Veteran journalist Bertha Henson has noted that Dr Tan Cheng Bock – a former People’s Action Party (PAP) parliamentarian who has formed his own opposition party, the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) – is “like a dog who refuses to let go of his bone.”
Ms Henson is a heavyweight editor who spent 26 years at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), mainly working for SPH’s flagship English publication, The Straits Times. She now serves as part-time lecturer at the Communications and New Media Department at the National University of Singapore.
In an opinion piece published by Yahoo Singapore, Ms Henson shared her thoughts about the PSP press conference that took place last Friday (26 July). Having attended the event, the journalist noted that the meeting was different from the press conferences other opposition parties have organised in the past.
Instead of listing the PAP’s failings with little praise, Ms Henson noted that Dr Tan’s pitch focused on how the PAP has “changed” in recent years and how Singaporeans should support his party because the PAP has lost its way and his party intends to bring the “soul” back into politics.
Promising that the party would unveil its policies and proposals in due course, Dr Tan chose to touch on why he decided to form his own party instead of blasting the Government’s failings and asserted that he would champion transparency and accountability in governance.
Mr Tan also said that he would have joined an existing party like the Workers’ Party or the Singapore Democratic Party instead of forming his own party, if his intention was to return to politics with an axe to grind against his former party colleagues. Ms Henson recounted that when he was asked about being labelled a PAP “traitor,” Dr Tan responded: “I didn’t change; the PAP changed.”
Ms Henson revealed that she has known Dr Tan since she was a young reporter in The Straits Times. Noting that PAP backbenchers like Dr Tan made parliament sessions “more colourful” despite the near-absence of opposition politicians, she recalled:
“I empathised with Doc (as he is known) when he voted against the Nominated MPs Bill in 1989 despite the party whip being in place, and felt glad when the compromise was that it was for every Parliament to decide if they wanted such members within in the House.
“I wondered how he felt when the NMP was institutionalised as a permanent feature in 2010, four years after he left Parliament.”
Calling Dr Tan a “feisty” and dogged politician, Ms Henson said: “He is like a dog who refuses to let go of his bone. I have seen this in his feisty exchanges with ministers in Parliament.”
Noting that the media asked Dr Tan about his motivations on re-entering politics, Ms Henson recounted that he was asked whether he is looking to get back at the Government for refusing to allow him to contest the presidential election or whether he is inspired by Dr Mahathir Mohamad who united the opposition and led them to defeat his former party in the 2018 Malaysian General Election.
Dr Tan has a single answer to these questions. He said that he was re-entering politics for the good of the Singapore people.
Ms Henson opined: “From most people, I would consider such phrases as typical of politicians trying to win votes. From Dr Tan, however, I confess to hearing a ring of sincerity.
“This is a man who could be enjoying retirement and the company of grandchildren, but is instead going up against the political party he belonged to for close to 30 years.”
Noting that Dr Tan has support from several quarters – citing Lee Hsien Yang’s vocal support for Dr Tan’s party and the fact that opposition politicians from other parties have joined the PSP to put up a more concerted fight against the ruling party – Ms Henson said that Dr Tan’s opening remarks “painted a picture of a political party ready to take over, a “unifying alternative”.”
She, however, felt that this picture was “tempered” later on during the press conderence when Dr Tan said that he was open to allying with other parties to gain at least one-third of the seats in Parliament and deny the PAP the ability to amend the Constitution.
Noting that Dr Tan added that he does not want to be Prime Minister and remained mum on which candidates his party would field and which constituencies his party planned to contest, Ms Henson opined:
“I think a lot of people would like to know about concrete plans the party has that would alleviate their bread-and-butter problems. For most folks, charges of concentration of power, possible abuses or even a “changed” PAP, would have to be weighed against material advantages that a strong government can bring to the country.
“That’s a fact given the pragmatic culture we have here that places a premium on comfort. Still, politics is going to get more interesting here.”
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