The name, Chiam See Tong has been synonymous with Singapore politics for almost four decades, ever since he won the Potong Pasir seat at the General Elections held on 22 December 1984.
A Member of Parliament for Potong Pasir from 1984 to 2011, Mr Chiam See Tong became the Secretary-General of the Singapore Peoples Party (SPP) from December 1996 till the present day.
As he steps down as Secretary-General, handing over the reins at the party’s Ordinary Party Congress, it is perhaps timely that there is some form of reflection about the state of the SPP and also on its value proposition for Singapore politics today.
Who’s in line to take over?
If the SPP was a formidable party, there would have been a plethora of names which could have been put forward as its potential successors.
Good leadership means that leaders often spend time trying to groom its successors. Unfortunately, this is not something which the SPP has been able to do effectively, unfortunately.
Over the last 10 years, most news reports which came out of the SPP seem to be about the departure of party members.
For example, Desmond Lim who had supported Mr Chiam in the running of the Potong Pasir town council and the party’s grassroots, left in 2011, Benjamin Pwee who joined in 2011, left in January 2012 after the 2011 General Elections, and more recently, Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss also quit the party after about four years in the SPP. Others who have left include Alex Tan, Wilfred Leung and Hamim Aliyas.
News reports have indicated that Steve Chia and Jose Raymond appear to be in line as potential successors. Jose Raymond, who runs a communications firm, “Spin Worldwide” and was once Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s press secretary, joined the party in Oct 2017. Chia, a former non-Constituency MP from 2001 to 2006, joined the SPP about the same time Raymond joined the party.
Both have not indicated in public whether they would accept the nomination when the time comes even though they have been named as potential successors to Chiam. Chia said that he was ’surprised’ that he was even in contention and Raymond put up a post to share how he would always ‘pay it forward’ for the help which Chiam See Tong gave his family when he was a teenager.
What about Lina Chiam?
While the OPC has concluded on 16 October, it is still unknown if current Chairman Lina Chiam would also be handing over the reins of the Chairmanship.
Mrs Chiam, who had served as an NCMP from 2011 to 2015, has not made it public if she would also be stepping down from the position and if she would accept a role on the newly minted Central Executive Committee of the SPP. If Mrs Chiam does decide to step down, then it won truly mark the end of an era of Singapore politics, and with some quarters saying that it was overdue.
Based on the current line up of CEC members, there does not appear to be anyone else who has the calibre or the gravitas to hold any of the two top positions apart from Chia and Raymond.
What is the role of the SPP?
Since Chiam See Tong’s failure to win Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC with his bold move to move out of Potong Pasir and losing the SMC at the 2011 General Elections, it can be argued that the SPP has lost its relevance in Singapore’s current political landscape.
A glance at its website and Facebook pages show how the SPP has not been able to put forward any policy papers nor has it been able to hold a national conversation of any kind. Unlike the Workers Party and Singapore Democratic Party, the SPP has not even conducted policy discussion at the national level.
However, while it has not conducted any national-level discussions, what it has been effective at doing though is the ground offensive in Potong Pasir over the last few years.
Jose Raymond has been a familiar sight for the residents at Potong Pasir for the past few years with his walkabout at the SMC. He has also successfully helped a number of residents to resolve their problems which even the current MP was unable to do.
This achievement hasn’t been replicated in its other areas like Bishan-Toa Payoh, Mountbatten or even in Hong Kah North. In Bishan-Toa Payoh and Mountbatten, the SPP has conducted house to house visits but its status in Mountbatten is now somewhat at a loss because of Jeannette Chong’s departure from the party.
Perhaps it can also be viewed that the SPP’s focus has been to take the electoral battle right down to a municipal level, so that its candidate was able to connect with people of the district. However, it is not known how the SPP would react if Potong Pasir is wiped off the electoral boundaries. With about 16,000 registered voters, Potong Pasir falls short of the 20,000 threshold for a single member constituency.
Will SPP be part of a Tan Cheng Bock-led coalition?
As of now, it is unclear what is the SPP’s position. While Tan Cheng Bock has been since at a Workers’ Party dinner and has also entertained the Singapore Democratic Party at his home recently, it is relatively unclear what would be the strategy of the SPP in relation to its relationship with the rest of the political parties.
Recently, in a cryptic Facebook post, the SPP posted that it “the information on Singapore People’s Party not accepting Dr Tan Cheng Bock as leader of the opposition movement is unreliable.”
But a few days later, it stated in a response to a query that it was not conceding any of its areas to any political party, despite the departure of one of its potential candidates.
This is in conflict with its Facebook post as what would be the scenario if a Tan Cheng Bock-backed candidate decided to stand in Mountbatten? By not conceding the seat would be tantamount to the party not accepting Tan Cheng Bock as a leader of an opposition alliance.
Has the SPP’s time come and gone?
Like major brands or companies, the key to survival is the need to rejuvenate and to keep ahead of the curve.
Unfortunately, while the SPP may have been able to secure a good catch in its potential candidate in Potong Pasir and having a real chance at winning back the SMC for the party, the harsh reality could well be that its time is up because of its own failings over the years and its inability to attract good candidates with professional backgrounds.
With its limited resources, it does seem doubtful that the party will be able to secure much success with the wards that it has been eying on, particularly Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC with 126,462 registered voters where it only won 26.4% of the vote casted.
Strategically speaking, SPP ought to focus on winning back Potong Pasir (if it is absorbed into another GRC) and use it as a base to expand out if it has the ambition to do so just like how Workers’ Party had Hougang as a base to groom their grassroots leaders and volunteer base. Because if it fails to win back Potong Pasir and for three consecutive elections, it will definitely find itself fading into irrelevance as other political parties are moving ahead at their own speed, particularly with Progress Singapore Party’s rapid expansion of its member base and ability to contest at any wards.
While some have stated that SPP is a party that has outlived its time, but I believe with the right leadership and direction. SPP can relive its former glory and continue the legacy of Mr Chiam of fighting for the people because of his love of Singaporeans.