SINGAPORE — It was like walking into a typical Chinese New Year party with raucous chatter, cramped tables and confused seating arrangements. It reminded one of the setting of a bygone era. But the message coming out of Progress Singapore Party’s (PSP) celebration on Friday night (17 January) had a serious undertone.
The political party, often accused of being a Dad’s Army, revealed that it is serious about ensuring it has a future. The infusion of new blood was the talking point as party leader Tan Cheng Bock announced the entry of fresh faces into the party’s central executive committee. They were not just new - they were very similar to many PAP candidates in their professional credentials.
At least on paper, the academic and job qualifications look impressive. One is a founder and CEO of an investment firm, another is a former air force colonel and yet another the former executive chairman of Hong Leong Asia. Not to mention the inclusion of a wealth manager, a fund manager and a human resource manager. But, in at least one important aspect, they are different from the typical PAP candidates who have been paraded on the election catwalk. None of the PSP men came from the charmed circle of the elite administrative service: they all have experience in the dog-eat-dog world of the private sector.
But in politics, especially Singapore politics, such experience alone is not enough. With the ruling party involved in every aspect of our lives and with its ability to throw money, human resources and parliamentary power at any problem, these younger and eager men and women must realise they have a tough fight on their hands.
Playing the long game
In Singapore’s recent electoral history, no first-time opposition member has succeeded the first time round in a polls fight. Chiam See Tong lost in his first two outings, one in Cairnhill in 1976 and the other in Potong Pasir in 1980, but showed tremendous staying power and commitment to go on and win in Potong Pasir six times after that.
Low Thia Kiang trod a very similar path, losing one election in the now-defunct Tiong Bahru GRC in 1988, but winning in six other contests; two of them were his killer victories in Aljunied GRC.
Both these opposition politicians tell a story that the PSP newbies might wish to learn from. Apart from everything else, they need to play the long game if they want to get into Parliament. For initial defeats are more or less a certainty. Taking part in Singapore elections is like preparing for and taking part in a marathon: it is not a sprint. Run the marathon like you would a sprint and collapsing at the 100 metre mark is the likely result.
Opposition newbies like Nicole Seah and Hazel Poa didn’t stay on to fight more elections after their losses in 2011, although they are back as members of the Workers Party and PSP respectively. If Dr Tan doesn’t want a repeat with his new and promising candidates, then he has to start telling them: prepare for defeat, hope for victory.
Paving the way
Finally, the PSP leader should not contest a GRC. He should go for a single seat ward, where his chances of victory are greater than in a GRC. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, leading his team for the last time as first among equals, will go all out to win in GRCs. The disappointment of the historic Aljunied GRC loss in 2011 is a stain he would want to wipe off his track record. He may even be prepared to close one eye on the loss of a couple of single seats.
Watch out, Aljunied. Watch out, Dr Tan.
At 79, this might be the last throw of the electoral dice for the former presidential candidate. It is better to get into Parliament as a single seat MP and use the next five years to blood his new brood on what Parliamentary politics in Singapore is like.
And prepare for the real, big fight by 2025.
P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant and author of the best-selling “Reluctant Editor: The Singapore Media as Seen through the Eyes of a Veteran Newspaper Journalist”. The views expressed are his own.