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Tan Cheng Bock “is like the PAP but nicer” – Historian Michael Barr

The professor praised PSP's simple messaging which he said is geared to appeal to Singaporeans who feel the ruling party today is not what it once was

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Historian Michael Barr has suggested that opposition leader Tan Cheng Bock’s appeal lies in his personality and his popularity, in a recent interview. Speaking to Yahoo Singapore, Prof Barr said that Dr Tan “is like the PAP but nicer.”

Prof Barr, who serves as an Associate Professor teaching International Relations at Adelaide’s Flinders University, has written and commented extensively on Singapore politics and history. He has published several books on Singapore’s ruling elite and continues to take a keen interest in Singapore politics.

Commenting on how opposition parties in Singapore need to start preparing for the next General Election (GE) early, Prof Barr revealed his thoughts on Dr Tan and his new Progress Singapore Party (PSP).

While the PSP has drawn some criticism for not revealing concrete policy plans, Prof Barr said that this could be a strategic move that might pay off for the party. He told Yahoo Singapore:

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“I doubt that Tan is going to get very detailed on policy. Nor should he. Electorates don’t vote for oppositions because they like their policies, but because they are disenchanted with the government.

“On the other hand they might be scared off by detailed opposition policies, as happened in the recent Australian federal election where the opposition lost an ‘unloseable’ election, substantially because they scared the electorate with detailed policies.”

Prof Barr praised the “simple messaging” of the PSP thus far – which is geared to appeal to Singaporeans who feel the ruling party today is not what it once was. He said that this messaging, and Dr Tan’s personality and popularity will work to PSP’s advantage:

“Tan is popular and always was, based very much on his independent streak, and, frankly, being such a nice person. This is really his message. He is like the PAP but nicer.

“This is very simple messaging, but it is such simple messaging that generally cuts through. Whether this translates into votes, who knows? But it will certainly resonate, and his name and face are universally pretty well known across Singapore.”

He added: “Currently, the appeal of the PSP rests almost solely on Tan Cheng Bock’s personality and reputation – in relation to his many years as a likeable and formidable PAP MP, as well as his near-success at the 2011 Presidential campaign. But this may change somewhat depending on the slate of candidates unveiled closer to the GE.”

Other political analysts who spoke to Yahoo Singapore echoed Prof Barr’s views. Murdoch University’s Associate Professor Terence Lee told the publication called PSP’s lack of details “clever politics,” especially given the “short attention spans” of voters and the fact that the date for the next GE remains unclear.

He said: “Interested voters – and indeed, the media – will tune back in to source for updates, which will (see) PSP ‘trending’ going forward. At this point already, the million dollar question is whether Lee Hsien Yang will throw his hat in the ring to run as a candidate.”

Opining that the Tan-Lee alliance would be “unexpected but also not surprising,” Prof Lee said: “While I personally cannot envisage Lee Hsien Yang offering himself as a candidate in the GE, stranger things have happened in Singapore politics, so we cannot discount that possibility.”

An analyst at Australia’s Murdoch University, emeritus professor Gary Rodan, cautioned that the support for Lee Hsien Yang could become a risk for the PSP. He said that the party “needs to keep the focus on governance issues without being sucked into the intra-Lee family feud.”

Prof Rodan added: “It is hard to ideologically distinguish the PSP from other existing opposition parties. Its potential impact rests more on further normalising and encouraging opposition politics through Tan’s reputation for integrity and grassroots links.” -/TISG

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