In casual coffeeshop talk about Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s move to form a new political party, several points would usually crop up. But, as much goodwill and support as the former PAP MP for Ayer Rajah and 2011 presidential candidate may deservedly enjoy, a fast dramatic jump from role of public conscience to messianic leader heralding a change to the political system of which he was once part may not be that straightforward or simple – without help.
Singaporeans should certainly welcome his re-entry to local politics. But they should not be spectators and expect a Dr Mahathir Mohamad epic to replicate itself here just like that.
Most discussions even before Dr Tan announced on Friday Jan 18 that he would be forming a new political party called the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) with 11 other “like-minded Singaporeans” would mention what the second-time Malaysian PM has achieved at the age of 93. Since both are doctors and Dr Tan is already 78, there is some basis for comparison, in the hope that Dr Tan would lead the way to a historic change of government. But that’s not being realistic.
Dr Mahathir is in quite a different category altogether. He is a larger than life Malaysian nationalist icon. He has always retained a sizeable faction of followers, even when he was out of power. He knows how the system works. And there were special circumstances leading to the downfall of UMNO.
This is not to downplay, in any way whatsoever, what Dr Tan has already done for Singapore in his years of service. He has always been outspoken on issues when he was a PAP backbencher, unlike the typical jaga the posterior majority government MPs. He was a popular and highly proactive MP. He has made a number of innovative suggestions which have made life easier for Singaporeans. Examples: Half-hour parking coupons and free parking on Sundays and public holidays to encourage socialisation among citizens and families. Clear cases of the ability to think out of the box.
He opened the eyes of Singaporeans to what an effective Elected President could do to articulate the problems and aspirations of true-blue citizens. A large number of voters in PE2011 wanted to give him the mandate to do so. He fell short by only 7,382. That showed the government how unpopular it had become and reminded it that there was a large group of middle ground swing voters who could be persuaded to accept change. History will surely judge Dr Tan well for his valiant effort and participation in PE2011.
Finally, what can Dr Tan do now?
Inderjit Singh, another former PAP, was right when he said Dr Tan has star power. Dr Tan has a following which I think includes young Facebook and social media savvy younger Singaporeans who admire and respect him, principally because he is humble and constructive and talks sense. Dr Tan (who plays the guitar) has a Youtube/media presence unmatched by most of the current lot of nondescript and colourless PAP MPs.
Who among the 11 other “like-minded Singaporeans” possess any such charisma? I hope as many as possible. Or at least as many as can be quickly blooded to carry the torch of sorely needed fresh change in this fast stagnating society of group-thinkers and sycophants.
What Dr Tan has going for him is a strong ground machinery – people I believe supported him when he was MP. I saw evidence of that during PE 2011. It was formidable.
Of all people, however, Dr Tan should know what he is up against. He is facing a more formidable well-oiled grassroots machinery honed through many elections and backed by an incumbent with vast resources.
Many young Singaporeans who believe democracy is better served by a more balanced Parliament where the debate is not one-sided or the narrative is less a monologue of unchallenged “truths” should seriously think about stepping forward to support Dr Tan.
Meanwhile, for a start, I suggest Dr Tan should just focus on getting a single seat in the West Coast region. Perhaps, Bukit Batok SMC. At the moment, West Coast GRC has S Iswaran, Lim Hng Kiang, Foo Mee Har and Patrick Tay. It takes a lot to unseat the PAP in a GRC. Aljunied in GE2011 was an exception because of so many reasons – voters were disenchanted over a host of issues (population, healthcare, housing, jobs) plus the combined star power of WP A-teamers Low Thia Khiang, Sylvia Tan and Chen Show Mao.
Otto Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire, once said: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”
Covering a large GRC requires a tremendous amount of legwork. Winning an SMC is much more within reach. And from there, Dr Tan can mentor his party leaders as they consolidate and aim for the next attainable target. He can only be the impetus and not the final answer which lies in the hands, legs and minds of committed Singapore youths.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.