SDP’s Coalition of the Willing

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There is strength in numbers and any effort to bring the otherwise fragmented opposition in Singapore under an umbrella organisation must be lauded. But some cynics were out to denounce Dr Chee Soon Juan’s effort to build a coalition with Dr Tan Cheng Bock at the helm.

The naysayers are of the opinion that a coalition of third, fourth and fifth rated political parties will do Cheng Bock no favours. It may very well end up weakening Cheng Bock’s political capital and brand equity, they say.

If one were to take this argument of alliance building to its logical end, then the natural question to ask is, why a coalition and not a merger of sorts?

That would be one way of looking at it, but I’ll argue that an opposition coalition or even a loose structure such as an affiliation of political parties with a core brand can improve the level of play for these folks.

It begs the question though as to what took them so long – I have been hearing about the need to build such a coalition after PAP’s stellar victory at the 2015 General Elections. And credit must be given to SDP for mooting this initiative.

Inspired by Pakatan Harappan’s victory in Malaysia, the opposition parties here have a template that they can work on – start a Reformasi movement, mobilise street protests, cobble up a coalition of political parties and anoint an iconic figure to lead the coalition.

There is no sequencing to coalition building: I hear from time to time that we do not have the same underlying factors as in Malaysia like an evidently corrupt government, weak economy and leaders that are out of touch with the masses.

Save for leaders who are out of touch, the general perception is that the situation in Singapore is different and we have a long way to go. I need to stress that coalition building is not a chicken and egg problem; and it is woolly thinking to say that things need to get worse or that we need to have the right conditions for a political movement to take off.

CONTEST OF IDEAS

With the attendant parties at SDP lunch, we have a coalition of the willing and clearly absent at the table were Workers’ Party and Singapore Peoples’ Party. It is somewhat of a mystery as to why they were not present there. But we shouldn’t worry too much about it and neither should we be about Lim Tien starting his own political party.

The key benefit of a political affiliation, apart from the other benefit of sharing scarce political resources, is that it provides a platform for contest of ideas. Party heads who are going into this alliance should not worry too much about positions and their role. It is early days, so to speak, and to saddle the coalition building with such an agenda is definitely a deal breaker.

Taking an American example, both President Trump and Obama were party affiliates and not members of their respective parties prior to their rise. The national conventions, primaries and caucuses gave them the platform to galvanize support. There is something about American democracy that is self-healing and self-renewing that we can adopt. Arguably, it has also kept the non-centrist Bernie Sanders out of play, much to the chagrin of his loyalists.

Clearly, our political system is different, and the cadre based political parties have ring-fenced the leadership and it has not only kept new talent out, on most occasions, it has kept new ideas out of the party manifesto.  Unfortunate for Singapore, we only speak of succession planning. Leadership renewal, whether in PAP, WP or SDP is a well planned process.

Yes, we have occasionally seen some upheavals but they are far and few between.

One hopes that they don’t bring this practice into the alliance or coalition. Perhaps our opposition folks can look at their American counterparts for some inspiration.

Here is the nub, there is a good chance that things can be done differently; a chance to build an open platform that facilitates political discourse and galvanize support for the best of ideas. But if this turns out to be an extension for personality politics and if the alliance partner is just looking for leverage for their own political ends, then it may be better to keep them out – just like how Pakatan Harappan kept PAS out of the equation.

The other question is, should Dr Tan Cheng Bock be working out a coalition with WP instead?

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Kumaran Pillai is the publisher of this publication