By Kumaran Pillai
The exit of Vincent Wijeysingha from the Singapore Democratic Party can be traced to the change in the party’s political strategy in the last three to five years.
The party has steadily moved towards the centre, perhaps to win more votes. Wijeysingha gave me an interview some time ago and I remember asking him: What made you join the SDP?”
He said that back in 2007 the SDP had stated that it was in support of repealing 377A and it also reiterated that point in its vision:
“As a nation, we must not only show tolerance but also acceptance of our fellow citizens regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or political persuasion.”
In what appears to be an email exchange published on their website between John Tan, the Asst Secretary General of SDP, and a SDP supporter, John wrote:
“The SDP, on the other hand, while trying to be as practical as we can at some level, must constantly be guided by our foundational tenets. When we say equality for all, we mean equality for all.”
Prior to GE 2011, SDP often championed non-mainstream issues such as the abolition of the death penalty, repealing of 377A and promotion of free speech and assembly.
The party’s run-ins with the law were notable and their activists took pride that they made sacrifices for the greater good of the country.
All this stopped, partly due to the influx of new members who have begun to influence the core team with a more “moderate” positioning.
Transitioning from a radical left wing party to the middle is not an easy undertaking. It is a delicate process and sometime it requires a leadership change to make that paradigm shift.
Like other political parties, SDP looks unified from the outside; they look like a team with strongly-driven values of liberal democracy, but in actual they are split along the lines of morality. The irony is, while the liberals in the party saw Wijeysingha as the likely successor to Dr Chee Soon Juan, the conservatives thought that he was a liability.
Responding to Dr Balakrishnan’s gay agenda insinuations, party leader Chee Soon Juan said:
“We are not pursuing the gay agenda and none of our MPs will,” he says at the beginning of the video, and repeats himself near the end: “Will the SDP pursue the gay cause? I answer forthrightly and without equivocation: No.”
There was a perception among the party conservatives that the middle ground comprises those who are opposed to any extension of rights to the LGBT community and having a gay candidate would cost SDP precious votes.
To add insult to injury, some of the more statistically-inclined members have put a number to it. According to them, having Wijeysingha on board would mean a loss of 4 to 10 per cent of the popular vote.
Needless to say, the grapevine had it that SDP lost in Holland-Bukit Timah because of Wijeysingha’s sexuality.
There was also concern that his recent outing on his Facebook before the Pink Dot event would cost them more votes in the next election.
In order to mitigate the risks of losing the previous 20+ per cent vote swing, SDP on the other hand made a tactical move to “side-line” LGBT issues and to focus more on the bread and butter issues.
As recently as July 11, Chee posted this curious statement on his party’s website::
“I had stated in 2011 during the general elections that the SDP would not pursue a gay agenda. I say again: Neither the Party nor any of our members, including Vincent, will embark on a gay agenda.”
In pursuit of the political middle ground, it appears that the SDP has let down the LGBT community by rescinding on their liberal values. It is no longer guided by its “foundational tenets,” that there will be equality for all.
Wijeysingha found that the party he helped to build has shifted away from its core values. But he has vowed to bring those values, including equality for all, to the civil society space.
From a strategy point of view, SDP’s shift to the middle ground might look like an expedient political move. But it may not work.
Both Workers’ Party and the People’s Action Party have crowded that space… For the SDP to enter that fray at this juncture can be suicidal.
As Singapore politics matures, what might look like fringe causes can become vote winners in the years to come.
Look at how the Green Party has performed in Germany. Although they are far, far away from forming the government, they do influence politics in a big way.
SDP needs some patience and the will to stick to its principles to make headway in Singapore politics.