The opposition parties must look within, rather than outside
At the start of 2009, TOC published an article “The opposition in 2009 – time to get united”, and the writer Mr Andrew Loh expressed his desire for a more united opposition to ‘speak for them (Singaporeans)’. Coincidentally, on 7 February, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) is organizing a forum “Opposition – Where To?”, and they are inviting opposition parties as well as the public. Yet Mr Loh’s wish will remained unfulfilled.
The other opposition parties, the Workers' Party (WP), the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) and the National Solidarity Party, are not sending formal representatives, citing a variety of reasons (or no reason), from having to attend grassroots events to work commitments overseas. The opposition may not be united, but their most serious flaw is a lack of political viability.
“Political viability” can refer to “a capability to develop and expand; ability to influence; practicality and utility”. Political parties, especially the opposition, must be able to develop and expand like a business organization – increasing their membership, greater scope and focus of activities and more importantly, marketable products: their policies. The WP proved its confidence and leadership in the 2006 elections by presenting a series of young candidates, who looked similar to the People's Action Party's (PAP) and attracted more than its fair share of mainstream media attention. Their ability to renew its leadership smoothly is a sign of internal strength, surely an essential component for growth.
However, the performance of the remaining parties has been dismal. The SDP’s secretary-general, Dr Chee Soon Juan, has a stained trail of civil disobedience acts, imprisonments, defamation suits and electoral losses behind him. While the SDP is still surviving, it suffers from a reputation ruined beyond repair, as most Singaporeans are averse to Dr Chee’s confrontational tactics, and remain skeptical of the SDP’s goals. This is hindering their potential for growth. It may attract a small group of hardcore supporters, but simply cannot move beyond that, if it wishes to succeed politically.
Listen to us, please?
Next, political parties must have the ability to influence the public or the governing party, and that means achieving a degree of credibility or authority, such that people will sit up and listen. Of the major opposition parties, it seems none can claim to be an expert on issues such as economics, healthcare or education, though they have their respective stands. While they have their party manifestos outlining their visions for everything relevant, they have failed to influence the public or the government. Part of the reason is unfair media coverage, but the opposition parties have themselves to blame for poor proposals too.
The two long-serving opposition MPs, the WP's Mr Low Thia Khiang and the SDA's Mr Chiam See Tong, have mainstream media publicity for challenging government policies and offering alternatives. However, while Mr Low has built up a credible ‘alternative party’ through leadership renewal and internal organization, Mr Chiam has allowed the SDA to stagnate. Little comes from the SDA, despite it being an opposition alliance of four parties initially, now three. The SDP has a long wish-list, including its recent alternative Budget, which is economically unsound and unsustainable. The opposition parties must do more to develop their credibility, if they wish to influence the public.
Finally, opposition parties must be of utility to the electorate, appealing to a wide spectrum of voters to win seats, as political power is ultimately granted at the ballot box. The name of the WP is a misnomer; it does not directly represent workers and its present leadership is mostly drawn from the professional class. However, judging from the 2006 elections, it has some appeal from the population, accounting for its status as the best-performing opposition party. While the SDA only won one seat, it drew comparable results in the GRCs and SMCs. Only the SDP did not perform well, and one of its leaders, Ms Chee Siok Chin, challenged the validity of election results in court.
Only young ones need apply
Though none of the opposition parties managed to capture the ‘big one’ in the previous election, the WP was surprisingly close, despite the presence of Mr George Yeo, a heavyweight minister. The WP has sworn to continue ‘working the ground’, and its efforts will be seen in the next election.
It has been noted many times that the next election will have two significant changes – more than half of the electorate will be born after independence, and New Media will have changed substantially by then, even in a space of just 2 years. Presently, only the SDP has made good use of New Media to publicize itself, but it seems to be more interested in reaching out to Barack Obama or showing off its leaders in court trials.
Ideally, the opposition parties should create a heavy Net presence using social networking tools, podcasting, videos and blogging. The Internet costs little, and generates much publicity. If directed properly, it may force the reluctant mainstream media to pick up the news. Furthermore, it appeals to the younger voters who are more IT-savvy and willing to read/hear/watch alternative news.
The opposition parties should take the lead of the WP by renewing their leadership and recruiting fresh and young members. They should take care to pick young leaders who may resemble PAP candidates in some aspects, and most importantly, appeal to most Singaporeans. These Young Turks must be able to create credible and relevant proposals, if they are to influence voters. Yet doing all these will be tough, if the party itself lacks strong leadership and good organization.
While the opposition parties lack political viability, they are not at the point of no return. The WP has poised itself as the leading opposition party, with anticipations of a better performance in the next election. If other parties were to stand a chance, they ought to reorganize themselves, revamp their image and offer better proposals. Unless they do so, they will head for political stagnation or worse, obliteration, no matter how much opposition unity they talk of.
The writer also blogs at: http://www.eternal-hap.blogspot.com/
The SDP-organised forum, Opposition – Where To?, will be held as follows:
Date: 7 Feb 09, Saturday
Time: 2-5 pm
Venue: Copthorne Orchid Hotel, 214 Dunearn Road