PAP versus Tan Cheng Bock et al : Thundering over the GE timing

Updated: Apr 2

By Christalle Tay


What was supposed to be a press conference was turned into a Facebook video response to Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean. Foiled by the new Covid-19 social distancing measures, instead of announcing its policies in detail on last Saturday (March 28) as planned, the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) decided to boil its messages down to one: that the upcoming election should be held later than sooner. 

It was a reiteration of an old point, for Mr Teo’s ears. The Senior Minister had missed the point, said PSP founder Tan Cheng Bock in his video last Saturday.

Dr Tan had on March 14, the day after Singapore’s electoral boundaries were redrawn, said in a Facebook video that the election should not coincide with the Covid-19 health crisis. He also floated the idea of a “caretaker government” if the election had to be delayed past its deadline of April 2021 — a suggestion the Senior Minister took issue with and called “misleading and unhelpful” in Parliament on Wednesday (March 25). To delay the election would be unconstitutional, said Mr Teo. 

Dr Tan fired back: “Senior Minister Teo also said in Parliament that an early General Election will allow Singapore to decide who they want to captain the ship into the future, but can he accept that an early general election means that the ship will potentially carry many more Singaporeans infected with Covid-19?” 

Some might have been expecting the PSP to reveal changes to its election gameplan. A LianHe ZaoBao report on March 25 said the party was in talks with five opposition parties, possibly to discuss scaling down the 44-candidate contingent it had planned for the election. It will announce its plans at an unspecified press conference, PSP had told the Chinese language newspaper. 

PSP assistant secretary-general Leong Mun Wai told TODAY after having announced its plans to contest in 15 constituencies: "We intend to field a sizable contingent, but of course, the final outcome will depend on discussions with all the other parties.

The five parties ZaoBao reported are the Singapore People's Party, National Solidarity Party, Singapore Democratic Party, Singapore First, Singapore Democratic Alliance.

RELATED STORY: What opposition unity?

Last Saturday’s video provided no updates. It seems intentional that PSP continues to hold its cards close by not unveiling more of its policies and election plans, perhaps to buttress its point that Singapore is not ready for an election. 

Arguments for an early election, unsurprisingly, come from the incumbent, who say the Covid-19 crisis may outlast the April 2021 election deadline. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says there are two choices: to call for an early election or to wait till the Covid-19 situation subsidies. But it seems he’s leaning towards an early election, as he has said it was uncertain when “normal” circumstances would return and that matters could “easily get worse before it gets better”. 

The PAP leadership seem to have taken a recent liking to weather metaphors too, dubbing the health crisis a “hurricane” or like “sailing into a storm”. In his Parliamentary remarks last Wednesday, Mr Teo continued a narrative first uttered by PM Lee less than two weeks before: that the PAP team was the best to lead the country through tumultuous times.

“When you are sailing into a storm, you want to be certain who your captain is, and that he will not be changed, halfway,” said Mr Teo. 

PM Lee added last Friday: "You want to have the strongest team and mandate, and the longest runway so that Singapore can have the best leadership to see it through this storm.”

Given that people are likely to vote for the status quo in times of calamity, it’s no surprise the Opposition is unsettled and pushing for a later election. Its bottom line: we are prepared, but an election in the time of the Covid-19 crisis would be irresponsible. 

Dr Tan and his party say that postponing the election and possibly crossing the election deadline may be unconstitutional, but it is a gamble that, unlike the coronavirus, would not take lives. A list of other postponed elections was tacked onto the video post, showing how elections between March and November had been postponed. Most of these elections had already been scheduled for this or next month, unlike Singapore’s generous lead time of about a year. 

To avoid breaching the Constitution, the President could call a state of emergency and create a temporary government with some of the current MPs, suggests Dr Tan. But he neglects to mention that President Halimah has to act on the advice of the PM. 

The Constitution ensures an election is held at least every five years, so the elected Government is regularly kept in check. It seems extreme to evoke a state of emergency for an election, when it’s meant for securing public safety, national defence and maintaining public order. To extend an election term, as pointed out by Mr Teo, has never been done since Singapore’s independence. Neither has it entered a state of emergency since then.

What precedence would it set for future elections that may coincide with a crisis? It may be too early to toy with the idea of an unconstitutional election or a state of emergency, especially since the Government has not scheduled a date for the election. After newly-drawn boundaries on March 13 stirred speculation of a looming election, the PM came out to remind everyone that an election could not be called till the voter rolls were closed in another month.

This is not the first time high-flyers in the ruling party have felt a need to address Dr Tan, who was a PAP MP for 26 years. 

Pointed exchanges began even before the party was officially launched in August last year. Dr Tan in a July press conference criticised the carrying over of the Prime Minister’s family dispute into the Parliament House. The very next day, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said having the dispute debated in Parliament was a show of how transparent the Government was. Dr Tan retorted during his party launch by asking how it could be transparent if the disputing parties — Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling — could not give their sides of the story in Parliament.

Jibes from Dr Tan’s friend, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, are far more personal, often imbued with literary fun. Mr Goh took to Facebook after PSP’s launch to express his sadness that Dr Tan had “lost his way… like Don Quixote tilting at windmills”. The expression lifted from a Spanish novel meant attacking imaginary enemies. 

When PSP stepped into his homeground in Marine Parade GRC during its first nationwide walkabout on Sept 29 last year, Mr Goh encapsulated his feelings with a Shakespearean quote: “PSP eyeing Marine Parade. ‘Et tu, Brute?” The line signified an unexpected betrayal by a friend.  

More recently, on March 22, three days after PSP announced where it wanted to contest, Mr Goh threw out what seemed to be an indirect challenge to Dr Tan. He posted on Facebook: “My dream team for West Coast GRC or anywhere: myself, See Leng, Fahmi, Pei Ling and Biow Chuan,” punctuated with a smiley face emoji. 

Dr Tan has been making his rounds in West Coast GRC, which contains the Ayer Rajah ward, his old stomping ground when he was an MP. 

Despite being the newest kid on the block, the PSP has received generous attention from the PAP, likely due to its founder’s past in the ruling party and his political portfolio. In his last general election in 2001, Dr Tan captured 88 per cent of votes in Ayer Rajah. His performance in the 2011 Presidential Election implied strong support from the people, when he came in at a close second to former President Tony Tan at a margin of 0.35 per cent.

But the PSP and other opposition parties have been having a bumpy time recently. Two PSP members had high-profile departures this month. Ms Michelle Lee resigned after two months as its vice-chairman and despite citing “time with family” as the official reason, speculation of infighting was rife. Then on March 21, one Mr Jan Chan was booted out of the party for making a religiously-insensitive post that went viral on Facebook. 

Another member, Mr Brad Bowyer, made history by being the first to be served a correction directive under the new fake news laws (Pofma) for questioning the independence of Temasek and GIC in a Facebook post last year. 

Other opposition politicians who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law include People’s Voice founder Lim Tean was also ordered to correct a post in December last year, when he wrongly claimed the Government spent less on Singaporean students than on foreign students. 

Unlike the above, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) decided to challenge the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in court over the two notices they were issued. Its two-month Pofma affair, which concerned two Facebook posts and an SDP article on Singapore’s unemployment landscape, ended in February after its challenge was dismissed in the High Court. 

Entanglements with the court run deeper than Pofma. SDP chairman John Tan is still coping with the repercussions of being charged for contempt of court last year. His $5,000 fine bars him from running in the coming election despite appeals to excuse his disqualification and switch his $5,000 fine to a jail sentence. According to election laws, individuals who have paid fines of over $2,000 or been sentenced to over a year of jail cannot become MPs for three years from the conviction date. 

The Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) has not been kind to the Opposition either, especially the Workers’ Party. Three of its stomping grounds in Sengkang West, Fengshan and Punggol East SMCs were dissolved while four new SMCs were formed. 

Dr Tan’s complaint about the timing of the election has been echoed by several others. SingFirst founder and leader of a proposed four-party alliance Tan Jee Say said on Facebook: “Health comes first, Election can wait. It would be highly irresponsible of the PAP to call for a general election in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.” 

In a doorstop interview on March 14, SDP said it was shocked and outraged that the EBRC had waited “seven to eight months” to release its report in the midst of a pandemic. State resources should be focused on Covid-19, said secretary-general Chee Soon Juan. 

If the outbreak persists or worsens, the question is how traditional campaign activities such as walkabouts, rallies or even press conferences like the PSP had intended for last Saturday, would be carried out given stricter social distancing measures. Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh spoke in Parliament about how political parties’ outreach, which has ramped up recently, could easily make up over 10 people, in close proximity to each other. 

“Does the minister not agree that such continued outreach could potentially interfere and contradict the directives of the taskforce, particularly yesterday's new (social distancing) directives?”

The rules apply to all, replied co-chairman of the ministerial taskforce Lawrence Wong. “All political parties in this House, outside of this House, would therefore have to abide by these and make adjustments to their activities.” 

Political parties will have to get creative, like how schools and workplaces have. New social distancing measures include keeping gatherings to 10 people or less, ensuring at least 1m space between patrons, and having no more than one person in an area equivalent to the size of an HDB bathroom (16 sq m). 

PM Lee told the media last Friday that it was possible to hold the election during the virus outbreak. “Israel did one recently. The American primary elections… some have postponed but most have carried on. So these are, to a large extent, solvable problems.”

Singapore, unlike the UK and Wuhan, was not in a state of lockdown and “life still goes on” alongside social distancing measures and restrictions, he said. “If it was, an election could not be done,” he added. 

So long as Parliament isn’t dissolved and the writ of election not issued, you can expect the ruckus over the timing of the election to continue. If the election is held before the Covid-19 situation subsides, you can expect to hear cries of political opportunism or an accusatory term that has recently come into vogue: social irresponsibility.

Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that PSP had planned for a public convention. This is inaccurate. The convention was meant for members only.

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