Saturday, 23 May 2015

Splinter parties point to fragmented Opposition

Emergence of new parties not unusual in lead-up to polls, but quality still the key: Analysts
By Valeria Koh, TODAY, 22 May 2015

After the watershed 2011 General Election, the possibility of a two-party political system in Singapore started being bandied about. But four years on, the picture emerging from the ground has been very different, with new entrants contributing to a more fragmented Opposition scene.

The submission of papers last Friday by Opposition veteran Goh Meng Seng to register a new political party comes after the formation of at least one new political party since the last polls. The Democratic Progressive Party has also sprung into action again, after being dormant for years.

In the same period, the dominant Opposition party, The Workers’ Party (WP), faced off with the National Environment Agency over the cleaning of hawker centres. And more recently, it has been in the hot seat over major lapses the Auditor-General found in its running of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC).

The various episodes the WP has been embroiled in could have played a part in developments within the Opposition camp, political analysts say.

Dr Gillian Koh, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore, said the blueprint on town council management released by the Singapore Democratic Party last Saturday indicates the eagerness to capitalise on issues that have come under the public spotlight.

“Clearly, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has noticed, and put out a paper on how they would run a town council, essentially promoting the idea of local democracy,” she said.

However, Dr Koh added that the emergence of new political parties in the lead-up to the next polls, which must be called by January 2017, is not surprising, given that past elections have always had a “smattering” of different parties.

Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s death could also have been an impetus for aspirants, political analysts say, because of the perception that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) would become less “hegemonic”.

The number of Opposition parties, however, should not be the be-all and end-all in assessing the health of democratic space, said former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) and Singapore Management University law don, Associate Professor Eugene Tan. “We need to look at the quality and contribution of these parties too.”

He remains in the camp that believes Singapore is on the cusp of a two-party system, citing the 2013 Punggol East by-election, where two candidates in a four-cornered fight lost their election deposits because they had garnered too few votes. That episode suggests there is a “real possibility” that many Opposition parties would be rendered “politically irrelevant” due to the fragmented scene, he added.

“As long as the WP contests (a seat), we’re very unlikely to see a second Opposition party going in, because the voters who do not want to vote for the PAP have shown that they’re discerning enough not to split the vote significantly,” said Assoc Prof Tan, adding that there would be little impact on the PAP.

“Voters who wanted an Opposition MP decided to pool their ballots for the Opposition candidate they assessed to be the best or had the best chance of winning,” Assoc Prof Tan said.

Unity across the ranks?

With the multiplication of Opposition voices, can the myriad parties forge unity, or even a coalition, as most recently championed by Singaporeans First Party (SFP) chief Tan Jee Say?

The signs are not pretty. Former NMP Zulkifli Baharudin said the Opposition remains divided over “whether one party can represent all those who cannot agree with the PAP”.

Assoc Prof Tan added: “When it comes to the crunch, whether they can avoid a three-cornered fight, Opposition parties show that unity is more apparent than real.”

The departures of several known faces from the Opposition since GE 2011 and the number of those who have switched allegiances or founded their own parties also suggest Opposition unity could be elusive.

For example, Dr Vincent Wijeysingha has left the SDP, and the National Solidarity Party (NSP) lost its former chief Goh Meng Seng and Ms Nicole Seah.

The NSP was also hit with other high-profile exits. Two months ago, its former secretary-general Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss moved to the Singapore People’s Party (SPP), together with three ex-council members.

Meanwhile, former SPP member Benjamin Pwee joined the DPP in 2013 while former civil servant Tan Jee Say opted out of the SDP to contest in the presidential elections, before setting up the SFP last year.

Many Parties, No distinction

Despite the game of musical chairs, observers say the Opposition parties are still barely distinguishable in terms of ideology.

“They think of modifying (current policies) a little,” said Opposition watcher Wong Wee Nam. “That’s not an ideology.”

Dr Koh thinks otherwise. “Even with the formation of the new parties, you don’t see a build-up where everyone moves into one stream. There’s quite a lot of diversity,” she said.

But Associate Professor Alan Chong of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies said: “Most are clones of the PAP, with some slight differences in terms of being more pro-welfare, pro-liberal or pro-Singaporean.”

The leaders of the new parties contend that they have something to bring to the table.

Mr Goh, who recently applied to found the People’s Power Party, is pushing for a four-pillar governance system — social, cultural, political and economic.

The SFP positions itself as a party for the middle-class, with a locals-first mentality.

Waving aside concerns of a further splitting of the Opposition votes, the party chiefs maintained they will try to avoid three-cornered fights.

They were also firm in their belief in a multi-party system, stressing that having two parties in power would be “unstable”.

“You will end up with a constant bickering between the two parties, and it’s very disruptive. A lot of attention is on municipal issues,” said Mr Goh, citing the AHPETC court dispute.

Agreeing, Singapore Democratic Alliance’s chief Desmond Lim said: “Parliament should have multiple parties to check on each other, and be involved in policymaking.”

Mr Lim, whose poor showing in the Punngol East by-election cost him a hefty election deposit of S$14,500, added that he intends to contest in the upcoming election.

“Just because you failed once, it doesn’t mean you won’t do better next time. People should have an open heart and mind, and see what the party can offer in the coming election,” he added.

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