by Augustine Low
The Workers’ Party’s (WP) trump card has for a long time been that they are a check on the People’s Action Party (PAP).
The WP has said many times that they are not looking to dislodge the PAP and form the government. So keeping checks and balances on the PAP has been their biggest value add and selling point.
But the WP now finds itself in a precarious position. The PAP has been trying to turn the tables on them.
The turning point came after the 2020 general election. The WP captured another GRC while the PAP suffered its worst electoral performance since independence.
Pritam Singh was then designated Leader of the Opposition. While hailed as a positive move by many, it can now be seen as a sleight of hand by the PAP.
With that move, the PAP started turning the tables on the WP – show us what you’ve got, they say, since you are the official leader now, give us your proposals, give us your ideas for us to evaluate, prove that you are a credible and worthy opposition.
A sly switch – from the WP checking the PAP to the PAP checking the WP.
The WP can say that they have been checking the PAP, and it’s true they have asked many hard questions in Parliament that PAP MPs would never ask. The WP can say they have produced sound proposals and closely scrutinised the PAP’s actions and positions in Parliament.
But the perception is that the WP has increasingly become a party more under scrutiny than scrutiniser, more under check than checker.
If you follow recent narratives, the PAP is already playing out its election strategy. They are painting the WP as:
• the party that switches positions without admitting it – on key issues such as public housing and GST
• the party of opportunists out to appeal to voters through populist means
• the party that conveniently stays on the sidelines to offend no one and appease everyone, non-committal on controversial issues like the repeal of 377A
• the party of no good ideas and no concrete alternatives
The harsh reality is that the WP can come up with the best proposals but the moment they press the send button, the PAP can always hit the delete button. Nothing to see! Nothing to consider!
The WP cry foul, they can declare they have not flipped flopped, they can show proof, they can ask for evidence, they can ask for constructive debate and fair contest.
But the PAP being the PAP, they will stick to their talking points in branding the WP – let’s be honest about it, they will say, there’s no shame in admitting you have shifted positions, there’s no shame in admitting you have been wrong, there’s nothing you have proposed that are worthy of consideration.
The WP finds itself increasingly on the back foot, having to defend its past and current stance on GST and public housing.
The WP has to frequently answer to the PAP whether they are for party or for country. The same question is seldom (if at all) asked by the WP of the PAP.
And this, perhaps is the crux of the issue.
The WP has been walking a tightrope, at times making its opposition and dissent clear, at times showing deference to the PAP. If anything, the WP goes out of its way to be more nuanced, more tactful, more politically correct than the PAP.
The WP has largely allowed the PAP to dictate what constitutes a constructive and credible opposition, which is like letting your boxing opponent decide how and when you should throw punches.
The WP has shown a willingness to bite only after being bitten.
Very often, taking two steps forward, two steps back. Kind of passive-aggressive, you might say.
As things stand, police investigations into Pritam Singh’s conduct in relation to the Raeesah Khan affair are ongoing. He is still not out of the woods.
Walking that tightrope of trying to check the PAP without being too combative and confrontational has not shielded the WP from being branded opportunistic and populist, and has not stopped Pritam Singh from potentially getting into deep water.
Still, we must recognise that the WP has been the most successful opposition party in the past few decades and they ought to know what they are doing.
But the nagging feeling is that at some point, they might have to risk more and bare their fangs more, they might have put on their combat gear and go to battle ready to get bruised and battered.
They could lose the battle but win the war. They remain the best hope for many Singaporeans.