soon as the third quarter of this year.

Pragmatists say that even if a coalition was formed by then, it would still be unlikely to upset the PAP. The near-term goal is targeting the PAP’s two-thirds parliamentary majority so that the ruling party can no longer easily change the nation’s constitution, opposition leaders told The Independent.

“The current lack of debate in parliament is unhealthy,” says Goh Meng Seng, secretary-general of the People’s Power Party (PPP). “There needs to be more diversity of opinions in decision-making processes. If there isn’t a strong contest of ideas, parliament sittings won’t be taken seriously.”

ONE-SIDED POLITICAL FIGHT?

On paper, the PAP’s 83 of 89 parliament seats makes it look like a Goliath in any political confrontation involving opposition parties. The remaining six parliament seats are under the largest opposition faction, the Workers’ Party (WP), whose performance in GE 2011 saw the PAP’s vote share drop to its lowest-ever level at 60.1 per cent.

In 2015, however, the PAP saw its margin given a nice kick with a 69.9 per cent, probably boosted by a wave of nostalgia from (founder Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew’s death that year, the government spending around the country’s Golden Jubilee anniversary as well as financial support for senior citizens’ healthcare.

Over the past half-century or more, the numbers have made a world of a difference. Due to its overwhelming parliamentary majority, the PAP can easily change laws. Rather significantly, in late 2016, it modified eligibility criteria for presidential candidates to ensure representation for minority ethnic groups, which resulted in only one candidate qualifying for the 2017 presidential election.

Raffles Institution (RI) alumni and former WP opposition candidate Maurice Neo mocks that a “one-party state suits Singapore fine … they have been insistent on it”.

He adds: “Is has been official, isn’t it, Lee Kuan Yew wanted sparring partners for his MPs and was looking specifically for the likes of Chiam See Tong to provide it since the 80s. He was not shy to announce it boldly.

“I don’t think that’s the PAP’s motivation, even as they have not stopped being brazen about their ability to be without the checks and balances of a two-party system. A one-party state suits Singapore fine. Instead of Malaysia’s two-party system, Singapore has a nice parody in place. And Hong Lim Park is as good as any!”.

While previous attempts at coalition-building have failed, there is now a sense of rousing optimism this time around. However, some critics say even if opposition parties are able to unite, it’s not certain how successful they would be.

Keep in mind that the WP, widely viewed as the most serious alternative to the PAP, didn’t attend the July 2018 meeting of opposition forces, leading to speculation that the WP may not be interested in a coalition.

“NOT READY FOR CHANGE”

Grassroots leader and former civil servant Samuel Singaram thinks “Singaporeans are not ready for change”.

He explains: “There may be a percentage of protest voters. This percentage is not enough to dislodge the PAP Government. The excitement of the PH tsunami in Malaysia is slowly fading as the PH government is not doing that well.

“The coalition government is now having major splits of opinion and many don’t look at one another eye to eye. Singaporeans, closely monitoring the Causeway political shifts, will not take a chance to support the opposition and its promises.”

Mr Singaram, who used to work for the CPIB (Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau), believes that the opposition appears wet behind the ears in critical heartland issues.

He elaborates: “Just check and balance is no loyal reason to vote in the opposition. Bread and butter issues, and economical survival are crucial. Keeping a racial balance is another issue. Safekeeping our assets is a major issue. There are many things that are key areas the opposition are just inexperienced.”

What’s suddenly creating a tsunami-like shift in a strong allianced opposition is the refreshing entry of Dr Tan Cheng Bock and his newly-minted Progress Singapore Party (PSP) which may turn some apple-carts and convince majority of the opposition that it’s time to band together, and fight as an united coalition.

Dr Tan, who retired from 50 years of medical practice in end 2018, was previously MP of Ayer Rajah Single-Member Constituency (SMC) between 1980 and 2006. He proved his formidability when he took on Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam in the 2011 Presidential Elections (PE).

In his Facebook post, Dr Tan said the PSP hopes to be an “alternative voice in Parliament”.

He adds: “In due course, as the party and candidates mature, we intend to be ready to govern the nation. In the meantime, we will work with those who share our political beliefs of country first – before either party or self.”

Former school principal Gordon Lam of Bukit Batok East says Dr Tan’s biggest challenge would be to woo the WP so that an opposition coalition can be a force to be reckoned with an alliance of about a dozen camps.

START ON CLEAN WICKET

“Starting on a clean wicket with a new party is the right move for Dr Tan who can share his new visions as a highly-respected former PAP stalwart, who almost created an upset in the PE against Dr Tony Tan,” adds Mr Lam.

Residents Committee (RC) secretary Lawrence Leong says Dr Tan needs to go on a “quick buying spree for good signings, like a football team”. He explains. “(Dr Tan) cannot be a one-man show. If he is, not many will get into the party. He needs to attract credible people, young and old, to form a gutsy political team. If he can create the image of a party that’s close to the PAP, with credible qualifications, respectable quality control, he could turn the political landscape of a worthy party that can represent the heartland.”

The “hot potato” question will continue to be on thousands of lips: Can we foster a coalition among opposition parties? Or, will it only be like a pipe-dream or a serious contender?

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