Update: National Solidarity Party has elected it’s members for the Party’s 14th CEC. Sebastian Teo remains the President. Hazel Koon Koon Poa is elected secretary-general. CEC members are: Christopher Neo, Gan Theng Wei, Ivan Yeo, Jeannette Chong Aruldoss, Kwan Yue Keng, Nicole Seah, Noraini Bte Yunus, Raymond Lim, Reno Fong, Steve Chia, Syafarin Bin Sarif, Tan Chee Kien and Tony Tan Lay Thiam.
Mr Goh Meng Seng stepped down from his post as Secretary General of the National Solidarity Party this morning.
The following is an interview conducted last Monday with the former Sec-Gen as part of The Online Citizen’s post-elections focus on opposition parties. It was only towards the end of the 40-minute interview that Goh Meng Seng revealed his decision to step down.
While this in itself would have been news, we decided to wait for official confirmation before publishing. And while readers would no doubt be anxious to know Mr Goh’s reasons for stepping down, we have decided to retain the interview – with minor editing – as it was recorded, leaving his explanation towards the end. (Interview by Joshua Chiang)
So what has NSP (National Solidarity Party) been up to lately?
A lot of activities are happening in Marine Parade and Mountbatten. Certain projects have been held back at the moment because of the OPC – Ordinary Party Congress.
Did you see an increase in membership after the GE?
A lot of younger volunteers are coming forward. That’s surprising. There’s still some skepticism but they are willing to open their ears and keep an open mind. And if they feel comfortable, they will volunteer for activities on the ground.
Are you satisfied with the General Elections results?
I am not satisfied as long as we do not have a seat in Parliament. But there are consolations from the results.
Does the failure of NSP to win a single seat in Parliament had anything to do with the strategies you adopt, namely the minister-specific strategy and the setting up of the Malay Bureau?
The Minster-specific strategy works, but at the expense of ideology or the lack of it. Ideology as in political ideology. That is something that has to give when using this strategy. I would agree that an ideology of any kind will be important for the next election. Having said that, most political parties in Singapore, including the PAP do not have a clear ideology. What these parties have are themes, a campaigning theme, and not an ideology.
Our problem was that we compromised on the theme of our campaign. The core theme. We do have a theme, but it was not explain properly. But in terms of effectiveness, the minister-specific strategy did help. If we look at the GRCs (Group Represention Constituencies) that performed well, it is actually based on performance of ministers. Particularly in Marine Parade, for example where you have Goh Chok Tong. And Tampines. (Where former Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan is the incumbent MP) We were not able to dislodge them but the Prime Minister ultimately decided to retire them. So it was a partial success, I should say.
As for the Malay Bureau, we did not put much emphasis on it during the campaign but generally speaking, the main swing of the voters was from the Malay community, for many other reasons.
Some of the comments from the PAP leaders. Also, because of the FT (Foreign Talent) policy which affects them more than anyone else.
You have been going on about housing policy for the last two, three years. Why do you think that you were still unable to dislodge Mah Bow Tan?
When you look at the demographics of Tampines GRC, you will realize that it is a strong fortress to begin with. 32 % are live in 5-room flats. And the middle-aged flat owners have interest in maintaining the status quo, such as the high pricing of flats in the resale market. That’s the reason voters were not convinced. And the prices of flats there are higher than elsewhere in Singapore. These are the factors that affected voters’ inclination.
Do you think that you would have won at least one GRC if you have put your candidates with the strongest credentials – such as Tony Tan, Hazel Poa and Jeanette Chong Aruldoss , or the most popular, such as Nicole Seah – in the same team?
Initially a lot of people thought this was so. For the last few weeks, I received feedback from some of our observers, that if we had put Nicole Seah somewhere else (instead of contesting in Marine Parade), the contrast between Nicole and Ting Pei Ling might not be so magnified. So, it’s on hindsight, that we thought Nicole’s popular, that’s why we put her there. But the observers said that it’s because she’s in Marine Parade that’s why she became popular.
With Tony and Hazel, I really don’t know. They have been working in Chua Chu Kang (when they were with the Reform Party) so that’s the reason they want to go back there. That’s their first preference. They got 39% of the votes; quite respectable for first timers trying in a GRC. It seems that voters were not really taking into account that they were scholars. Some scholars did well not because they were scholars but because they were grouped with someone with a higher exposure. Like the case of Aljunied. You have a scholar – Chen Show Mao – and when combined with known entities like Low Thia Kiang and Sylvia Lim, it will definitely add value. But when you ask a scholar to fight on his own with a strong leader with a good public image, I think 39% is about the range. Whether if I would have won had Tony and Hazel contested with me in Tampines, I am not very sure.
Do you think the media attention given to Nicole Seah, overshadowed the NSP’s campaign message?
To a certain extent, yes. But having said that, the core message of the party was delivered by Nicole quite well. As to whether the individual branding is more important than the party branding, there’s still a debate going on.
Your brother David Goh passed away at the start the campaigning period. How did that affect your campaign?
I was torn between my vision of public service and the death of family member, especially when this family member was helping me. It was difficult for me and also for my teammates. We shed a tear or two during the campaign but we had to soldier on. If it wasn’ for my brother’s help – He was also my election agent in 2006, – I wouldn’t have come so far in the process.
During the campaign, there were residents coming up to shake our hands, offering condolences. I appreciate that very much. I think Singaporeans are in general a very kind people. I like to thank them for that. Even though we did not win, I think this showed the true spirit of Singaporeans.
Let’s move on to another topc. The new National Development Minister has been very active addressing some of the housing issues. What do you think of these changes so far?
I think these are cosmetic. To certain extent, populist.
As long as u don’t address the fundamental pricing mechanism, the problems of debt, the young people will still face the same problem. It will be fluctuating for younger generation. Is it fair for different young people of different generation to face different pricing just because they are born in a wrong time frame?
Number two- I think it’s easy to say you want to build this many flats within this many years, but for a minister who took ten years to build one hospital, I do not know if they can keep up with the promise. It’s a lot of construction to begin with. Also there are competing resources in terms of sand. The reason why HDB has not been building so many flats between 2005-8 is because of competing resources, directed to casino building, they neighboring countries were banning sand from being exported to Singapore. Now they have another problem. They want to solve both transport and housing problems. Transport – they have to build a train network. Whether we can cope with it within these 5 years I am doubtful. Not just about money, it’s about building resources, where to get the sand.
Do you see the housing bubble bursting in the near future?
I’m more worried about the housing bubble bursting than the pricing mechanism. Cost price (of building a flat) will go up but a bubble will go far beyond the costing of building a flat. Now, we have low interest rate and high liquidity, and we also have lots of PR (Permanent Residents) who are buying resale flats, which affect the new flats’ pricing because of the pricing mechanism link. In the next 6 months, there will be two time bombs. First, the US dollar. As the world reserve curreny, will it stay if the US Government has difficult repaying the treasury bonds? Next are the peaks in Euorpe- whether it will lead to a financial crisis bigger than the one triggered by the Lehman Brothers’ collapse. There will be a sudden vacuum in the financial order. If that happens, all the value will come down and create a crash. But even if the bubble does not detonate, but the pricing mechanism problem remains together with low interest rates, we will face higher pricing and inflation in the long run.
This GE has been described as watershed. Do you agree?
Yes. Because a GRC has been breached. There’s a lot of implications. Both for the ruling party and the opposition. For the reigning party: How are you going to convince people to join your ranks when there’s no certainty (of winning a seat)? In the past you increase minister’s pay to attract talents. Now you are cutting ministers’ pay and there’s no certainty of keeping the minister. That’s one.
Secondly, once you lose a GRC how are you going to take it back? It took 20 years for the PAP to win back an SMC (Single-member Constituency). For the GRC, which minister is going to take the lead? If they are going to send a minister how are they going to win? So they are going to face more problems than us.
For opposition group there are also challenges. Inter-party dynamics will change. More three-cornered fight will come up. And are we going to evolve into a two-party system? I am more optimistic that the multi-party system will stay.
Following the elections, pap has come out to say it is reforming. Do you think fundamentally it will change? Or it’s basically the same party with a softer face?
Human behavior is hard to change in a short period of time. I believe there are some very nice people in the PAP who are willing to change. The majority will not change much, they are used to the mechanism, the advantage of grassroots organization, etc.
So what do you think Singapore’s political culture will be like in the next five years?
Active citizenry will increase. And I believe this trend will go on. The number of active citizens have multiplied during this GE. In due course it will not be about the PAP and the opposition as a whole. It will be more discretional- the people will go through a more discerning process. It will be more about which party or person you trust. This is a sign of a matured democracy in the making, where people don’t voting blindly, either for or againt the PAP. It’s more like whether you trust this party or this candidate the party is putting up. It’s promising in that sense.
In an interview with TOC last year, you mentioned that you may end your political career and move back to Hong Kong should you fail to win a seat in this GE. Is that option still on the cards?
Moving back to Hong Kong to my family is always on my mind. I will be very upfront about it. In politics, you win some and lose some, but you have only one family. This is something close to heart but whether the timing is right, that’s another matter.
But I have decided to step down as Secretary General (of NSP). Although I have said that I will leave the party to decide. But I think it’s about time to restructure the whole party. Along with that, I don’t want to be seen as undermining the new leadership. I will take a sabbatical at least for the next two years from partisan politics and try something else.
Why are you leaving now when it is probably the best time to be in the opposition?
I walked into partisan politics with two things in mind. To break into a GRC. Because I believe that when u break one or two, the PAP will face a lot of problem, and probably change the system because they cannot afford to lose two, three ministers. They cannot afford it and it’s not good for Singapore as well. This aim is now accomplished, though not by myself but by the Workers’ Party. It’s not so much about me wanting to be in parliament. Whoever’s in parliament is a process of democracy Most important is that this is an unfair system and we want to change it. So now someone has achieved it and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
Secondly, the housing problem. I went through through the 1997 financial crisis, the 1999 and 2003 housing bubbles. Even as young undergrad when they started the asset enhancement scheme. I was against it. It took me thirty years to fight this issue effectively. At least I can say that one minister loses his job because of this and they will make real changes instead of cosmetic changes.
I feel I have achieved the two main missions in my political career, and it’s time to move on.
You feel that the party doesn’t need your leadership anymore?
There are already good people coming forward. They can bring the party forward. I should have confidence in that. Many people think I am power-hungry, but that’s not the case.
What will you do next?
Having fought for democracy and partisan politics for the last ten years, I am still interested in promoting the universal core values of democracy, social justice, freedom and human rights. You seldom hear me talk about human rights but this is something that always on my mind. But the Singapore political culture doesn’t allow me to talk about human rights, or rather it is ineffective if your aim is to win the trust of your voters. But if I am not going to be involved in partisan politics anymore, I would like to be involved in an NGO (Non-government organization) that promotes human rights, or be helping political refuges and providing asylum, etc.
One last question. You changed your Facebook name to “Goh Meng Seng Freedom”. Is there any special significance?
Freedom has two meanings. Freedom to do what I want for the next phase beside fixing my eyes on Tampines, And two, to pursue freedom on behalf of other people as an NGO.
The Online Citizen would like to thank Mr Goh for his support throughout the years, and wishes him all the best in his future endeavours.