What opposition unity?
Updated: Mar 22
By Lauren Ong
ILLUSTRATION: LORAINE LEE, LIANG LEI
Look at the chart above. Clearly the entry of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) into politics has thrown a spanner into the usual wrangling for seats in the opposition camp in the run-up to the election. The party has shown its hand by naming wards where its candidates will contest, in a unilateral manner that isn’t going down well with their fellow politicians in the other parties.
And this is not the norm for opposition parties, the chairman of the Reform Party (RP) Andy Zhu told Class Notes. He added that PSP had not consulted any of the opposition parties before announcing the Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) and Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) that it intends to field candidates in.
“As a norm, all opposition would sit and discuss amicably. Which in this case, Tan Cheng Bock has not wanted to do so, despite knowing the need,” he said.
Mr Zhu added that Dr Tan had previously indicated interest to discuss strategy with other opposition leaders but questioned if it had all been “merely a lip service.”
Despite being the newest player on the block, the PSP has given notice that its slate of 44 candidates will contest in 15 constituencies. That’s almost half of the total seats up for grabs and the largest number by an opposition party for at least two decades. The Workers’ Party (WP) had only fielded 29 candidates in 2015, the most among the Opposition that year. In 2011, it was the National Solidarity Party (NSP) with 24.
“We intend to field a sizable contingent, but of course, the final outcome will depend on discussions with all the other parties,” PSP’s assistant secretary-general Leong Mun Wai told TODAY. “We are mindful that we are the newest party, so we seek the cooperation of all the other parties to come to an amicable arrangement.”
In response to Mr Zhu’s sentiments, a PSP spokesman told Class Notes that the party has been in touch with all parties. However, “the strategy put up is subject to further discussion in good faith''.
The party’s announcement comes after most of the opposition have staked their territorial claims, following the release of the updated electoral boundaries on March 13.
There is still at least a month before the electoral registers are updated, which must be done before an election can be called, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote in a Facebook post. This leaves some time for the Opposition to horse-trade between themselves to prevent multi-cornered fights in their constituencies, which would split the votes for the Opposition.
The usual hot seats have always been single-member wards, as opposition politicians think it is easier to win popular support from a smaller number of voters, compared to a giant GRC. It also requires fewer resources, like money and suitable candidates who might be hard to come by for the Opposition.
This time, the PSP is staking its claim on seven SMCs, four of which have been choped by other opposition parties: Pioneer, Marymount, Yuhua and Radin Mas. As for Yuhua, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) made its pitch for the ward way back in 1984. It had contested the ward in 2011 and 2015 and would be too in the upcoming election.
The PSP’s has its eyes set on so many constituencies across the island that it has appointed “division directors” to manage their troops on the ground. The PSP spokesman told Class Notes that four executive committee members will each helm a “division”: Mr Michael Chua will take the West, Mr Ong Seow Yong the South, Mr Francis Yuen the North and Mr Andrew Ng for the Central wards.
It is also eyeing another eight GRCs, which include West Coast GRC, where founder Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s old stomping ground of Ayer Rajah is located when he was a PAP MP for 21 years. But West Coast has been the Reform Party’s (RP) turf since 2011, for two elections.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), People’s Voice (PV), Singapore People’s Party (SPP) and RP have also marked their territories. Of the eight opposition parties that contested in the last GE, only the WP, NSP, Singaporeans First Party (SingFirst) and People’s Power Party (PPP) have not announced the wards they have their eyes on.
PSP and PV will be contesting for the first time in the upcoming general election.
When opposition parties publicly announce the seats they are eyeing, it’s a signal to other contenders to back off. But in the run-up to an election, contesting opposition parties will usually wrangle with each other for seats based on whether they had contested the area in the past, and whether they had recently been “walking the ground’’ to garner support from the residents.
Some kind of pact will usually be made to avoid multi-cornered fights. However, if no one comes to the negotiation table, it seems there will be plenty of them in the coming general election, which has to be held by April next year.
Based on the official announcements made by the opposition parties over the past week, four SMCs and five GRCs can expect a three-cornered fight. One GRC and one SMC are expected to have four sets of contenders.
They are wrangling for 33 out of 93 seats in the new Parliament. In the last election, all 89 seats were contested and three SMCs faced three-cornered fights. In 2011, 82 out of 87 seats were contested and only Punggol-East SMC faced a three-cornered fight, the first one since 2001.
Currently, the WP holds Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC. The party would be sure to defend these wards, which total six seats, against the PAP. It has also contested in Punggol East SMC GE2011, took the ward in the 2013 by-election and lost it in the last one. The ward has been subsumed under the five-seat East Coast GRC in the latest electoral boundaries report.
So far, four parties have not made their intentions known. If they all return to their previously contested areas in the coming general election, the showdown would look like this.
The WP, which has always held its cards close to its chest when it comes to electoral movements, said in its press statement that it will go “where it can best serve Singaporeans”.
It chose instead to question the lack of reasons for the redrawn boundaries, miffed that its work in three previous SMCs seemed to have been for nought: “The EBRC has not explained why it chose to carve out some new SMCs while dissolving Sengkang West, Fengshan and Punggol East SMCs, areas where WP has been active for many years.’’
The WP has a history of putting up a fierce fight in all three dissolved SMCs in the past elections, even winning a by-election in 2013 for the Punggol-East seat before losing it in GE2015. Now, the wards have been subsumed into East Coast GRC and the new Sengkang GRC.
In any case, the way is clear for them to enter into a straight fight with the PAP in those two GRCs; no other political party has indicated that it would contest those areas.
RELATED STORY: Boundaries report: What’s changed and why it matters
If the Opposition wants a chance at winning a seat, it would do better to sit down for a pow-wow to ensure that votes will not be split three ways, which is usually to the benefit of the PAP. In GE2015, all of the three SMC three-cornered fights were won by the PAP.
Of course, political parties can always change their minds. In 2015, Mr Steve Chia dropped out of the election after he decided not to be NSP’s candidate for the MacPherson seat, which had been controversial as WP had already announced that it wanted to field a candidate against the PAP in the constituency.
Will a grand alliance or coalition take place?
Mr Goh Meng Seng, the secretary general of People’s Power Party (PPP), said an election during the coronavirus situation would require a “superior coordinated strategy and tactical plan” from the Opposition.
Noting how the virus, along with two other challenges – the town council saga and “almost perfect gerrymandering'' - would affect the opposition vote, he urged all opposition parties to formulate a united front instead of “shouting out to ‘chope’ territories for contest.”
His own party has not revealed its plans. In the last GE, it contested in Choa Chu Kang GRC, which PSP and PV already have their eyes on, prefacing a possible four-way fight.
Several attempts at opposition unity had been made, especially when word surfaced that Dr Tan Cheng Bock might be entering the fray. A Dr Tan-led alliance was touted as a possible game-changer that can unify the disintegrated opposition landscape. But since then, plans for the proposed coalition of the opposition parties have been wavering in and out of dead water.
RP chairman Alex Zhu told Class Notes that the opposition parties have met for two closed door meetings. One had been held at the SDP’s office in Ang Mo Kio and the other at a PSP member’s house in Kallang.
The first was held in 2018, before the PSP was formed and all opposition parties except WP gathered for the meeting at the SDP headquarters. Dr Tan was also in attendance and asked to lead the coalition effort, said the SDP in a statement.
Dr Tan has long established, before he formed the PSP in August 2019, his intentions to be a mentor to a team to “work for the good of the nation”. Even so, constant calls for an alliance with him at the helm have not been successful.
Dr Tan’s personal assistant Alex Tan further crystallised the dubiety when he described leaders of the alliance as “sinking boats” who are just “clasping one another’s hands to save themselves from drowning,” The Straits Times reported.
By then, a four-party alliance comprising RP, DPP, SingFirst and PPP had been formed, following reports about the failed talks for the Dr Tan-led alliance.
However, SingFirst’s secretary general Tan Jee Say, who is set to lead the alliance, went on Facebook to state the others can join the alliance anytime, and that Dr Tan would still be invited to lead it, TODAY reported.
The proposed four party alliance was spotted at Ang Mo Kio hub in January this year, handing out oranges during the Chinese New Year season. It was the alliance's first outreach activity since the announcement. RP's Mr Zhu said then that the alliance parties will have a common platform, contest under one flag and adopt a one party system.
“What we want is that we work together and share the resources in terms of manpower and candidates,” he said.
Mr Lim Tean, the secretary general of PV, told Class Notes that although he was hoping to be part of an alliance, he was not keen to join this one. Instead, he thought that a collaboration with PSP was better as it shared “similar objectives” with his party.
Mr Lim, along with opposition leaders such as the SDP’s Chee Soon Juan and Dr Paul Tambayah and WP’s Gerald Giam were seen at PSP’s Chinese New Year dinner earlier this year.
Related Story: Is PSP just Tan Cheng Bock?
He told Class Notes that he has been the biggest supporter for an alliance for a long time but cannot do much if PSP does not respond.
“I know SDP is very serious. But the main player now seems to be PSP. And I think it is a party that is being pulled in all directions,” he said.
Mr Lim noted that Dr Tan’s speech at a press conference last month had mentioned how he hopes PSP will have the chance to govern Singapore one day.
“Now, that shows me that he’s thinking along the lines now of doing it alone,” he said.
“I don’t know, maybe a different direction needs to be taken. Maybe we ought not to put all the eggs in PSP’s basket because it has been very frustrating. It has been very frustrating, waiting for something to develop.”
While opposition politicians seem to be pinning their hopes on a sign of unity, none are referring to WP as a possible magnet.
In 2015, a similar opposition alliance was talked about before the election. While the WP attended the initial discussions, it was absent in the subsequent ones.
At that time, the party said: “WP has taken its own path and I believe that is the path on which we can build a credible party to offer Singaporeans a credible choice.”
That year, WP faced a three-cornered fight in the MacPherson single ward against the PAP and NSP.
The latest stance of the PSP on any possibility of a coalition is that of a “loose alliance”.
In the same Chinese New Year dinner, Dr Tan told reporters that the party would work with all opposition parties. "We'll wait and see because each political party has got its own agenda, so I have to see how best I can gel with them," he said.
But according to Mr Lim, there has been no progress since. “In fact, there have been no meetings at all.” He declined to comment on PSP’s announcement about the wards the party was intending to contest in, which would pit the PSP against his own party in some areas.
Perhaps, there is time enough for a deal, unless the PSP decides that it should, like the WP, set itself apart from the rest of the opposition folks.