Opposition alliance under Tan Cheng Bock – hope and caution

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The news that Dr Tan Cheng Bock had attended a working lunch with 7 of Singapore’s opposition parties has once again raised hopes for supporters.

Dr Tan, a 5-term former People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament, said he is open to leading an opposition alliance against his former party which has governed the country since Independence.

“If you want me to lead, then we must think of country first,” Dr Tan was reported to have said when he was invited to lead an opposition coalition. “If we go in, we must go in as a team.”

This seems to be a change in Dr Tan’s position.

In December, he apparently saw his role as only that of a mentor, to both aspiring PAP and opposition politicians.

“I’ll teach them the art of winning the elections,” he explained then. “I want to be a mentor. I’ve got knowledge, information. I know how Singapore runs, how it ticks.”

He said his role with regards to any opposition alliance would be that of a “neutral man”, to help facilitate the various parties coming together.

The parties present at Saturday’s lunch meeting, however, seemed to have persuaded Dr Tan to take on a more active leadership role instead.

Unsurprisingly, the news was greeted with approval from supporters, with some comparing such an alliance with that in Malaysia which toppled the government of Najib Razak in the May elections.

But questions remain if such an alliance in Singapore would work, given that the lunch was nothing more than to get a buy-in from the various parties and Dr Tan on the leadership question, at least as far as we can ascertain from information from the meeting which has been made public.

But does Dr Tan truly believe in the opposition cause? What are his motivations? Will his leadership harm the opposition instead? Opposition politics, by its varied component parties, is quite different from that of the ruling party’s, and will require firm and yet nimble management.  

But perhaps the most important question is: despite the pledge of allegiance at the meeting to have Dr Tan as their leader, will the grouping hold when things come to a head? There would be much to thrash out indeed.

It is also worth noting that two of the most recognised opposition parties were absent from the meeting, namely the Workers’ Party (WP) and the Singapore People’s Party (SPP). They were invited but chose not to send any representatives.

How would such an alliance work without these 2 parties’ involvement? What would be the incentives for them, especially for the WP, to join what may be seen as a marriage of convenience – Dr Tan seen as needing a vehicle to launch a last shot at cracking the armour of the ruling party which he resigned from in 2006, and the opposition parties needing a recognised name to give them a boost after the dismal results of 2015?

Also, while Saturday’s announcement may present the opposition as a united front in this, in fact they are split on the idea of an alliance under Dr Tan’s leadership – a divide between the 7 (smaller) parties who attended the meeting (none of them has even a NCMP seat in Parliament), and the biggest one, WP, and the one led by the most respected opposition party leader since Independence, Mr Chiam See Tong.

When contacted by The Independent (Singapore), Mrs Lina Chiam, chairman of the SPP, said the party reserves its comment but said it “hope to hear more from  Dr Tan Cheng Bock and his agenda in view of his possible participation in opposition politics together with other opposition parties.”

Some of the opposition party leaders were, however, more upbeat about the prospect of Dr Tan at the helm.

“I think it would be a great idea for Dr Tan to join the opposition and even lead the opposition for the next general elections,” Mr Lim Tean told The Independent (TISG). He is the former secretary general of the National Solidarity Party, and has registered a new party.

“He is the one figure who is known to all Singaporeans, given his past as a candidate for President,” Mr Lim said, adding: “I can think of no better figure to unify the opposition and to lead them into the next GE.”

When asked if there are any downsides to Dr Tan leading the opposition coalition, Mr Lim said he saw none.

Dr Paul Ananth Tambyah, SDP chairman, was also positive about Dr Tan potentially heading the opposition group.

“Dr Tan is a good man with a lot of experience as a PAP backbencher,” he told this website. “We are confident that he will be able to pull everyone together and help shape the opposition into an effective alternative political force and give Singaporeans a meaningful choice at the next polls. Of course, many people in his old party will not take kindly to him crossing over to the opposition but the majority of the people will see him as someone who places Singapore’s interests first.”

The SDP’s secretary general, Dr Chee Soon Juan, who had proposed Dr Tan’s leadership role during the meeting, sounded a word of caution. He told Saturday’s gathering that “the cooperation cannot just be in form and not substance.”

“If it is merely the former, then it will be a matter of time before the electorate finds us wanting and repudiates the effort,” he said.

Dr Chee is right, and that is where the difficulty is in such an alliance. The path will most likely be a bumpy one. Dr Tan himself perhaps recognises this too.

When he was asked last year if he would rally the opposition parties together, he said “too many of them have their pride and will not want to give up their positions.” This was perhaps why he had seen his role as nothing more than that of a mentor.

The 78-year old former Feedback Unit chairman would be mindful of the experiment led by Mr Chiam at the turn of the century, with the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA). The group, made up of 4 parties, folded after some 10 years, collapsing under internal disagreements between the component parties.

Some see hope this time in how the ruling party in Malaysia was toppled by an opposition movement led by a former ruling party stalwart. If it can happen next door, it can happen here too.

But such expectations would ignore the realities in Malaysia which finally gave the people a reason (or reasons) to boot out the ruling coalition under Mr Najib. These included the administration’s blatant corruption, the country’s increasing cost of living, the introduction of its consumer tax, and various other issues which affected the average person.

Additionally, Mr Najib’s ouster is the culmination of years of effort by an opposition coalition in alliance with civil society, resulting in the Bersih movement, led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

There is no such similar movement in Singapore, let alone one which has campaigned for years for change. There is no screams of reformasi in Singapore. Not yet anyway, or not as loud as that seen in Malaysia.

And when the time finally came for change in Malaysia, it only required the opposition to tip the scale over by winning a few more seats in Parliament. The opposition already had a sizeable presence in Parliament, and only needed a few more seats to topple the ruling coalition.

In fact, the opposition had won the popular vote in the previous election.

Singapore’s opposition is nowhere even near where their Malaysian counterparts were.

There are only 6 elected opposition MPs in Singapore, with another 3 Non-constituency MPs.

And all 9 of them are from the WP, which do not seem too keen on any alliance with the other parties.

To achieve what the Malaysian opposition parties have achieved would require the opposition here to win another 40 seats, at least.

Therein lies some reality check.

“Lest we get too excited, we should remember that the change in Malaysia did not happen overnight,” former WP NCMP, Yee Jenn Jong, told TISG.

Emphasising that he is speaking in his personal capacity, Mr Yee explained what had occurred in Malaysia in the lead-up to the opposition victory in May, and what is needed in Singapore for the same to happen:

“It took decades of opposition attracting capable people who chipped away successfully at various states. It also took three splits within UMNO (in 1987 with Tengku Razaleigh, in 1998 with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and finally in 2018 with Tun Dr Mahathir). I believe Singapore started on this process when professionally qualified candidates joined the opposition in larger numbers from 2006 and more again in 2011 and 2015. We need people to take action who will say “why not me?”. If you want change to happen, be part of the change!”

And perhaps that is where Dr Tan’s biggest contribution to the opposition movement could be – to inspire many more to step forward and join the cause. But he has to be very clear on what this cause is, how it can be achieved, and most important of all, how to sustain the momentum for such a campaign.

So, can an opposition alliance succeed?

It remains to be seen, and supporters are best advised to not raise their hopes too high. After all, the 7 parties which have given their buy-in to Dr Tan’s leadership are still mostly small or new parties.

For them to become a collective political force of any consequence under Dr Tan will take much work.