Noted activist Gilbert Goh has published a list of seven “uncomfortable truths” facing Singapore’s opposition.
A career counsellor who runs the transitioning.org support site for unemployed and underemployed Singaporeans, Goh is perhaps most well known for the protests he organises, championing the rights of Singaporean workers.
His most famous protest could be his stand against the government’s 2013 Population White Paper that targeted a 6.9 million resident population.
Goh also has experience working with local opposition parties. He rose to prominence in 2011 when he contested Tampines GRC under the National Solidarity Party ticket in that year’s General Election (GE).
In the 2015 GE, Goh ran as part of the Reform Party’s team contesting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s own ward, Ang Mo Kio GRC. Goh and his colleagues lost both the 2011 and 2015 GEs.
In an article recently published on his transitioning.org website, Goh said that there are seven “uncomfortable truths” that the opposition in Singapore must face. First, he asserted that there are “too many opposition parties” in Singapore. He wrote:
“For a country with only 2.3 million voters, we may have too many opposition parties operating in our congested political landscape. Eleven parties currently crowd the tightly-held political space and many are small splinter parties usually formed by a single strongman aiming to win a prestigious seat in Parliament.”
Lamenting that the possibility of a coalition led by former ruling party MP Dr Tan Cheng Bock has “gone up in smoke” since he announced the formation of his own opposition party, Goh stressed that there is an “urgent need for these small splinter parties to collaborate and form up to be one or two bigger parties”.
Asserting that no more than five or six parties will be more suitable in Singapore given the smaller electorate, Goh advised that “some small parties may actually do the opposition alot of good by closing down or merging with the others.”
Secondly, Goh said that parties that “only show up during election” will have difficulty getting elected since they will not be seen as entirely credible. He predicted that it might be “tough for the electorate to truly swing their votes from the incumbent even though they are looking for an alternative voice.”
He added: “As the alternative needs to put in double the efforts of the incumbent to win votes, not doing much during the five years from the last election leading to the next one is political suicide.”
In another related point, Goh said that “ground work” is crucial to attracting workers but “it requires alot of efforts, time and volunteer manpower which not many parties have.”
Goh insinuated that parties that do not carry out ground work prior to elections may come off as not being credible. This assessment, however, may not be entirely accurate. There is a high opportunity cost for candidates to even throw their hat in the ring if they feel convicted to provide voters with an alternative choice to keep the government accountable.
There are also impediments in the way of those who seek to engage with voters. Opposition candidates have limited platforms to convey their plans and face obstacles even when they put in effort well in advance to express their ideas, and ideals.
Earlier, Singapore Democratic Party chief Dr Chee Soon Juan, for example, saw his venue booking cancelled and booking requests rejected when he tried to rally supporters in preparation for the upcoming GE.
Fourthly, Goh said that parties where one person seems to dominate may not be successful since voters are looking for a united team to represent them. He said: “A strong political party has to be formed from a team and only looks credible if it’s presence is representative of several other viable voices within.
“Of course, there is always that one visionary leader holding the fort but he must be supported by several others who are throwing their weight behind the party.”
Goh then lamented the “lack of unity” among the opposition parties. Highlighting the perception that the Workers’ Party, the only opposition party which presently has seats in Parliament, does not seem to want to collaborate with the other parties, Goh said:
“When other parties come into play and win seats in the near future, they may find themselves on the sidelines and regret not wanting to collaborate to form any viable coalition before.”
In a related point, Goh said that the “alternative camp” is “fragmented” since there is a perception that local opposition parties “tend to criticise each other.” He advised: “Opposition parties should keep criticism of others to themselves however valid the arguments may be.
“A divided opposition is now the strongest bugbear of the alternative movement right now and unless this is properly rectified, we may see little hope of them mounting a stern challenge against the incumbent in the near future.”
Finally, Goh said that candidates “hopping” from one party to another between elections sets a “dangerous precedence…and it does not give voters much confidence”. Goh does not mention that he “hopped” to another party between the 2011 and 2015 GEs.
Goh further suggested that it might be a better strategy to contest fewer wards since he feels the people are not ready for an entirely new government. He said: “Most Singaporeans though unhappy with the current regime still have no confidence in a alternative government other than the PAP due to its disunity and inexperience.
“But the majority feels that there is the need to have a sizeable opposition in Parliament to provide a check and balance for the government.”
He concluded: “The trick is who does the voters trust enough to provide this important mandate? So far, the Workers’ Party seems to be the only party to have enjoy this esteemed privilege.”
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