Just one week before he launches his Progress Singapore Party on 3 Aug, Dr Adrian Tan Cheng Bock held a press conference on 26 July where he offered some preliminary comments on why he is re-entering politics at the age of 79. Even as voters note his reasons, they would naturally ask themselves what exactly can the former MP for Ayer Rajah and nearly-elected President do to strengthen or shake up the local political system?
Everything can be reduced to three expectations coming out of his press conference. The first is, not impossible, but tough – Dr Tan is entering the fray to help persuade voters to put enough Opposition MPs in Parliament to deny the ruling People’s Action Party a two-third majority power to change the Constitution without support from other parties.
We have 89 elected MPs in the present Parliament. To gain more than one-third of the seats, the Opposition has to win around 30 seats.
How would the Opposition do that? I give one plausible scenario, by no means the only one. Of course, others will come up with other possibilities, including regarding the National Solidarity Party and the Singapore First Party as strong contenders.
Basically, voters have to elect 30 Opposition MPs into Parliament – 24 more in addition to the six WP MPs who have to be returned – five in Aljunied GRC and one in Hougang.
How can this be done? The Opposition have to win about five GRCs or around four GRCs plus five SMCs (single seats). Let’s say the three main parties – PSP, WP and SDP – cooperate and do not fight one another. There is a chance.
The WP retains Aljunied GRC and wins one more GRC in East Coast. It gets back into Punggol East SMC. It enjoys the advantage of having within its ranks nationally known personalities with proven public competence in Parliament , including Gerald Giam, Yee Jenn Jong and Lee Li Lian. An NCMP like the eloquent Leon Pereira has impressed voters. It has enough publicly accepted talents to spread around in “vulnerable” PAP seats like Joo Chiat.
Next, the Singapore Democratic Party gets elected in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, giving it four seats. It has to win one or two SMCs, maybe defeat Ah Moo in Bukit Batok SMC.
Finally, the PSP. It should have, from the word Go, as good a grassroots machinery as any of the other two main Opposition parties. Dr Tan brings with him an impressive group which had been with him in his PAP days in Ayer Rajah and which helped him nearly beat Tony Tan in the Presidential Election of 2011. It is fair to say Dr Tan did not return to the arena to become a single-seat MP. Been there, done that.
The GRCs the PSP can eye would be West Coast GRC or Marsiling-Yew Tee. Both have four seats. Dr Tan is fairly well-known in these northern parts. He served in Ayer Rajah and had a strong relationship with its constituents and he had a clinic in Bukit Batok. His grassroots people are familiar with the places. Besides, S Iswaran (West Coast) – Parliament’s Champion Absentee – and Lawrence Wong (Marsiling-Yee Tee), said to be unpopular for his irritating comments on HDB leases – are not that strong anchors. There is some talk that the PAP might switch the more popular and capable Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam from Jurong West to wherever Dr Tan stands to meet the PSP challenge.
The one-third Parliament seats number is achieveable. The ball is now in the court of all the Opposition parties. They have nothing to lose in fighting for a system where the PAP will cease to thrive in its divide-and-rule autocracy, with all the dangers of bad governance and lack of transparency.
The second expectation with Dr Tan’s entry is something more intangible but very important. It is about heart. Dr Tan said his party’s members are mostly from the grassroots, and he is not just looking for scholarship holders but people whose hearts are “in the right place”. I think people like Michelle Lee, Alex Tan and Hazel Poa have that, together with Dr Tan’s own long-time supporters such as Lee Chiu San, Wang Swee Chuang, Anthony Lee and S Nallakaruppan.
But the most exciting expectation of all is the possibility of Lee Hsien Yang joining Dr Tan and the PSP in the forthcoming general elections. Nothwithstanding Dr Tan’s protestations that PM Lee Hsien Loong’s younger brother will have to come in on the terms of the PSP, the younger Lee’s decision to do battle against his brother’s party (his father’s party too) – if he chooses to do so – would be particularly fascinating.
It will be a game changer of no small magnitude for Singapore politics. As I said in a previous column, the spillover of the Lee siblings into the main political battlefield should have repercussions beyond everything we are familiar with. Feisty wife fights another feisty wife. Strong-willed sister aligns with brother to attack oldest brother. There will be a split within the PAP where, even before the Oxley Road dispute, some older PAP members were not happy with the way things were going – the emphasis on scholars, the over-reliance on meritocracy, the sidelining of older workers and leaders and so on. The Lee Kuan Yew legacy continues to be allegedly abused to shore up the PAP’s political legitimacy.
If the erosion of the LKY legacy – at least the more positive part of governance – is what irks Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Lee Hsien Yang is a heaven sent reminder of how badly the PAP has lost its bearing.
Let Lee Hsien Yang stand in Tanjong Pagar GRC. That would be a mouth-wateringly perfect setting for the ascension of a member of Singapore’s most prominent family.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.