COMMENT: Pritam Singh’s good-cop-bad-cop approach will need a reset

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Workers' Party Secretary-General Pritam Singh speaks to reporters during a campaign walkabout ahead of the general election on 7 July 2020 in Singapore. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
Workers' Party Secretary-General Pritam Singh speaks to reporters during a campaign walkabout ahead of the general election on 7 July 2020 in Singapore. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

In his own quiet and unassuming way, opposition leader Pritam Singh is winning over some Singaporeans with what they call thoughtful speeches in Parliament. Anecdotal evidence suggests that he comes across as responsible, gentle, fair, mature and concerned. 

Basking in the glow of a successful election outing last year and having the title of Leader of the Opposition (LO) bestowed upon him by none other than Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the man is taking baby steps as he moves away from the shadow of his predecessor, Low Thia Khiang, to making his presence felt. The 44-year-old is looking to impose his own style in a political environment that sends mixed signals about what is needed to be respected and supported by Singaporeans. 

On the one hand, there is a growing group of young voters who want someone who will raise issues responsibly and intelligently, yet fearlessly. Then there are two other groups: older Singaporeans who feel restless living in a small and overcrowded city and want an opposition which will speak trenchantly about their plight and, of course, the anti-People’s Action Party types who feel that everything the government does is wrong. 

So far, Singh seems to have found some traction with the first group. They don’t like confrontational politics and prefer thoughtful speeches. At the same time, they want a robust accounting of ministers who display lapses in policy formulation and try to weave themselves out of difficult situations.

TraceTogether debacle

He went some way towards that during the recent parliamentary debate on TraceTogether (TT). He tried to walk a fine line when he said he preferred that TT data be used purely for contact tracing, but would support the law that restricts its use by the police to investigating seven categories of serious crimes.

“This is because of some Singaporeans’ residual concerns over privacy and the established discomfort about sharing cell phone data,” he said. The Workers’ Party chief then went on to question the Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation project, Vivian Balakrishnan, about why the minister had lost the plot when he emphatically promised in June that TT data would be used only for COVID-19 contact tracing.

The whole affair has “eroded trust from some members of the public’’, Singh said. Although he and his team managed to get Balakrishnan to give a timeline of what happened and where the fault lines lay, one political observer was not satisfied. “I think he is being too clever by half; he hedges too much,” he said.

Another said, “He could have pressed harder for a more open admission on why the government went to sleep on the inaccurate characterisation of the use of TraceTogether data.” 

Some say Singh is still finding his feet as LO in a chamber overcrowded with PAP Members. One view is that Singh is taking a strategic route by playing the good-cop-bad-cop card. He will play a presidential role by using a softer and more responsible tone, but will let his Parliamentary colleagues raise the tempo when the need arises.

Certainly, Singh is no shrinking violet. He had an early baptism of fire last September when he took on PM Lee over the latter's description of opposition voters as “free riders”. The LO stressed, “I don't think the residents of Aljunied, Hougang for 30 years now, and even Sengkang, as a result of the last election, would appreciate being called free riders. They're not free riders.”

The rise of Pritam Singh

Singh has had a rapid rise in politics ever since he was part of the Low Thia Khiang-led team that sent the PAP candidates packing in Aljunied GRC in 2011. Seven years later, he was handed the leadership reins of the party, and in 2020, he led his party to a well-deserved victory when they won another GRC and retained the Aljunied and Hougang seats with a higher percentage of votes than in 2015.

That election saw a confident and media savvy Singh come out of the imposing shadow of his former boss by the way he handled the Raeesah Khan affair, which threatened to torpedo the WP’s electoral campaign. She came under attack by the PAP over remarks she had made in 2018 about alleged police discrimination against minorities. In statesman-like fashion, he backed her publicly and let Raeesah address the press conference.

I was most impressed when he released a video on the last day of campaigning in 2020, one which had all the elements of an evocative political statement. It was in black and white and saw him raise his clenched fist to his heart to narrate the Pledge. It was one of the moments of GE2020.

That is all history now as Singh takes on the extra burden of being LO. The hard work has only just begun, with not just the PAP but also those who believe in a responsible opposition watching him closely. The true test will come when PAP slips badly and Singh will need to take a stronger stand. The good-cop-bad-cop approach may not work in such a situation.  

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. The views expressed are his own.

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