Public pressure key to opposition working together

Dr James Gomez recently made a presentation at the 18 Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia. Dr Gomez’s presentation was titled, “Social Media and Opposition Parties: Networking for Singapore’s General Elections.” You can view the presentation here.

Dr Gomez, who contested the last General Elections in Singapore in 2006 under the Workers’ Party’s banner, is currently Deputy Associate Dean (International) and Head of Public Relations at Monash University.

The Online Citizen caught up with Dr Gomez and asked his views on the political scene in Singapore, in particular his take on the state of the opposition parties here.

TOC : Do you feel the opposition is more fragmented now or at least just as fragmented as say 20 years ago?

James Gomez (JG): The opposition has always been a collection of small groups around key individuals. Current configurations in the opposition landscape are no different. This is neither negative nor disadvantageous for the opposition movement in Singapore. In fact it allows more people to come onboard and be politically socialized into the opposition movement. It is important to take note that in one-party dominated electoral system this is the state of the opposition and such a situation is not unique to Singapore. Often, opposition parties eventually gain an upper hand when they work as a coalition to defeat the ruling regime.

TOC : Opposition parties have been saying that they will “work together”. But nothing concrete has been seen so far. Why do you think this is so?

JG: The opposition as movement has always worked together and there are numerous back door contacts among different individuals in the opposition. If you are talking about some kind of formal alliance, this will only occur when it is politically useful for the opposition, when there is public pressure and when the ruling party is on the verge of electoral defeat. Even then, it is the nature of politics that such alliances remain dynamic and in a state of constant flux.

TOC : Do you feel that the current leaders in opposition parties have too much baggage – of distrust and/or even personal dislikes of each other to be able to offer Singaporeans a true alternative? For example, Chiam sued the SDP; Low made some remarks which were interpreted as denigrating the SDP, in particular Dr Chee; Chia Ti Lik who is now one of the founders of the new Socialist Front had a falling out with Low’s WP; Goh Meng Seng, now sec gen of NSP, also left the WP; the recent saga between Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s Reform Party and Chiam’s SDA; Kenneth’s father; the unhappiness within the SDA – such as the PKMS fighting (literally!) among themselves, etc.

JG: You mention people that I know in the opposition movement hence it will be impolite for me to refer to any one individual or incident. But what I can say is that current leaders in the opposition are informed by their past experiences and these guide how they want to engage the PAP in the political landscape.  Again, without public pressure or clear electoral gain, opposition parties will not work together on their own accord to form a broad based alternative.

TOC : What would you like to see in terms of opposition youth wings, the next generation of leaders? How different do you think they are from their current leaders? Are they too much conformists? Is there an individual or individuals who stand out among the opposition youths for you?

JG: I would like to see opposition youth wing members to be more politically independent.  Most members of the youth wing to a large extent hold political values espoused by their party leaders. In that sense I don’t see them being very different from their current leaders.  Political parties being political parties usually don’t let strong leaders within the youth wing movement to emerge. This is to prevent the youth wing to be used as a base to challenge party leadership. Hence, youth wings of opposition parties are very much under the thumb. Where there are one or two key individuals these will be absorbed into the main party leadership.

TOC : What is your opinion of the new parties – Reform Party (which is 2 years old) and the two new ones: United Singapore Democrats and The Socialist Front?

JG: Opinions of new parties are usually formed after their showing in their first elections. So let us leave it as that for the moment. But some self-promotion by such parties in the run up to their first elections is to be logically expected.

TOC : Does the presence of these 3 new parties offer Singaporeans more genuine choices or are they more or less the same in terms of political philosophies and these parties are nothing more than perhaps an ego trip for their founders?

JG: Forming a party and being responsible for its upkeep is a financially and emotionally draining undertaking. So I would say that it is more than an ego trip. More parties mean more people, resources and ultimately more choices for Singaporeans. Because we have not reached saturation point for opposition participation in elections there is still room for more growth. Once all seats are contested by the opposition in elections, the laws of natural selection will determine the growth curve for the opposition movement.

TOC : The PAP has spent quite an amount of effort in trying to establishing an online presence, compared to the opposition (except perhaps the SDP). Why do you think the opposition is so slow in catching on, and do you see this as the opposition relinquishing online territory to the PAP (given that so far online commentators have been pro-opposition); or do you see the opposition parties as unsure about new media as the PAP?

JG: What the PAP, opposition and commentators often fail to understand is the internet is a niche medium. For the opposition the value of the internet lies in its ability to manage its reputation among its key networks and supporters. Platforms such as Facebook are currently being exploited by the opposition at the moment precisely for this end – ie recruiting key party workers.  But the challenge is still in offline politics, in particular how best to mobilize online political capital for offline political impact. Here the opposition parties clearly have the advantage.

TOC : Has the opposition grown in any substantial way in the last 20 or 30 years? If yes, what gave rise to it? If no, what do you think is the cause?

JG: Yes it has and it also has seen move turnover. More people have come onboard, they are willing to publicly identify with the opposition movement, provide resources to the cause and eventually move on. I attribute this partly to the internet and alternative political content that has helped more people socialize into opposition politics.

TOC : Do you think the opposition parties are in touch with what worry or what concern Singaporeans, such as job security or employment? There seems to be very little grassroots or on-the-ground interaction by the parties with ordinary Singaporeans – besides the parties selling their party newspapers on a weekly basis and perhaps, like the WP, some door-to-door activities?

JG: Yes they are, but whether they are clearly communicating it to the voters,  that is a different matter. What I would say is needed is more strategic communication and dialogue with the voters. Opposition parties need to go beyond selling party newspapers and door-to-door visits to talk about issues. I am well aware of the various laws that prevent opposition parties from doing just that. However more pressure is needed on this front to free up the communicative space.

TOC : What do you think is the one issue which will be the focus in the next elections?

JG: It will be the foreign worker issue but it will depend on who has the “balls” to bring it up. When this happens the PAP will go into negative campaigning of the party/candidates and distract voters from this campaign message. Ultimately voters have to decide which party will effectively represent them in parliament without fear or favour.

TOC : What would be your advice to the opposition, as far as the next elections are concerned?

JG: Knowing the opposition they will probably not take any advice as most will be convinced of their own political principles and strategy. If I say they don’t take advice, they will challenge it to say they do take advice. The only way you can really make the opposition movement listen is through public pressure.