Is PSP just Tan Cheng Bock?
Updated: Feb 13
After 14 years, former PAP MP and presidential hopeful Dr Tan Cheng Bock has returned to the world of politics with the Progress Singapore Party
But can the young party, so sturdily built on the reputation of its Dr Tan, survive its 79-year-old founder?
By Christalle Tay and Lauren Ong
PHOTO: CHRISTALLE TAY/ ILLUSTRATION: LORAINE LEE
It takes but a cursory look at news articles on the newly-formed Progress Singapore Party (PSP) to realise that the PSP and its founder, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, is a package deal.
PSP has become almost synonymous with Dr Tan. Its party members, on a walkabout last month, introduced themselves as being from “Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s party”.
As a former People’s Action Party (PAP) MP of 26 years, Dr Tan was a familiar face in his former Ayer Rajah constituency, which is today part of West Coast GRC. Residents in Teban Garden and Pandan Loop greeted him affably by his nickname “Doc” — a nod to his past as a doctor in his clinic in Lim Chu Kang. A few had, upon spotting him, rushed over to give him a hug.
“Doc is better known in the GRC,” said assistant-treasurer Hazel Poa. “That is one of the purposes of the walkabout: to let people know about PSP and to link it to Doc.”
The former MP and presidential candidate is no political rookie. Dr Tan Cheng Bock lost to Dr Tony Tan by a mere margin of 0.35 per cent in the 2011 presidential elections and represented Ayer Rajah SMC from 1980 to 2006.
During his time in Parliament, the politician has made his fair share of rumblings and was not exactly known to toe the party line the way other PAP MPs do.
Dr Tan’s six terms were riven with controversial standoffs. In the early 1980s, Dr Tan argued against the education streaming scheme, arguing that it could stratify and create class divisions. In 1997 and 2002, on both occasions, he was the only PAP MP who voted nay on the Nominated MP scheme. Dr Tan even drew rebuttals from several senior government ministers in 1999, including then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew when he urged the Government to downplay the emphasis on foreign talent in policy-making.
PSP members on a party walkabout on Jan 12. PHOTO: CHRISTALLE TAY
WE ARE MORE THAN TAN CHENG BOCK
Seven months and over 1,000 new members into PSP’s debut, party members are recognising the perils of staking all their bets on one man and the party has started to downplay Dr Tan’s prominence in the party.
At a party dinner on Jan 17, Dr Tan instructed the party not to treat him as a VIP. That event was attended by party members and other opposition politicians, including Dr Chee Soon Juan and Dr Paul Tambyah of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), Mr Gerald Giam of the Workers’ Party, and Mr Lim Tean of the People’s Voice.
Speaking to reporters at the dinner, Mr Leong Mun Wai — who had just been named the assistant secretary-general — told of how Dr Tan had asked him to remove a part of his speech where he would ask the crowd to cheer for the party chief.
Dr Tan had also specifically asked not to be given special seating, Mr Leong said. He was instead seated a few rows from the front.
“We don’t need to shed (the Tan Cheng Bock name). We are all very proud of Dr Tan,” said Vice-Chairman Michelle Lee. “But it is a party. So, you know, we don't want it to be all about Dr Tan.”
“Dr Tan would be happier than anyone if the party is bigger than himself… and for PSP to be something that keeps on going and that can be his legacy to Singapore,” she added.
Political observers say Dr Tan would need to give voters confidence that his new party would outlast him.
“(Dr Tan) cannot be a one-man show. If he is a one-man show, people would not buy in to the party. So he has to make sure he has credible people, a strong team,” former PAP MP Inderjit Singh told TODAY.
“If he can create the image of a party that looks like the PAP — credible people with good qualifications, good quality control — in the long term, he could make a big impact of a credible party that can represent people,” Mr Singh added.
It’s strange the matter of political succession should come so early for a party that was less than a year old, but critics have questioned how long Dr Tan, who turns 80 this year, will be able to remain active in politics.
Mr Leong in his speech at the dinner acknowledged the “very ripe old age” of the party’s founder. “Having seen Doc persevere in what he believes... I made the decision (to take on the Assistant Secretary-General role) and say that since he has done this far, I must come in the next lap.”
In response to concerns about his age, Dr Tan said at an earlier press conference last year: “I am 79. My good friend (Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad) is 94.”
ILLUSTRATION: PROGRESS SINGAPORE PARTY/FACEBOOK
Critics have also questioned the party’s ability to connect with younger voters, given the lack of younger members in the Central Executive Committee (CEC). The average age of the CEC members is 62, with the youngest member being Ms Chika Tan, 39. Click here for the ages of each CEC member.
“I’m not an old man party,” Dr Tan said on a walkabout on Jan 12. “I’m quite blessed, many of (PSP’s members) are young people.”
Younger members were spotted at recent PSP events going from door-to-door during the party’s walkabout and in attendance at the PSP annual dinner. The co-emcee at the dinner, national kayaker Anthea Low, was 18 years old.
Around 35 to 40 per cent of PSP’s members are below 40 years old, which include a 17-year-old and a few 18-year-olds in its ranks, a party spokesman said.
RELATED STORY: Progress Singapore Party: Not many specifics about platform
“When I heard Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s speech during the party launch, that really spoke to me,” said 23-year-old PSP member Shawn Choo, a third-year law student at the National University of Singapore, in an interview. “I got very emotional watching his speech… I think he was a person who had the right values and in politics for the right reasons.”
Mr Choo did not find his youth a hindrance when it came to connecting with other members on issues. “Ultimately, we're here all as Singaporeans. Even though we might be different generations, we all have the same values as a party.”
DO YOUNG VOTERS KNOW DR TAN?
It has been 14 years since Dr Tan held the Ayer Rajah seat. Some from the older generation might still remember him. And while the party has been able to recruit younger members, one question still stands: Does Dr Tan and the PSP appeal to the young electorate?
To first-time voters and students who live in the area, Dr Tan was just a name.
Mr Shah Rel Iman, 24, a 10-year resident in the Ayer Rajah division, grew up hearing Dr Tan’s name through his grandparents. While he knew of Dr Tan’s new party, Mr Shah said he would not consider Dr Tan’s track record as he was too young to remember him.
“All I know is that, the most important thing is voting for a party that knows what they are doing. Rather than promising people fluff, (it is more important) that their objectives are more realistic.”
Ms Felicia Yee, 22, who has lived there her whole life, said: “I think my parents know him… Don’t think it will affect how I vote, I don’t really remember him.”
However, Dr Tan’s political experience is important to Mr Lim Chong Yan, 26, a service engineer in the medical industry. He said: “If he returns, I think he will do well with the older voters. Among younger voters, it depends if they want to vote for the opposition.”
Although Mr Lim has lived in Ayer Rajah since he was two, Dr Tan was merely a man on town council posters he remembers seeing around the neighbourhood. He only started hearing more of Dr Tan when he embarked on his presidential campaign.
“Quite interesting since he was PAP but he wants to challenge,” said Mr Lim.
Asked if Dr Tan’s age was a concern for him, Mr Lim said: “Not really. Even Mahathir is 94 and still the PM of Malaysia.”