A “GE2011 One Year On” special report
~ By Benjamin Cheah ~
In the 2011 General Elections, Chiam See Tong made his biggest gamble. The veteran politician ventured out of the traditional Singapore People’s Party (SPP) stronghold of Potong Pasir, leading a team to challenge then-Deputy Prime Minister in Bishan-Toa Payoh. Mr Chiam’s wife Lina stood in his stead, standing against Sitoh Yi Pin.
Chiam’s gamble backfired. Spectacularly.
Mr Chiam lost his bid in Bishan-Toa Payoh. Mrs Chiam lost to Sitoh Yi Pin by 114 votes. In January, six prominent members of the Singapore People’s Party resigned. The only glimmer of a silver lining is Mrs Chiam’s appointment as a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament.
In hindsight, the SPP had to fail. As discussed in my article on 7 April 2011, its campaign strategy basically banked on Mr Chiam’s brand name. Unlike other parties, it focused more on promoting personalities (primarily Mr Chiam’s) than proposing policies, and what policies the party did state during the rallies were given minimal attention and lacked focus.
Mr Chiam’s brand is intrinsically tied to his efforts in Potong Pasir. It is not easily transferrable to Mrs Chiam: for all her years of supporting Mr Chiam, she is still a newcomer to Singapore’s politics and is still untested and unproven when compared to Mr Chiam. When Mr Chiam went to Bishan-Toa Payoh, much of his brand power was diluted, and had to rely on what he did at the national level. It was clearly not enough.
The combination of poor strategy, electoral defeat and bloodletting has effectively neutered the party. Between now and the next general elections, Mr Chiam’s brand power would be further diluted, even more now that he does not have a formal voice in Parliament. He, and by extension the party, can no longer count on appealing to support from the ground to carry the day. To remain relevant, the SPP needs to re-brand itself as a national party on equal footing with opposition parties -- and the People’s Action Party.
If handled properly, the SPP’s electoral defeat could be the catalyst the SPP needs for renewal. With Mr Sitoh handling the day-to-day running of Potong Pasir, the party can focus their time and energies on developing public policy, re-branding and recruitment.
To its credit, the SPP seems to have learned from its defeat.
Mrs Chiam, in her capacity as NCMP, participates actively in Parliamentary discussions. As the Party’s sole representative in Parliament, she has the dual role of being the SPP’s public face and advocating the SPP’s policy positions in Parliament. Regular engagement would keep her, and the party, in the public eye. The Online Citizen routinely publishes her speeches for our readers -- but that is not enough. For the mainstream media to pay attention to her, she will need to keep herself in the public eye and keep engaging in Parliament and beyond. While she still works mainly in Potong Pasir, she needs to see herself not just as the municipal custodian in waiting, but as a stateswoman who represents the people’s voice.
Mr Chiam, while no longer a Member of Parliament, still carries weight in the public arena. His greatest assets are his tenacity, intelligence, and wealth of experience. As reported in TOC, Mr Chiam spoke at length about Singapore’s Central Provident Fund scheme during the SPP’s launch of its financial literacy programme. (http://theonlinecitizen.com/2012/04/chiam-see-tong-government-treats-cpf-as-a-business/) Mr Chiam would likely have insights on other issues as well. I would not be surprised if he helped Mrs Chiam with her speeches, the way she used to help him with his. He is the SPP’s greatest asset, and should be employed to the fullest of his abilities -- not just as a representative of Potong Pasir, but a representative of Singapore. It seems the SPP is taking steps towards this with Mr Chiam’s speech.
In its election manifesto, the SPP wanted to raise six issues for national dialogue: cost of living, influx of foreigners, public transport, public housing ageing population and public accountability. Mrs Chiam in Parliament has tried to do this wherever possible, by raising questions and commenting on speeches. While this is commendable, it is not enough. Currently, Mrs Chiam is mainly responding to proposals and speeches made by other MPs, or participating in debates organised by someone else. In such contexts, the SPP’s agenda can be overshadowed by everybody else. While it is unrealistic to expect the SPP to dominate the national discourse, at some point Mrs Chiam must start being proactive in Parliament. That way, she will have a better chance of commanding media attention, and further developing the SPP’s brand.
That said, the SPP seems to be raising these issues outside of Parliament. It is also moving away from the Chiam- and Potong Pasir-centric strategy of the previous GE. In March, the SPP held a job fair at Sennett Estate. (http://www.spp.org.sg/job-fair-for-singaporeans-17-18-march/) Its Financial Literacy Awareness Programme started on April 15. (http://theonlinecitizen.com/2012/04/public-forum-and-launch-of-the-spp-financial-literacy-awareness-programme/) Both activities, while held in Potong Pasir, were open to all Singaporeans and addressed some of Singapore’s major bread-and-butter issues.
While helping people meet their needs, the activities would reinforce pro-SPP ground sentiment in Potong Pasir and simultaneously spread the message that the SPP wants to help all people with their problems -- not just those in Potong Pasir. This may signal a shift in strategy, encompassing both Potong Pasir and the rest of Singapore. By regularly starting and maintaining such initiatives, the SPP would demonstrate an ability to help people in practical ways, not merely by raising issues in Parliament. Continuing this strategy would help to cement the SPP in the national consciousness -- in addition to aiding people. The SPP’s efforts in Potong Pasir would also naturally be compared to Mr Sitoh’s; it may be a sign that the SPP is laying the groundwork to contest Mr Sitoh in the next GE.
The SPP has been dealt a very poor hand, and it is doing what it can with what people and resources it has left. The SPP appears to be taking baby steps towards renewal. While it is still too early to make out the shape of the SPP’s long-term strategy, the SPP is steadfastly refusing to fade into the ash heap of history.