I write this column with no inside knowledge of the goings-on in the Progress Singapore Party. To be privy to such knowledge and write for public readership would not be ethical since Kumaran Pillai, the publisher of TheIndependent.Sg, is also in the CEC of the party. Conflict of interest and all that. I offer my purely personal analysis and opinion as a lifelong observer of Singapore politics. And, yes, you’ve already guessed it by this fourth sentence, my topic this week is: Quo vadis, PSP?
This question is not about where the PSP wants to go. It is about how it may end up, whatever its own stated vision may be from now on.
In post-self governing Singapore’s short history, most successful opposition parties usually owed their existence or fortune, at least in the early stages, to their founders. David Marshall did well – became Chief Minister – until leftist supporters abandoned him in the battle for merger days. The party came back and rode on the back of Singaporeans’ yearning to break the People’s Action Party’s dominance when JB Jeyaretnam won the Anson by-election. Low Thia Khiang later helped rebuild it into what it is today, a formidable party with 10 MPs in Parliament.
Just before Low and, in fact, while JBJ was around, Chiam See Tong rode into Parliament with, first, his Singapore Democratic Party victory in Potong Pasir and later with two more fellow SDP MPs in Gombak and Nee Soon Central. After his break with the SDP, the Singapore People’s Party became his vehicle with which he was able to hang on in Potong Pasir for a while.
Is there anything to learn from the experiences of these other opposition parties? Not much, at least from the 1990s till the start of the 2010s. Very different eras. Lee Kuan Yew was dominant. Social media was not around. The main lesson could be that if you handled your party well and truly worked the ground, shared voters’ pain and spoke their language, you would reap rewards, as shown by Low. He then made sure his party would survive him.
At a press conference on Saturday (April 2), Dr Tan said: “This move (his stepping down as secretary-general) will be better for Singaporeans, because they will realise that we are actually consciously making an attempt to let Singaporeans know that the party PSP is not Tan Cheng Bock’s party. PSP belongs to Singaporeans who care for Singapore. This is a very conscious move not only on my part but on the advice of all my party leaders here.”
I beg to differ. On the contrary, the conventional wisdom has always been that this is Tan Cheng Bock’s party. Without Dr Tan, there would have been no PSP. Anyone can start a party but not anyone could have started one which would go on to perform as creditably as it did in GE2020. Dr Tan brought four things with him – his good record of service as an MP for Ayer Rajah, a strong party machinery, high-profile performance as a nearly elected Presidential candidate and an effortless communicating skill as an empathic leader (something which is sadly and tragically lacking in many ruling party office-holders).
I still think the party cannot do without Dr Tan. Let’s be frank. None of the current CEC office holders has anything anywhere near his public profile yet which cuts across races and languages. Everybody, whatever his race, knows Dr Tan Cheng Bock. There is that level of trust and comfort which has to be earned by other PSP leaders. It is not a matter of being able to speak well or being telegenic. It is not about pushing sectorial issues to appear in tune with younger voters. It is not about being able to participate in a public form and displaying your scholarly expertise and knowledge. It is more than all this.
Dr Tan Cheng Bock is a charismatic, high-profile and enormously popular people’s person. Just watch the way the uncles, aunties and their children – any race – lit up and smiled whenever he did his rounds in the HDB heartlands. He is pretty much indispensable.
The PSP has to make it much clearer what it is has done or what has actually happened. Or it may risk frittering away the support and goodwill that it has accumulated in the short period – which was mostly built around Dr Tan’s persona – since before GE2020.
The move to develop the party beyond Tan Cheng Bock has to be handled smartly. Both the new leadership which hopes to mature out of the shadow of the founder and the founder himself must convince voters they are getting a double-value deal instead of a half-value option of an organisation which cannot find its own feet or identity in the years ahead.
As a parting shot, we may recall the constant presence of another heavyweight personality beyond Dr Tan at the GE2020 hustings. A very active presence. Do not rule him out in discussing the future of the PSP.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.
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