The recent furore over whether a multi-party system or a single-party system would be better for Singapore has led to a renewed interest due to recent rumours about upcoming snap elections.
I assume, for the sake of this commentary, that Singaporeans want change, and are beginning to look for it. President-elect Obama’s election victory just one month ago has awakened the entire world to the possibility of change. A functioning government requires checks and balances, and not a monopoly of power as seen in Singapore today.
The Opposition: United or divided?
Singapore‘s opposition has undoubtedly seen better days. There were the highs in 1981 when the late Mr J B Jeyaretnam managed to clinch more than 50% of the votes for the first time since independence and in 1988 when the Workers’ Party came close to beating the PAP despite facing internal problems within the party. In 1991, the Worker’s Party, together with Singapore Democratic Party, managed to achieve a record high of four seats, and there was optimism that a stranglehold of power by PAP would be broken soon.
The state of the opposition today seems rather tame by comparison. The current batch of non-PAP politicians does not seem ready to step up the mantle. No successor is in sight for the ageing opposition veteran Mr Chiam See Tong. Mr Low Thia Khiang has yet to show that he has made significant differences to the implementation of PAP’s policies, given the heavy odds stacked against them in Parliament. Dr Chee Soon Juan is embroiled in many trials and his party also face possible closure due to bankruptcy.
The passing away of Mr J B Jeyaratnam has also dealt a severe blow to the opposition, especially when the newly-established Reform Party raised hopes amongst many that things might perhaps change. The question for the opposition as a whole is: What is next on the cards?
Opposition parties in Singapore have been divided internally and externally over many issues. The mainstream media has also been quick to play up these divisions by giving more publicity to such incidents instead of focusing on other more meaningful issues and events, and projecting the image of a disunited and fractious opposition that seems more interested in squabbling than fighting for Singaporeans.
The lack of common consensus between opposition parties over issues further perpetuates the PAP’s constant subtle and not-so-subtle reminders to the masses that they are the only party capable of delivering the goods, as seen clearly by the recent PAP’s Party Conference in which Secretary-General PM Lee Hsien Loong clearly disregarded the opposition and spoke about political change only within the party.
Ugly differences between former colleagues and party leaders such as Dr Chee Soon Juan and Mr Chiam See Tong also became the attention of mainstream media in the past, which highlighted the conflict and contrasted it with the “united” PAP.
The lack of support from WP and SDA for SDP over the recent legal issues brought against them accentuates the idea of a disunited opposition that could not see past their own rivalry and demonstrate solidarity in the face of a greater enemy.
This has certainly led to alienation of the opposition from Singaporeans, especially those that only read mainstream media or have no access to alternative sources of news. Despite that, Singaporeans who voted in the last election has shown their willingness to give the opposition a chance, as demonstrated by the falling percentage of popular votes when compared to the 2001 General Elections (75.3%).
History has shown clearly that disunity has marred the possibility of success for many political parties. Before the Japanese Occupation, there were many efforts all across South-east Asia (except Philippines) to resist the colonial masters who were deeply entrenched in their positions of power.
However, parties who were pushing for nationalism had different agendas. Some called for radical action to be taken to overthrow the colonial masters. Others were more moderate but had different thinking or ideologies so they also could not see eye to eye and cooperate for the greater cause. In the end, before the outbreak of the World War II, nationalist movements in nearly all the colonies had achieved little.
Everything changed when the Japanese came along and transformed this region forever. These parties capitalised on the Japanese Occupation to build up popular support for themselves and they saw opportunities once the Japanese left. Efforts were made towards unity, either through the merging of political parties as seen in the Alliance between UMNO, MCA and MIC in Malaya or through strong leaders such as Ho Chih Minh who – favouring pragmatism and playing down ideology – did not hesitate to cooperate with opposing factions to achieve their aims.
Fire and water can mix after all
If one should cast their eyes globally, one will come across even more examples when seemingly incompatible groups came together to achieve their common aim, one of the most infamous being the alliance of Hitler who hated communism and Stalin against Poland prior to World War II.
In Singapore, if one agrees to the current existence of a dysfunctional democracy and the need for better checks and balances, then the idea of a united opposition, regardless of how much bad blood was spilled between opposition parties over various issues in the past, would be of paramount importance if one is to break the stranglehold of the incumbent party in government today.
Given recent events such as the Town Council’s losses and the huge paper losses sustained by GIC and Temasek Holdings as seen by the plunging share values of recent buys into UBS and Citibank, the need for a meaningful opposition has never been more pronounced.
If the various opposition parties such as the Workers’ Party, Singapore Democratic Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance can come to the negotiating table and discuss the possibilities of greater cooperation and even integration, the potency of the opposition would be considerably stronger. Singaporeans will be more convinced that the opposition is credible.
Surely Singapore does not need another tumultuous event like the Japanese Occupation to convince the opposition parties to unite and fight for better representation in government? If Hitler and Stalin, arch enemies and dictators of powerful nations, could unite to achieve their ends, surely our very own parties can unite to meet the pressing needs confronting our nation now.
For the sake of Singapore‘s future and its democracy, perhaps it is time they do.