Will Dr Tan Cheng Bock play the role of Dr Mahathir in Singapore politics?

by Han Lang

Notwithstanding the public anger over rising costs and the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, there is no doubt that the presence of Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad in the opposition coalition helped to sway votes towards Pakatan Harapan (PH) on 9 May 2018.

In other words, had Dr Mahathir continued to support the then-Prime Minister Najib Razak (as he did at the 2013 polls) or even if he had campaigned as an opposition but not as a member of PH – like what Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) did, it would not have been possible for a new government to replace the 61-year-old ruling coalition of Barisan Nasional (BN).

The pro-establishment fans in Singapore would disagree but the reality is such that the ordinary man-in-the-street in Jurong shares the same frustration as his Malaysian friend from Johor. Whether one is in Kallang or in Kedah, he or she is today likely to be upset over rising costs as well as moves (such as GST introduction or hikes) which would only burden them further.

Beyond cost-related factors, are there not similarities between the leadership styles of certain ruling party politicians across both sides of the Causeway? What about arrangements made for political votes, such as gerrymandering? (Having said that, I reckon many of us would appreciate the 1 MP per Constituency voting system in  Malaysia – very unlike ours in which some may not even be clear if he is voting for the group of MPs or that specific incumbent MP who had served as his district lawmaker for the past five years? )

But are we likely to experience the political tsunami the way our friends from Malaysia had voted for in the near future?

I doubt so – unless one of these 3 developments take place.

1) The ruling party and several top politicians are charged with, or at least alleged to have been involved in, embezzlement of funds or corrupt activities – similar to the 1MDB scandal;
2) The ruling party splits into 2 camps – with the new “alternative” camp having the support of leading opposition parties; or
3) A kingmaker – someone who is able to bring the opposition camp together – arrives from nowhere.

For whatever reasons – including the point that we do not even know the amount of national reserves we have, the first factor is very unlikely.

The second factor was first raised many years ago by academics as a remote possibility, and more recently again by Mr Ho Kwon Ping.

But with the likes of highly-respected and, at the same time, intelligent leaders such as Mr George Yeo and DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam unlikely to ever make a bid to govern the country, this may seem just as impossible as the first.

Having said that, I would not rule out the possibility entirely – certainly not with the recent messages from former PM Goh Chok Tong. Like many of us, he seems to believe that the next leader should have been identified by now – although he was subsequently “rebuked” politely and indirectly and was described as someone who “is speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen”.  Would he now take up the challenge of making things happen?

To be fair to Mr Goh, I do believe he has an independent mind of his own. Sometime in the early 2000s, he was asked by a reporter on when he would step down for his successor to succeed him. I remember him replying that he, as the PM, would make the decision and would not be pressurized by anyone to do so.

More recently, Mr Goh also pointed to the age of Dr Mahathir – first after the latter won on 9 May, and again today when Mr Goh celebrated his birthday – which seems to suggest that there remains the spirit of fight within him (if necessary)!

His Facebook posting read: “Age is just a number, as Mahathir has proven. But it is family and friends who make that number light, meaningful and memorable. Thanks, all my friends out there. — gct”

It is a known fact that former presidential candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Mr Goh are close friends – from their days at Raffles Institution and later as golf buddies. Most of us would be happy to note that Dr Tan was, in fact, present at Mr Goh’s birthday celebration.

So, is there a possibility that Mr Goh may feel that the country needs to move in another direction and thereafter decide to bring together a group of like-minded individuals – possibly including Mr Yeo, DPM Tharman and Dr Tan – and field a team of some 20-25 candidates at the next GE?

Not enough numbers to form the next Government but there exists the possibility of a coalition if 1 or 2 opposition parties make huge gains as well.

Slim possibility but not impossible.

That brings me to the third factor – which is the likeliest.

That kingmaker has to be Dr Tan Cheng Bock.

For whatever reasons, many of us do not believe the Workers’ Party will forge a collaboration with the other credible parties such as Singapore Democratic Party for the next General Election.

This is a real pity – because the strong ground support and reputation of WP could, and should, be complemented by the SDP’s strengths in policy proposals.

With all due respect, parties or politicians who appear only a week before Nomination Day should play no role in any such talks of forming a coalition. How does one realistically expect to be elected if he or she has never visited a block of flats except during campaigning?

Throughout his political career, Dr Tan has demonstrated his independence and genuine concern for Singapore and Singaporeans, and he is probably the only person who can unite the opposition. Unity is important not so much to prevent 3-cornered fights – in which any fly-by-night politician can expect to lose his deposit – but more importantly to send a message to Singaporeans that this is a genuine alternative team which is ready to form the Government – the way PH did with so much success over the past one year.

Imagine an A+ team of Ms Slyvia Lim, Dr Chee Soon Juan, Prof Paul Tambyah and perhaps Mr Chen Show Mao taking on, say, the ruling party’s team in Nee Soon GRC? Or how about Dr Tan, Mr Pritam Singh, Ms Jaslyn Goh and Mr Leon Perera taking on a newly-assembled PAP team in Marine Parade GRC? How about Mr Muhamad Faisal, Dr Daniel Goh, Mr Tan Jee Say, Ms Lee Lilian and Mr Steve Chia gunning for Tanjong Pagar GRC?

The opposition coalition needs about 10 top and well-respected names as leaders so as to convince voters – many of whom are complaining 365 days per year for five years except on Polling Day during which they will cast a vote which goes against the spirit of their complaint(s) – to believe that a rainbow will form even if a genuine political tsunami strikes Singapore.

But how can we convince voters to believe so if they see major splits or differences in opinions and approaches between the major opposition parties? Or worse, top opposition leaders saying that opposition unity is impossible – without even attempts to do so!

Mr Chiam See Tong tried to achieve opposition unity with the formation of the Singapore Democratic Alliance but with all due respect, that did not succeed.

For voters to believe that an alternative government is not a distant dream and could be a reality, a unifying figure must emerge and work tirelessly behind the scenes.

It would not be easy – given the levels of egos among certain opposition personalities.

But it is the only way to effect change. And, only, change for the better. That is why the opposition coalition should include only serious, credible and committed individuals – and not fly-by-night political opportunists.

There is not much time left before the next GE is likely to be called – probably in May 2020. Work has to commence now; otherwise, the best result change advocates can hope for is a repeat of the 2011 election which, with the loss of six seats including 1 GRC by the PAP, is really no big deal to the ruling party as they continue to enjoy dominance in the legislature.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock became an MP about a year after Dr Mahathir was appointed the PM of Malaysia.

Both are medical doctors and who knows – perhaps both would leave a legacy in the political developments of their respective country by being the MAN who effected a change in government after six decades of one-party rule in each country?