Road to GE: How are Singapore's political parties structured?
Updated: Feb 10
By Christalle Tay
Former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock addresses reporters at the launch of the Progress Singapore Party on Friday, 26 July 2019. PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore
In the last of a four-part series on how political parties in Singapore are gearing up for the next General Election, Christalle examines how ruling and opposition parties are structured.
Read part 1 on Singapore political party websites.
Party constitutions provide greater insight into the structural differences between various parties, as they set out details of party membership, meetings, elections, and so on. While political parties, as societies, are legally required to have constitutions, they are only publicised by the People’s Action Party (PAP), Workers’ Party (WP) and Reform Party (RP) on their respective websites.
PAP and WP follow the same hierarchy: members advance from ordinary membership to cadre membership to membership in the Central Executive Committee (CEC). Cadre memberships are not used in RP, which instead elects one delegate for every 10 registered members. The cadres or delegates then elect members to fill the CEC during its biennial party conferences.
The question of suspension or expulsion is put to the CEC for all three parties. Expulsion is considered when the conduct of the member in question is against the welfare of the Party, but members have the right to appeal. The most notable example: Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) founder Chiam See Tong took the party to court for illegally expelling him in 1993.
The CEC had expelled Chiam for his public comments against party leaders, which allegedly sullied the party’s and the CEC’s name. While the eventual judgement was in Chiam’s favour, it also acknowledged that he was constitutionally bound to discipline by the CEC, and that he had won on technicalities over how his disciplinary hearing was carried out.
Similar clauses are set out in WP’s and Reform Party’s constitutions – members who act in any manner “prejudicial to the Party” face suspension or expulsion.
Biennial party conferences are mandated by party constitutions. These meetings, where cadres vote in members of the CEC, were recently held for the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) and SDP.
SPP's latest conference in mid-October saw the stepping down and replacement of Secretary-General Chiam See Tong by Steve Chia, a former Non-Constituency Member of Parliament who was with the National Solidarity Party (NSP) until last year. CEC newcomer Jose Raymond took over from Lina Chiam as party chairman.
SDP’s party conference on 31 October saw “largely unchanged” leadership with the re-election of Paul Tambyah as chairman and Chee Soon Juan as secretary-general.
Meanwhile, the PAP underwent a renewal of party leadership last November. Five longstanding party leaders – Khaw Boon Wan, Yaacob Ibrahim, Teo Chee Hean, Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Lim Swee Say – are no longer on the CEC, whereas Ng Chee Meng and Indranee Rajah were voted in for the first time.
Although Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong remained as secretary-general, his anointed successor, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat was elevated from a CEC member to first assistant secretary-general. Other ministers – Gan Kim Yong, Masagos Zulkifli, Chan Chun Sing, Ong Ye Kung – were also bumped up the hierarchy, signalling that PAP has begun ushering in its fourth generation of leaders.
It is common to see opposition politicians switch allegiance, something which they will not be able to do if they were elected. Under the Constitution, elected MPs lose their seats should they leave the party whose banner they contested under.
Earlier this year, the secretary-general of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Benjamin Pwee, left his party for SDP. Pwee said in February that five other unnamed members “will step down in due course”. Before his six years with DPP, Pwee had contested in Bishan Toa-Payoh GRC under the SPP banner.
A majority of the CEC members in Progress Singapore Party (PSP) got their start in politics elsewhere. Party chief Tan Cheng Bock himself once held the Ayer Rajah ward as an MP under the PAP banner. Party chairman Wang Swee Chuang and vice-chairman Kanagasingam Gunnaratnam are former PAP cadres.
Returning from their hiatus from politics are Hazel Poa and Michelle Lee. Poa, currently the assistant treasurer for PSP, had her start with Reform Party. In 2011, she joined NSP and later held the role of acting secretary-general, which she left after disagreements with the party leadership. CEC member Lee unsuccessfully contested Holland-Bukit Timah GRC in 2011 on the SDP ticket. After the election, she moved to Hong Kong with her family till 2016.
Brad Bowyer, who is an ordinary member in the PSP, started his political journey with the PAP as a volunteer, followed by a five-month-stint in NSP. He later followed Lim Tean, then-secretary-general of NSP, when he left the party to start People’s Voice Party (PVP) last October.
Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, who left SPP in September, stirred rumours of her membership with WP when she was spotted with the party on walkabouts. Although she has since quashed the rumours, stating she had no plans to join another party, she is often seen walking the ground with WP member Yee Jenn Jong in Marine Parade GRC, where she is a resident.
Chong-Aruldoss started in politics with the Reform Party in 2010. She left the following year for NSP and switched alliances again in 2015 when she joined SPP.
Yellow, orange, red... blue? SOURCE: Facebook/Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, The Reform Party, Yee Jenn Jong
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Looking at the respective party websites, it seems that most of their money comes from fund-raising events or the selling of party paraphernalia and books.
Except for PAP and SPP, parties ask for donations on their websites. A few parties – SDP and Reform Party – sell their publications on their online shop to raise funds.
The Registrar of Political Donations would have a better grasp of the specifics, as political parties are required to list donors from whom they have received $10,000 or more from in that financial year. To ensure the absence of foreign influence in politics, only donations from Singapore entities or Singaporeans aged above 21 are permitted.
Anonymous donations of up to $5,000 a year are allowed.
Financial records have not been made public by political parties, except in the specific case of donations to three MPs of the Workers’ Party – Low Thia Khiang, Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh. The donations were to help the three finance their court cases on mismanaging town council funds, brought by Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) and Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council. Their blog, In Good Faith, provides updates on the lawsuits and documents how the donations have been used.
Membership fees are levied too, although this cannot be ascertained for parties which have not made their constitutions public. PAP collects an annual fee of $9 while WP collects $10. Reform Party charges a joining fee of $10 on top of its $20 annual fee.
Unlike the parties cited above that collect fees uniformly through the ranks, PVP has a tiered membership, with six distinct levels of benefits tied to a subscription fee. The levels are: friend, contributor, partner, affiliate, benefactor and patron - with membership fees ranging from $10 a year to as high as $4,000.
All party websites have avenues for volunteers to sign up. However, SingFirst, DPP and People's Power Party (PPP) — the only parties with Facebook as its only online presence — have not made calls for volunteers or members on their pages this year.
Becoming a party member in some parties, however, requires jumping through hoops. For example, PAP requires an application to be made in writing to the secretary-general. Applicants for the WP are only considered on the recommendation of a member of the party.
SO... ARE POLITICAL PARTIES PREPARED?
While it be true that political parties — both new and old — have been out and about, the political parties are not necessarily prepared for election.
Larger political parties such as WP and SDP, seem to be better prepared. They have their key leadership in place, public outreach in motion, and online party platforms kept up to date — and they seem now, to be waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Mosquito parties, on the other hand, appear to be suffering from a lack of resources and the recent resignation of key members — such as secretary-generals Lim Tean from NSP and Benjamin Pwee from DPP. With outreach initiatives that have been barely carried through — such as the short-lived kopitalks by NSP and PVP’s incomplete website — many of the smaller parties convey a disorganized and unprepared image.
But perhaps voters should hold off judgement as there is still time for them to pull up their socks before the election rolls around.