On building the DPP brand and the opposition alliance

By Howard Lee

We sat in the cool shade of the covered walkway outside the home of Mohd Hamim, Chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party, where TOC was invited for their 40th Anniversary lunch on New Year’s Eve. The people were few, but the atmosphere was one of camaraderie.

Benjamin Pwee, DPP’s Secretary-General, pulled up a chair and sat with the media, chatting a little about the new members who joined his party, and what he hoped the new leadership will bring to Singapore politics.

Pwee sounded tired but positive. The three new members whom he introduced during the gathering were already doing walkabouts, and he expects two more to be ready for “public exposure” soon. They were also well-qualified in their respective fields of work, he said.

This gradual growth seems a far cry from the days of 2002, when former member Tan Lead Shake was sacked from the party for contesting in elections against the party’s consent.

“If we can bring in good people and create credible parties, we can turn it around,” he said.

In January 2013, Pwee and a few other colleagues formerly from the Singapore People’s Party joined DPP. They were invited by former Secretary-General Mr Seow Khee Leng to re-brand the party. As they assumed the new leadership roles, members of the former leadership stayed on in an advisory capacity.

Pwee credited this current DPP leadership for making a difference to the party’s reputation, and is now keen to see a similar revitalisation of the opposition united front, the Singapore Democratic Alliance.

He is currently in talks with SDA’s component party, Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS) about DPP joining SDA. While this is still in infancy, he was encouraged by the progress.

“Most of us believe in the need for a united opposition front that is credible,” he opined. “If you look at the parties we have, there are quite a few in the new generation who have taken over the leadership of their parties, myself included. Hopefully, this will allow us to work on building new collaborative relationships between parties.”

One of the key aims of SDA had been to avoid parties slugging it out in three-cornered fights during general elections, thereby diluting votes to the benefit of the ruling party. Was such a concern still relevant?

Pwee believed it is still of some value, but the new collaborations should go beyond that. “It should not be just about avoiding three-cornered fights, but also about pooling candidates to jointly contest in elections.”

He acknowledged that such rapport will not happen overnight, “but we should not make it just a marriage of convenience.”

Pwee was not alone in seeking other ways where parties can collaborate. He cited the possibility of joint policy papers, an idea that Jeannette Chong, Secretary-General of the National Solidarity Party, was also keen to explore.

“I’m open to working together, building bridges and sharing ideas (with other political parties). The more perspectives we have, the stronger the discussion,” she said.

For now, Pwee has much to do still in building up DPP. A few new members hardly make up enough to contest in Bishan-Toa Payoh and Tanjong Pagar, two wards where the party is currently doing walkabouts. A lot more needs to be done before the next general elections.

The opposition alliance, which many an opposition supporter might have thought to be lost, can at best only be a long term goal for now. But it is clear that not everyone has given up on it. What might be needed, as Pwee believes, is to look beyond the horse-trading we see at every general election, and evolve this alliance into something that matters more to voters on a daily basis.