How does an Opposition politician become electable? The People’s Action Party had tried in the past and even today to frame the question very differently: Should we even have an Opposition, indeed if Singaporeans want debate, they can have that by way of the Nominated MPs. More and more Singaporeans have not been buying that expired koyo cum threat since 1981. There is, in fact, a promising and growing slate of what I call electable politicians who may perform better than government candidates or MPs, given the chance.
Before we get into the electability part, we take a look at the past Opposition MPs from the hiatus period from 1965 until J B Jeyaretnam of the Workers’ Party broke the PAP total parliament stranglehold in Anson in 1981. Three years after that, Chiam See Tong-SDP was elected in 1984 in Potong Pasir, followed by two other SDP members, Ling How Doong in Bukit Gombak and Cheo Chai Chen in Nee Soon Central (who unlike Chiam were both later not re-elected) in 1991.
Finally there was Low Thia Khiang who beat the PAP in Hougang in the same year, 1991, and later led his party to victory in the Aljunied GRC in 2011. WP’s popular Lee Li Lian won in a 2013 by-election in Punggol East. The historic breakthrough, of course, was the WP victory in Aljunied GRC when it found itself in control of the GRC with its five MPs beating a formidable PAP A team led by former Foreign Minister George Yeo. Together with Hougang and Punggol East, the WP had, for a period, five plus one plus one MPs.
Hence, never ever say never. Voters have always been fairly sophisticated in the way they view candidates and have learnt to disregard the PAP’s doomsday warnings of chaos and collapse.
They saw in JBJ a fighter prepared to test the PAP to the limit in Parliament. They admired his courage. There were some local problems in the constituency too. Above all, the mood to break the PAP monopoly was strong provided the candidate was right. JBJ versus Pang Kim Hin in the Anson by-election was a perfect storm which brought the WP leader into Parliament. My feeling is that if Lee Kuan Yew had not made that iconic speech in Fullerton in 1980 standing ramrod in the rain without umbrella cover, JBJ would have entered Parliament earlier. He would have beaten Rohan Khamis in the general elections of 1980. That LKY speech must have won over the 600 voters who stood by the PAP and saved Khamis from ignominious defeat.
Chiam See Tong was another Opposition candidate whom voters admired for courage and doggedness shown in fighting the PAP juggernaut. Yellow Beetle, swirling crowds of supporters in the fields of Potong Pasir against lacklustre PAP candidates who stood no chance against him plus a touch of Lee Kuan Yew arrogance when he compared Chiam’s more humble educational credentials with those of Mah Bow Tan. Looking back, it was obvious that voters were having enough of the increasingly elitisation of PAP politics – scholars, SAF generals, top civil servants, GLC types and so on. Politician who genuinely wanted to serve versus helicoptered group thinking members of the same religious order who would be well taken care of even if they lost – Chiam was the people’s man, perfectly electable.
As it is today, all the WP elected candidates plus people like Leon Perera, ex-NCMPs Gerald Giam and Yee Jenn Jong are perfectly electable and re-electable. They have had a good performance record in Parliament. Their debating skills have been second to none. Their commitment to constituency work and outreach follow the standard set by Low Thia Khiang who could be seen at many community events, including funerals.
The second group of electable candidates would be from the Singapore Democratic Party. The party of an angry, impatient and impulsive man who took over from Chiam See Tong has developed into a very well-organised machinery at whose helm are people more measured than its secretary-general who has himself become more measured in his public posture. More young people have come around to supporting him, judging by the queues of people waiting to buy his books and pose for selfies with him. Tone down the rhetoric a notch or two in his Facebook posts and the supporters who have hopped onto the SDP train to Parliament may finally help him and the party to reach their destination. Just don’t take others – including WP and the PSP – for duds. I personally hope Chee Soon Juan gets into Parliament. He has served his due. Most important, he has not quit. He is committed. That is more than you can say for many, many others.
Finally, the third group of electables.
Dr Tan Cheng Bock and the Progress Singapore Party may be the type of party that a large swathe of middle-ground voters have been waiting for. This is the group between the heartlanders who identify with Low Thia Khiang and Auntie Sylvia and their Hokien and Teochew crowd and Chee Soon Juan and Paul Thambiyah’s hyperactive and young English-educated middle-class professionals.
Who are the potential PSP supporters? At a generalised level, they could be the traditional mix of disillusioned PAP voters – heartlanders, less disgruntled aunties and uncles, sandwiched class, PMETs, jobless. The shorthand description would be, as Dr Tan himself described, former PAP supporters who have been disillusioned with a party that has “lost its way”. Throw in the personal likeability of the good doc who has come out to serve at a late age and who could have been our President – and PSP seems to have a winning formula riding with it.
In the end, it could be all about likeability and trust. Voters should be able to smell the cow dung of insincerity or arrogance a kilometre away.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior editorial leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.