A Closer Look: Workers' Party and the PSP

For the first time, an ex-PAP MP seeks to dislodge his former party from their lofty heights

Hello and welcome again to another edition of GE20Watch, I’m your GEWatcher. Hope everyone has been healthy and virus-free!

Yesterday was the unveiling of the much-awaited Budget, which is supposed to boost Singapore’s flagging economy that has been impacted by Covid-19. You can access a good summary of the announcements here. Although this is not a Budget newsletter so I won’t be going too much into it, one announcement of direct relevance to the GE is the delay of the GST hike to 9%, which will now no longer take place in 2021 (although it will happen eventually by 2025). As I stated in my previous newsletter, the hike was mentioned by the PAP as one of the potential election issues they would focus on (and opposition parties have been unequivocal in their opposition to it), so this will probably be one less issue that parties will focus on during the GE.

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Last week, I explored the changes to the PAP. This week, it’s time to take stock of the state of the opposition. Can they further chip away at the PAP’s electoral dominance?

Workers’ Party: will they survive the onslaught?

Similar to the PAP, the Workers’ Party (WP) has undergone a leadership change, with Pritam Singh replacing long-serving MP Low Thia Khiang as the new secretary-general. Singh (who famously coined the ‘ownself check ownself’ phrase that has entered common parlance in a 2015 election rally) has not been afraid to tangle with the PAP, engaging in verbal spars with Minister Chan Chun Sing as well as online spars with People’s Association grassroots advisers.

Image result for pritam singh ownself check ownself meme

Everyone loves a low-res meme

Although WP has kept mum about their GE plans thus far, Singh has called on Singaporeans to vote them in to act as a check on the PAP and ensure a ‘better balanced Parliament’, saying that in the short-term WP would not be aiming to take over government immediately but would aim to win at least one-third of elected seats in the near future. This is par for the course for WP, which has constantly sought to portray themselves as a ‘co-driver’ to the PAP. The logic behind this strategy is that it supposedly keeps voters satisfied that a ‘freak election’ will not occur if they vote for them, as the PAP will still be around to govern the country.

However, the WP hax been dealt a blow with the recent verdict on the long-running Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) saga. The whole case is honestly too long to summarise succinctly (and it’s couched in much legalese), so here’s a timeline of the whole saga. In short, WP MPs Sylvia Lim, Low, and Singh have been found liable for damages worth $33.7 million suffered by AHTC, with Lim and Low being singled out for having ‘breached fiduciary duties’ in appointing FM Solutions and Services (FMSS) to manage AHTC without a tender and making ‘improper payments’ to them.

Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people standing and text

Photo: The Workers’ Party Facebook

If they are not able to pay the damages, AHTC could commence bankruptcy proceedings against them, barring them from contesting the GE as undischarged bankrupts cannot contest elections. In addition, having barely managed to hold on to Aljunied GRC with 50.96% of the vote in 2015, there is a real danger that the MPs could lose the faith of their residents and the GRC thanks to this saga. Nevertheless, the MPs managed to raise more than $1 million in public donations for their legal fees in less than 3 days, signalling they may still have strong public support.

Meanwhile, the PAP has been quick to take advantage of the verdict, with DPM Heng Swee Keat tabling a motion in Parliament for the WP to apologise for the lapses in governance, for Lim and Low to recuse themselves from AHTC’s financial affairs and to remove Lim as vice-chairman of the town council. The motion has no real weight, and was supposed to be a reaffirmation of the need for MPs to maintain ‘high standards of integrity and accountability’, hence it can be seen as a somewhat opportunistic move by the PAP to get one in against their main rivals (who can resist, right?).

However, as Bertha Henson points out, Heng was left flustered by Lim’s seeking of clarifications and revelation that WP was appealing the verdict, fumbling and calling for a ten-minute recess to re-strategise. Expect this saga to continue to be the main charge for the PAP against the WP for the coming GE, as the PAP will no doubt question their capabilities to handle the governance of other town councils. The WP, on the other hand, will have to justify to residents why they can continue to be trusted and might do well to mention how the odds are stacked against them in a system long dominated by the PAP. In my opinion, if they can hold on to Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC, this would be a successful GE for them.

Yet, with one opposition party in trouble, a new challenger emerges…

Progress Singapore Party: can Tan Cheng Bock and co. make waves?

For the first time, the PAP faces an electoral challenge from their own ranks, with former PAP MP and presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock setting up his own political party the Progress Singapore Party (PSP). Tan, who is a well-known doctor and served as MP for Ayer Rajah SMC from 1980 -2006 (notably garnering the highest vote share for an MP to date, winning 88% of the vote in the 2001 GE), has been on the sidelines of the opposition since 2011 when he narrowly lost to Tony Tan in the presidential election and was the wrong race to contest the 2017 reserved presidency, but his entrance on the scene is the first time an ex-PAP MP has openly challenged his old party in elections. He was also a former member of the PAP’s Central Executive Committee and served on various Parliamentary Committees, and was no stranger to speaking up against his own party at times. As academic Cherian George notes below in this graphic below, he poses a considerable threat to the PAP and serves as a role model for disaffected PAP MPs to follow in the future:

It’s a lot to take in, I know/Photo: Air-Conditioned Nation

The rest of his party are no slouches either, containing former National Solidarity Party secretary-general and PSC scholar Hazel Poa, other former government scholars, as well as former grassroots advisers and opposition party members. They now have over 1000 members, and claim they are the ‘largest opposition party in Singapore’. As far as credentials matter in Singapore politics, they’ve got the right ones.

Thus far, they have been tight-lipped on their policy proposals, only mentioning that they would seek to lower the voting age to 18, review the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement between Singapore and India, and boost our low fertility rate. Despite also being coy about where they are going to contest, they have fanned out all over the country in walkabouts, making their presence felt (and somehow always meeting PAP MPs). They’ve also recently announced their opposition to the GST hike as well as proposing for long-term infrastructure projects to be funded by private firms and not tax increases, as well as ‘more effective uses’ of Budget surpluses and the sovereign wealth funds in the education sector.

Image may contain: 16 people, people smiling, people sitting and indoor

Photo: Progress Singapore Party Facebook

However, Tan’s party has drawn criticism for being a little geriatric and Tan (who is 79) himself being somewhat out of touch and offering little besides stating that the PAP has ‘lost its way’, meaning that he may not appeal to younger voters. There is also the worry that his dominance of the party might hinder the party’s long-term ambitions to become an established political presence.

Having personally been to a university forum where Tan was at, I was left unimpressed by his pitch, which essentially amounted to ‘the PAP was much better in the 1980s, and I am from that generation, so vote for me and I will keep them honest and return to those halcyon days’. His track record speaks for itself, but he himself spoke at lengths about returning people’s CPF and keeping property prices low, which, to be frank, are not key considerations for first-time voters. Most of his party are also untested in elections, so it remains to be seen how they can handle the pressure.

Some have labelled him as Singapore’s ‘Mahathir’, referring to how the current Malaysian PM returned at the age of 94 as opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan’s leader and successfully beat the Barisan Nasional, which had ruled Malaysia since independence. This comparison misses the mark for me, as the electoral context in Malaysia is vastly different, as PM Lee does not appear to have absconded with our CPF monies unlike Najib and the 1MDB funds, and Tan has nowhere near the political capital that Mahathir possesses in Malaysia.

Nevertheless, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who is Tan’s former classmate, said that he was saddened to see how Tan had ‘lost his way’, so what better endorsement can you get as an opposition party figure!

As this post has gotten a bit too long, I’ll be back next week with the rest of the opposition parties!

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