Sunday, 13 January 2013

WP rebuffs SDP's joint campaign proposal

SDP proposes joint campaign with WP for Punggol East
By Amir Hussain, TODAY, 12 Jan 2013

The Punggol East contest heated up yesterday, with more turning up to collect nomination forms from the Elections Department, and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) making an unusual proposal to the Workers' Party (WP), which was roundly denounced by political observers.

SDP Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan proposed that the two parties run a joint campaign and field a "unity candidate" from the SDP, in the "spirit of compromise and cooperation".

"If victorious, the SDP candidate will enter Parliament and the WP will run the Punggol East Town Council," he said at a press conference yesterday evening.

Dr Chee said the "win-win situation" would lay the ground for a larger opposition representation at the next General Election.

By running the town council, the WP "would have added clout in their town council management and access to the Punggol East grassroots network". The SDP, meanwhile, would be able to table and debate the Government on its alternative policies.

Dr Chee said he had emailed the SDP's proposal to the WP, inviting it to a meeting today. "I'm under no illusion that there are differences in our approach, even in some of our policies … but we also have some things in common," he said.

Asked if the proposal was about preserving the SDP's interest, Dr Chee said: "If it was really preserving in the SDP's interest, we would be having this deal very favourable to the SDP. But we've said already … cut it down the middle, both parties give … we can't have everything."

Responding to media queries, the WP said it has noted the SDP's proposal. "Our focus continues to be fulfilling our promise to offer a choice to voters in Punggol East," said WP Media Chair Gerald Giam.

Describing the move as "the politics of desperation", National University of Singapore Associate Professor Bilveer Singh felt the SDP's communication with the WP through public channels "shows the sorry state of affairs of SDP's communications with other parties".

Said Singapore Management University Assistant Professor Eugene Tan: "It's laughable ... they want to be the third opposition party in Parliament, but they don't want ... the hard work of running the town council."

He also noted the unfeasibility of the proposal: "Let's say Punggol East is poorly managed, not cleaned properly. The SDP MP, if elected, is going to say, 'look it's not my fault, if you're not happy go and look for the WP'."

Institute of Policy Studies Senior Research Fellow Gillian Koh said: "I cannot imagine (WP) taking up this high-risk strategy of not only having to work among different personalities but parties and clearly, culture, and yet deliver in terms of all that is expected that an MP should do."

Meanwhile, Hougang MP Png Eng Huat of the WP collected one set of nomination forms, accompanied by WP Organising Secretary and Deputy Chairman of the Aljunied Constituency Committee Ng Swee Bee, at the Elections Department yesterday afternoon.

TODAY understands that the WP is waiting for party Chairman Sylvia Lim to return from an overseas trip this morning before deciding on by-election matters.

Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam submitted his application for a Political Donation Certificate and said he was in talks with the WP, but did not give details.

Mr Richard Ang, a Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) volunteer, told reporters he was collecting four sets of papers on behalf of SDA chief Desmond Lim, who yesterday evening attended a barbecue party organised by the Punggol East Residents Movement at the constituency, supported by the SDA.

Mr Mohamad Hamim Aliyas, a former member of the Singapore People's Party, collected one set of forms for another former member of the party, Mr Benjamin Pwee, who has indicated interest in standing as an independent candidate.

People's Action Party MP Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC) picked up a set of forms, while his party's candidate, Mr Koh Poh Koon, said on his Facebook page that he had met the Housing and Development Board on the Rivervale Plaza upgrading issue.

WP rebuffs SDP's joint campaign proposal
By Tessa Wong & Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 12 Jan 2013

The Workers' Party (WP) said on Saturday it will stick to its own plans to contest in Punggol East, in response to a proposal from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) to field a "unity candidate" for the by-election.

"The Workers' Party has noted SDP's proposal. Our focus continues to be fulfilling our promise to offer a choice to voters in Punggol East," said WP media team chair Mr Gerald Giam in a short e-mailed answer to The Straits Times early Saturday morning.

The party was responding to a proposal tabled by SDP on Friday to conduct a joint campaign where a SDP candidate would be fielded.

If elected, he would push SDP policies in Parliament and chair the town council, while the WP would run the council's daily operations.

This is the second time WP has rebuffed SDP's advances.

Earlier in the week, the SDP had asked to meet the WP to discuss how to avoid a three-cornered fight, to which WP chairman Sylvia Lim said her party would contest in the election.

The SDP's proposal drew flak from netizens yesterday, who left comments on the SDP's website and Facebook pages criticising the idea as unfairly benefitting SDP.

"If elected, the SDP MP gets a seat and the WP does the work. Please educate me as to how this is a 'compromise'," said one netizen called UncleJames Lee on SDP's Facebook page.

The SDP defended its proposal last night in a comment on its website, saying it would add another party's voice to Parliament.

"The reason why we proposed such an arrangement is that WP already has MPs in Parliament. An MP from the SDP would add another party's voice to the debate.

"That said, this is a proposal. We would be happy to discuss alternative arrangements. The important point is that SDP and WP should talk and work things out in the spirit of compromise and cooperation to avoid a three-corner fight," it said.

The WP could reveal its candidate for Punggol East as early as Saturday. Party insiders have tipped Mr Giam, its Non-Constituency MP, as the front runner.

Torn between contest and cooperation
By Zuraidah Ibrahim, The Straits Times, 11 Jan 2013

DR CHEE Soon Juan did a curious thing yesterday by making public three e-mailed invitations that his Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) had sent to the Workers' Party (WP).

He revealed that WP chairman Sylvia Lim had rejected the SDP's call for talks to avoid a three-cornered fight in the Punggol East by-election.

The party's secretary-general Low Thia Khiang indicated a similar reluctance to negotiate when a Straits Times reporter asked him on Wednesday night if he was going to do whatever he could to ensure a straight fight.

He replied: "I am not able to answer that question, because the question doesn't bank on the Workers' Party or me. We contested the ward in the last election, and when the seat became vacant, we made it known that we are ready to offer a choice to the voters of Punggol East. We have made that clear."

And so it appears that Singapore's largest opposition party is immoveable in its decision.

Interestingly, WP and SDP have never collided in a multi-cornered fight. They came closest to doing so in the 1992 Marine Parade GRC by-election. That year, erstwhile SDP leader Chiam See Tong rolled out its star catch - one Dr Chee Soon Juan. Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam's WP team refused to give way but on Nomination Day, they appeared late and ostensibly without the proper papers. Charade or not, a WP-SDP fight was conveniently avoided.

Although anything can happen between now and Nomination Day, there is little sign that the opposition will succeed in engineering a straight fight with the PAP, which realistically is the only way the ward can be prised from the ruling party's hands on Jan 26.

This will disappoint voters who are keen to see the opposition presence in Parliament grow. To them, Mr Michael Palmer's resignation was a windfall, and the prospect of a multi-cornered fight will mean a wasted opportunity.

But getting the opposition to cooperate is easier said than done. Anyone familiar with their past and present dynamics would realise that there are both personal and strategic reasons that make the parties behave this way.

On the one hand, the WP clearly believes that it has the greatest chance of winning the seat. If it fields one of its two Non-Constituency MPs, it would mean having a candidate who had come closer to victory in 2011 than anyone else.

It also believes it has a prior claim as it ran in Punggol East before, never mind that it had then brushed aside the smaller Singapore Democratic Alliance, which had been tilling the ground there.

On the other hand, other parties would not want to give the impression that they recognise the WP as the godfather of the opposition, just because it is currently the only party with elected MPs.

Even if they ultimately back off, it is rational for them to extract some concessions first, rather than cede ground unilaterally. SDP chairman Jufrie Mahmood - a seasoned opposition hand - hinted as much when he said any SDP stand-down should "open the way" for future pacts.

Indeed, this is probably why the SDP is publicising its rebuffed overtures to the WP. It reasons that the more the public questions the WP's right to represent the opposition in the by-election, the more pressure it will feel to come to the bargaining table and accept some compromise in return for a straight fight with the PAP.

Personality politics is also a factor. A number of SDP veterans, for example, were emigres from the WP camp. Several defected en masse when the WP was under the mercurial leadership of Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam. The Low Thia Khiang era has also seen defections to the SDP.

So, those voters wishing that these two parties would be able to put aside their grievances are asking for a lot.

Each party has developed its own very distinct identity and approach, appealing to very different segments of voters.

Mr Low, as Mr Jeyaretnam's lieutenant, witnessed up close the exacting costs of confrontational opposition. He saw the WP demolished through multiple legal battles. The WP he has rebuilt is methodical, careful to a fault, demanding discipline and secrecy of the Masonic kind. It is not one to be caught off-kilter, its Yaw Shin Leong fiasco notwithstanding.

Mr Low's strategy is to secure not just the opposition base, which hovers typically at around 25 per cent to 30 per cent of the vote, but also to court the middle ground.

Even as its critics scoff at it for being a "PAP Lite", Mr Low is unlikely to veer off this path, since it has delivered the results that other opposition parties can only envy.

In contrast, the SDP has championed an array of issues more to the left of the political spectrum, from the death penalty to the plight of foreign workers and the Internal Security Act. It pursues issues of conscience, even if most voters do not seem as seized by them.

Once the biggest opposition party, with three seats compared with Mr Low's solitary seat back in 1991, the SDP has spent the last 15 years in the electoral wilderness.

Despite claims to the contrary, Dr Chee at 51 may be looking at the SDP's electability, no longer content to push issues without any electoral dividend. The civil disobedience tactics have been shelved. The SDP recently crafted two policy papers on housing and health care, investing resources into thinking of policy reform.

For all these reasons, it is not about to roll over easily in this by-election. The WP may reject the SDP's overtures now, but it may have to ask itself at what price, come 2016. Will it be outflanked and hemmed in then, not just by the SDP, but even others lurking bitterly in the wings?

All in all, Punggol East is a battle to watch, not just as a gauge of the PAP's performance post-scandal. It will offer early signs of how opposition leaders are positioning for 2016.

East-west divide and the opposition dilemma
Other parties wary of letting WP grow unbridled in east
By Kor Kian Beng, The Straits Times, 12 Jan 2013

FOR the Workers' Party (WP), the Punggol East by-election is not just an opportunity to have another elected Member of Parliament, or to gauge the opposition party's progress since the 2011 General Election.

It also views the single-seat ward as a must-contest territory that would help realise the party's masterplan to conquer the eastern parts of Singapore.

Achieving synergy and economies of scale between neighbouring constituencies under WP's control are two key factors driving the ambitious plan.

It reportedly began as early as 2001 when then Hougang MP and WP chief Low Thia Khiang took the helm of the party and started eyeing the adjacent Aljunied GRC.

In 2001, the party tried to contest the Group Representation Constituency, but its team was disqualified at the last minute for incomplete nomination forms.

After a defeat at the 2006 elections, the WP made history in winning a GRC in 2011 with a team spearheaded by Mr Low, chairman Sylvia Lim and top lawyer Chen Show Mao. It ousted the People's Action Party's (PAP) team in Aljunied GRC led by then Foreign Minister George Yeo.

Besides Aljunied GRC, the WP has also been contesting and making overtures in other eastern constituencies, such as the East Coast GRC and Joo Chiat single-seat ward.

The east-conquering strategy explains the WP's refusal to negotiate with the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), despite its three letters requesting talks to avoid a three-cornered fight in Punggol East on Jan 26.

Such fights could split the opposition vote and lower their chances of a win against the PAP.

Also, party insiders say the WP finds little need for discussions with the SDP as it sees no dispute with its claims over Punggol East.

They believe the WP should have first bite of the ward, having contested there in the 2011 General Election, along with the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA).

Also, the WP is believed to have articulated to other opposition parties that it would leave the western areas to them, while it focuses on the eastern areas.

But clearly, some are ignoring any attempts by the WP to carve out an east-west divide.

The reason is simple: letting WP grow unbridled in the east could jeopardise the growth of other opposition parties nationwide.

For instance, if the WP grows in presence in the eastern areas and succeeds in winning more parliamentary seats, it could emerge as the viable alternative to the ruling PAP for Singaporeans.

Voters would then increasingly shun the other opposition parties not just in the eastern areas, but across Singapore.

As it is, at the 2011 GE, voters in western and other regions of Singapore were seen leaving comments on the WP's Facebook page clamouring for the party to contest in their wards.

Such fears among the other opposition parties like the SDP and SDA fuel their desire to contest in Punggol East so as to peg the WP back or disrupt its plans.

It also means that going forward, the WP will likely run into more obstacles in expanding its presence in the east and beyond - not just from the PAP but also from other opposition parties.

More such haggling is expected in at least two eastern constituencies - Pasir Ris-Punggol and Marine Parade GRCs - staked by SDA and the National Solidarity Party (NSP) respectively.

For now, the WP is bent on contesting and winning Punggol East.

The question is whether it benefits the opposition parties to observe the east-west divide.

The downside of not doing so is that it could stunt the opposition's growth.

A prolonged period of three-way battles would lower chances of victory for all parties, and also project a picture of disunity among the opposition and further erode voters' support.

The alternative is to observe the divide, with other opposition parties focusing on the western and central regions.

The ground there is hardly infertile. During the 2011 Presidential Election, western wards reportedly plumped for former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock - seen as a middle-ground candidate - and nearly helped him score an upset over President Tony Tan Keng Yam.

It shows that with time and effort, the other opposition parties can also expand their presence like the WP did in the east.

Doing so would heighten the opposition's chances of winning a longer-term war instead of fighting over short-term battles.


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